Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Useful Symmetry

Symmetry in music is most interesting, I suspect, when it allows us to focus on the given asymmetries in our perception.  Time — for our purposes here, at least — can't go backward and our sense of pitch is radically asymmetrical.  Cage once quipped, in a bit of self-criticism of an early palindromic work that it suffered from its symmetry and that, for him, "symmetry indicates the absence of an idea."  And he was certainly right, in the sense that just writing out a palindrome or pitch-symmetric passage was, at its worst, just an automatism (and one quite typical of student composers venturing into the serial), generating more volume out of the source material, but the stuff generated was not necessarily going to be interesting, let alone musically useful.  But that's the worst case and, in the better and best cases, in which the composer is using symmetries — whether notational, or exact (as is possible with electronic media) — in ways that allow the material to articulate or bring out or even make vivid the real asymmetries, as in Feldman's use of rhythmic and metrical "crippled symmetries" — borrowing from the rug makers' trade the use of slight variations in repeated and mirrored patterns — or even in that sometimes classy, sometimes cheesy emblem of early live electronic music, ring modulation.   

New Music News from the Lowlands

The Ear Reader is a new web magazine from the Netherlands.   The first issue includes items from Louis Andriessen, Samuel Vriezen and Anne La Berge, so it's definitely on the right track.  Let's hope it continues, as a namesake, in the spirit of its bifurcated pair of North American forerunners, the Ear Magazine West & Ear Magazine East. In any case, the ear is a favorite organ, so there's no reason The Ear Reader not to become a favorite organ on its own terms. 

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

[|: until no longer recognizable :|]

Language Log comes up with another item for my little notebook about repetition, and yet more evidence that the minimal impulse is anything but simple:

It is well known that if a familiar word be stared at for a time, or repeated aloud over and over again, the meaning drops away. 

Read the whole thing, here.

The Whole Enchilada

In the middle of one of the recent drive-bys of the death-of-classical music trope, someone smartly observed that a good portion of the youth (and no-longer-so-youthful)  who would otherwise have been deeply engaged by music — whether as performers or listeners — had probably had their time and attentions and pocket monies siphoned off by some form of gaming, electronic or otherwise.   I think this observation is a smart one because gaming done well does more than resemble the kind of immersion in pseudo-encyclopedic synthetic worlds that thoroughly absorbed generations past and the raw numbers plotting the growth in the gaming market against the simultaneous decline in recorded music sales are quite convincing.

Richard Wagner's success, for one, was in turning a mix of complex and ambiguous myth and fiction into musical stage works which worked simultaneously at broad narrative and local detail levels, and at both literary and musical streams, allowing for multiple paths to their comprehension.  Neither of Wagner's major contemporary rivals — Verdi and Brahms — offered comparable stuff with which to engage generations of, well, nerds — smart kids with sufficient leisure time and a certain amount of detachment from ordinary life.  

(A similar phenomena is to be found in the Tolkien audience, the hard core of which delights in every aspect of that other Ring World, Middle Earth, with all its lore and legend, the hardest core of those devotees going so far as to master (and sometimes extend)  all that is known of the scripts and tongues Tolkien invented.  (Although I found the ravishing of the Shire chapter near the end of TLOTR to be genuinely moving, a prescient bit of environmentalist writing, I was never a Tolkien partisan.  This was largely because I found Tolkien's diction dull and all of the detail with which some of my classmates at Serrano Jr. High were obsessed — you know, the Elvish graffiti on their lockers and endless map making of exotic realms — was actually little more than decoration for a predictable story line.  (I probably lost a lot of friends here; just thank goodness I didn't get started on Wagner...)))   

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Wagner's success was the fact that it has been so little imitated.  No other composer has succeeded in writing and mounting a similar cycle of operas, let alone getting such a cycle into repertoire production. (Stockhausen's Licht cycle has not yet been performed in entirety and I'm not altogether sure that either (a) it would be worth the resources required to produce and/or (b) that the mythic/narrative content is actually of similar engaging substance to the Wagner.)  To their credit, several of the "new complexity" gang have worked in cycles of pieces and although some of these composers have used such cycles to create operas, these are individual evening-length works, so above and beyond the question of whether the musical language of the complexistas would be attractive to an audience who would otherwise be gaming, I strongly doubt that the content, both internal and in the accompanying apparatus, is quite enough to keep them away from their cards, consoles, joysticks, keyboards and monitors. It's pretty obvious, though, that there is a real opportunity hear to create large scale musical works with multiple narratives, associative complexity, and interpretive ambiguity using game-like media.  I think the audience is out there for such a work, indeed for such a commodity, and although it is not the kind of work I believe I could do particularly well myself, I would be delighted to learn what diversities of musical materials, styles, textures, continuities other composer may find to sustain such works, such worlds.



Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Full Disclosure

This article, comparing the WikiLeaks strategy with that of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets is one of the strangest and more compelling items I've read of late.

Composers have secrets, too.  There is a lot of debate over whether a piece of music should be explainable, down to the smallest single glyph of notation, according to a formal plan.  I simply don't know if that is even an interesting question, let alone criterion with which to evaluate a piece of music.  For one, any piece can be described by an indefinite number of algorithms and I am unaware of any convincing means for determining which algorithm is most efficient, relevant, meaningful etc., thus whether it is necessary to know the particular plan followed by the composer in order to understand how the piece works (let alone what it means)  is pretty much up in the air. For another, I am pretty much convinced that composers, whether formally or informally, negotiate between calculation (the plan), chance (or circumstance or whim), and choice (or habit or taste).  This negotiation is highly individual, tied in with one's identity as a musician, even as a person, and I don't think that many musicians are very articulate about this — it gets close to self-analysis — nor  do I think that they need be, nor do I think we need be party to such.  The work itself is what interests us, and an interesting work has a life well beyond its construction.        

The composers that mean the most to me seem to share one aspect of their working biographies. It is this: they each went through a period of rather fundamental research, identifying the materials that most interested them and developing a body of techniques that would be the foundation for mature work, if no longer necessarily followed with much of a system.  In some cases, there is some honest appeal to mysticism (Ferneyhough, for one, is upfront about this; Stockhausen was upfront about his own youth in thrall to Cologne-style Catholicism and to Magister Ludi; I think Nono's Marxism is, in its way, an equivalent faith, as is Babbitt's positivism — so clear and complete and precise as to be incomprehensible —  in its own way), but isn't an appeal to mysticism generally a way of signaling a level of complexity one hesitate to penetrate further, and thus for obscuring the wonderfully mixed and diverse impulses and efforts that lead to one's work?  For me, the ad libitum approach to their tool boxes used by Harrison, Cage, Feldman, Wolff, and Kondo has been influential, but I cheerfully take responsibility for every note, even especially the ones I cannot explain. 

Monday, December 06, 2010

Sonic obsessions, revisted (6)

Drones and harmonic sweeps. At one point in time, I think I was prepared to have all my music made of nothing more than long sustained sounds, as long as breaths would hold, maybe even as long as the electricity stayed on. Sustaining sounds created an opportunity to — as my teacher La Monte Young put it — get inside them, to hear how they develop over time, to attend to individual components, partials, of these sounds. (This interest was naturally connected to my work in just intonation.) This was indulgent — and I was particularly indulgent of harmonic spectra & finding ways to sweep through them — but that was California around 1980, a rather indulgent time. The fashion was clearly for harmonic singing, for tamburas and didgeridoos and Tibetan long trumpets and alphorns, composers from Erickson to Stockhausen to Tenney made beautiful drone- and harmonic-series based pieces and, of course, a cottage industry of new age-y offshoots developed.

That time, for me at least, has long passed, and with it much of the particular acoustic Zeitgeist. While someone like Young can still find wonderful music within these particular resources, either my own compositional patience or taste has changed or I've simply worn out my imagination with this particular range of materials. In a recent ensemble piece, a rising harmonic sequence of tones reads more as coy and ironic than profound. (The coming or going of a style or trend or a fashion is a mysterious thing. The ability to predict and act on the onset or demise of such a style, trend, or fashion can be the road to fame or fortune, if you're after that; misreading the trends, on the other hand, can lead to obscurity and penury, whether you're after that or not.) Nevertheless, the work with drones and sustain harmonic spectra continues to have emit background radiation against which I work. Knowing how musical sounds will interact with a sustained tone or how vertical arrangements of tones line up in relationship to a harmonic (or subharmonic, or equidistant) spectra, is enormously useful and, indeed, a given for my own internal understanding of harmony and orchestration. My little catalog of musical sounds classifies tones first as to spectra, both as to density (sine-tonish, selective, full) and arrangement (harmonic, less harmonic, inharmonic). I find that making distictions within a mixed ensemble along these lines is highly useful. But these things are ultimately less systematic and more individual in character and I expect that other composers think quite differently about this.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Sonic obsessions, revisited (5)

A distant horn. Curious how so many favorite sounds have as much to do with their embedding in space, often particular spaces.  Christian Wolff said that he wrote his Groundspace specifically because he wanted to hear Gordon Mumma's horn in the distance.  The association of the horn with the hunt, as in hunt to kill, I can do without, but there is something about the chase as a ritual event in a particular space, with an acoustic element, and the unique, if brutal, clarity of the relationships between the participating animals (wild, domesticated, and people) that goes deep into some part of our consciousness.  The horn, the horn, the lusty horn/‘Tis not a thing to laugh to scorn.  Posthorns, a form of communication ancillary to the delivery of other media; the image of the posthorn (as every reader of Pynchon knows well) still adorn the post offices of many countries.  Ives remembered, beautifully, his father's horn (in his case, a cornet, descended from the smaller, 4' hunting horns (see also the Fürst-Pless-Horn); the French horn descending from the larger cor de chaisse or parforce horn) played over a lake.  I suspect that modern orchestral horns reference our senses and memories of outdoors spaces in multiple ways, through their literal associations, through their marked directionality (you can always hear which way the bells are pointed) and through the way that they anchor the orchestra, if only temporarily, in a particular harmonic series, an instance of the natural in an ensemble marked as much by artifice. 

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Sonic obsessions, revisited (4)

The doppler-shifted sound of a passing freight train.  Fixed in memory are the sounds heard in the early morning in my parents' old house in California, just a few blocks below the AT&SF tracks; especially when the air was thick, shaping, focusing the sound like an acoustic prism. Many composers have been fond of or inspired by railroads and railroadianna: Honegger, Partch, Toch, Krenek, Reich, probably too many others to mention.   In the early sixties, my father was fond of showing off his stereo to guests with the demo lp of railroad sounds, from steam to diesel and electric, that came with the set.  Later, I loved to put an ear close to my model railroad and listen to the miniature approximation of the big iron stock, feeding oil and aspirin tablets into the chimney of the engine to make it steam, whistle, and smoke.   But already, it was clear that those sounds, once emblematic of modernity, were increasingly the stuff of nostalgia.  Doppler shifted sounds, whether concrete, electronic, or produced by instruments (i.e. brass players moving their bells) are extremely useful musical sounds, with or without any associations, but then, what kid doesn't like to listen to a train passing by?

Friday, December 03, 2010

Sonic obsessions, revisited (3)

Sul ponticello.  Playing at the bridge of a bowed string instrument makes the relative amplitudes of the partial tones unstable, discontinuous, unpredictable.  It is very useful in contrapuntal environments in which the register of the individual instruments should be ambiguous (see the third and fifth movements of my string trio, Figure & Ground.) 

Great Expectations

This story, about a public conversation between Steve Martin and the art critic and journalist Deborah Solomon is a telling slice of our times.   The promoter and some slice of the audience apparently expected a series of funny take-home lines and some celebrity-grade gossip and insider talk but were disappointed to instead hear a serious chat about modern art, for which the promoter is now offering full refunds.  

While there is perhaps something to be said here about truth in advertising, as the expectations of the audience, when offered a public conversation with Mr Martin, were probably reasonable when given no explicit indication that the theme of the evening would be modern art (a topic both participants know well) rather than mass media entertainment.  On the other hand, however, it's a bit disappointing that no one (the promoter in particular) has made the case for the value of the topic chosen, whether advertised beforehand, or — and more refreshingly so — delivered to the audience as a surprise, a present making some respectful assumptions about the audience.

In any case, I will admit myself to have, on at least one occasion, delivered a talk on a topic other than that which had been announced beforehand.  Rather than talking about some detail of composition, I spontaneously decided to talk about games of skill and chance — poker and ponies, to be precise — and somehow managed to keep my audience with me for the appointed hour and, as far as I can tell, not one member asked for a refund.  But before you assume that I was slacking on the assumption that sometimes you can just get away with it, let me assure you that games of skill and chance — and poker and ponies in particular — have everything to do with composing music, as far as I'm concerned.  But that's another topic, for another post, another day.


Thursday, December 02, 2010

Sonic obsessions, revisited (2)

Bowed metal, of all sorts.  Sustaining complex sounds with non-harmonic spectra with unpredictable developments, yet sounds which are intensely gratifying to the ear for their internal proportions, the way they fit together and create musically coherent continuities.  Pride of place belongs to the saw, of course, and not just for its haunting melodic capacity (isn't their something deeply compelling about metallic sounds with clear pitches that slide?), but its harmonic dimensions as well, both from high pressure multiphonics from a single bow stroke and for the ability to sustain overlapping tones produced at more than one position along that s-curve which places the metal in exactly the right tension.  Then comes the bowed flexatone, a useful and portable auxiliary to both the saw and the hammered flexatone (use lots of rosin).  Bowed vibraphone and marimba come next, best in a careful choreography between notes produced at front and back, with some possibility for producing harmonics, by lightly touching nodes of the bars.  Then bowed cymbals, tam tams, flat gongs, cowbells:  sustaining sounds that are most familiar as sharp attacks and smooth decays, allowing real surprises to emerge. (See, for example, La Monte Young's Studies in the Bowed Disc, using two bows to create unbroken continuity on a piece of sheet metal cut round as a piece of sculpture.)

(Image: sculpture of Tom Scribner, saw player,  by Marghe McMahon, 1978.)

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Sonic obsessions, revisited (1)

There was a time when I had had an obsession with kites, in particular with the use of kite strings to convey and wind to power assorted noise makers (in three categories: clackers, whistlers, things that go buzz). The intention of my research was to eventually put these sounds together into a composition for an ensemble of kite-fliers in a meadow on a windy hilltop, or perhaps a beach.  It would have been very much a Santa Cruz-kind-of-piece.   The materials (seven kites, each with its own set of wind-driven noise-makers) and the variables (distance, timing) were clear, but, not wanting to make a recorded work, a concert was problematic, contingent upon weather.  Abandoned project, but now realize (following Cage and DeMaria) the usefulness and beauty of a contingent situation; there is really no necessity that each performance be "effective" thus this piece might be usefully revisited.  

(Image: the composers David Cope (trumpet), Steed Cowart (umbrella), and Daniel Wolf (kite); publicity photo for April in Santa Cruz Festival, 1983.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Antin on Cage: "Preposterous and Wonderful"

I've recommended some talks by David Antin previously, but overlooked this Q&A session following his "line music counterpoint disjunction and the measure of mind".  About a third of the way into this recording, Antin gives the most concise and on-target critique of Cage's working methods — both his question about the division of labors (here, between composition and listening) and the use of chance and indeterminacy — that I have encountered.  (The talk itself, and several others, all worth your while, can be found here.)

Friday, November 26, 2010


A friend and I were recently talking about John Cage and his close relationships to important contemporary innovators in other art forms (Cunningham, of course, but also several generations of visual artists (Duchamp and Miro to Tobey and Graves to Rauschenberg and Johns to Anastasi and Bradshaw), and writers (from Jackson Mac Low to Chris Mann) as well as some major unclassifiables (like Fuller, MacLuhan or N.O. Brown) and how these relationships gave a wonderful charge — without superficially or arbitrarily mixing ideas, forms, media — to his own work.  

While almost every composer I know among my contemporaries has some non-trivial, indeed deep and productive, interests in the extra-musical,  few, if any, composers working today can claim a wealth or variety similar to that enjoyed by Cage.  In part, this is because of a simple management issue: there's so much going on, in music alone, that it's tough to have any overview here, let alone to have real bearings out there in literature and/or dance and/or visual arts and/or film etc..  Also, in part, it is due to a certain insularity among musicians reinforced by the market pressure of such quantity and diversity within our discipline; perhaps because we need to continuously woo and cultivate performers and presenters, our social networks tend to be rather musician-centric. 

I was lucky, as an undergraduate, to be in an arts-themed liberal arts college where more of my friends happened to have been writers or visual artists than fellow or sister music majors.**   To this day,  I can recall, almost word-for-word, the conversation of so many late nights spent in dorm lounges or all-night diners arguing over a novel (the term of art back then was "lit wanking") a gallery show gone well or a performance art event gone awry.  Today, I still have my own set of reference points among writers, visual artists, and film makers, even a dancer or two,  but I will confess that this is, with some small additions, close to the list I had when I was still a student, and among those artists still kicking about, most of them are of my teachers' generation rather than of my own.   This may just be part of aging, but I honestly think that I haven't done a good enough job of keeping up with my contemporaries outside of music.  A quick read-through of McSweeney's or n+1 * or a chance walk-through of an interesting gallery or keeping a handful of blogs under casual surveillance is not really keeping on top of things very far afield, let alone a real avant-garde.  I realized this perhaps most acutely when David Foster Wallace died, a writer from my own age cohort, and it struck me that the writers I was otherwise following most closely — Pynchon, Abish, Matthews — were dancing about 70, not my own age. My New Year's resolution is thus set:  I've got to make more time to pay more attention and to pay attention outside of my habitual interests.


* BTW: This article, picked up from n+1, about the divisions between the country mouse of academic creative writing and the town mouse of NYCentric writing is well worth a read; there are interesting parallels and contrasts to the relationship between academic and free-lance composing.  

Monday, November 22, 2010

Low rent, real return

This article, subtitled Much of what investment bankers do is socially worthless is well worth the read.  As new and experimental music all too frequently gets placed in a similar category (heck, by- the-book Marxists will dismiss it as superstructure — and an insignificant fraction thereof, at that — so we're pretty much used to getting disrespect from all sides), it's a bit refreshing to see the captains (and admirals, and commodores) of finance in the light of their costs and benefits to society.  On balance, I think, new and experimental music comes out looking pretty good in comparison: we produce something real, if a perishable good — sound waves do dissipate — and our rent is, in real terms, cheap.  But that small investment in a musical good has proven potential, if very tiny, to provide returns for centuries.  Next time you join some friends to sing some Josquin, just think: Wall Street, which of your recent investments is going to be paying off like this in 500 years?   

Saturday, November 20, 2010

I would prefer not...

Someone pointed me to this presentation by Lawrence Lessig, all about the present copyright mess and the use of existing materials in new creative work (in particular the question of fair use with creative methods based on recycling, parody, plundering, mashing, remixing and all that.) It's not a surprise that Lessig, a law professor, is addressing this as a primarily legal issue, and the fact that the everyday practices of a good portion of the population are not legal is a real problem, so Lessig's clear articulation of this problem is welcome.  (This topic is also fascinating as it is essentially a conflict between two liberal positions, the first which recognized that creators have a right to claim forms of meaningful ownership over their work, and the second which views access to forms of information as a universal and necessary — to the production of new work — right.)  

However, in the larger debate, it's once again disappointing to find that the legal and economic issues continue to drown out an ethical issue which I would frame in the following way: an artist (composer, writer, choreographer, etc.) may often — not always, but often — identify with his or her creative work in a deeply personal way, and may view the manipulation of their work by others as hurtful or injurious, with this view completely independent from any question of whether or not she or he receives compensation in whatever form or amount.   Unless the work in question can be identified immediately as political in nature or the artist in question can be identified unambiguously as a public political person, I happen to believe that it is a matter of simple decency, of respect for the private dignity of the person who has created the work as well as for the integrity of the work itself, that the creator has the right to say "no, I would prefer than my work not be used in this manner."*  As long as a creative artist is still alive and kicking, and has not had the last chance to revise her or his work or put it into a final form, I believe that it is a real question of character, completely independent of legal or economic questions, on the part of the re-user, whether or not that preference is respected.   

I hope that it is clear here that I am distinguishing between an artist asserting such a right as a personal or aesthetic concern — which I support entirely even if I should loathe the work (or the person who made it) — and an assertion of rights for purely economic motives.  I well understand that, in the real world, it is not always possible to make such a distinction, but I'm not altogether certain that that should even be a primary concern.  Rather this: wouldn't it be a preferable state of affairs if an honest attempt to determine whether the original artist has a preference one way or another were a standard social convention?   


* an echo here of Melville's Bartleby is intentional.

Monday, November 15, 2010

In and out of the Studio

I've been in and out of electronic music studios since 1978, when I was part of an effort to lobby my school board to approve a course in electronic music, the first to be offered in California at the High School level.  (The course was approved when an elderly member of the board was assured that "no, we wouldn't be making disco music like those BeeGees.")  We had a very simple monophonic synthesizer, a few tape recorders, an 8 channel mixing board, and almost enough cable and mics to make interesting music.  We spliced a lot, a skill I still value highly (this post, for instance, is a product of splicing), but the most valuable experience was learning to listen closely to recorded sounds, to hear and become more articulate about each of the parameters represented, and then to imagine how these sounds could be presented in larger ensembles and continuities.  Later, in two different Universities, I got to work in two very different studios, each with its own distinct instrumentation, configuration, and attitude.  Such diversity — particularly with regard to attitude — still prevails when one compares electronic studios: a course at one school nowadays may be essentially a course in getting electronic mock-ups of a written-out instrumental scores, another school offers classical studio techniques, from splicing to modular synthesizers, another focuses on computer generated and processed sounds, another algorithmic composition, and still another will insist that every student learns to solder their own gadgets. This diversity is a very healthy situation, AFAIC.  

Since earning my academic traveling papers and being sent off into the real world, aside from hit-and-run visits to radio station recording studios here in Germany I haven't always had a real studio to call my own.  However, on the one hand, contemporary technology makes it possible to do a lot with a modest home studio, often built around just a desk- or laptop computer  (my earliest arrangement of the sort used a Atari ST, first with the Kuivila/Anderson programming language FORMULA, and later to drive a Rayna Synthesizer, with its 59 very accurately tuned oscillators.)  On the other hand, the experience of working in the studio can be said to have penetrated musical technique to such a deep level that the actual question of whether a piece uses electronic resources or not is often besides the point.  I love that anecdote about early-on in the San Francisco Tape Music Center, when Sender and Subotnick, then designing their first modular synthesizer, sat down with a copy of the score to Le Marteau, just to make sure that the synthesizer would be able to do everything described therein.    

This fluidity between electronic and acoustical resources is also a healthy situation, I think.  Example: I recently wrote a small piano piece that could be described as the output of a sequencer, a pair of filters and a couple of noise generators, or it could be described in terms of a primitive serial technique influence by chance operations.  Either process could have led to the same piece. Fluid. Another example of such fluidity could be found in an assignment I gave to some high school-age students in a composition workshop.  Some of them were working with instruments and notation on manuscript paper, others with synthesis programs, both live (pd) and generating fixed sound files (CSound).  For the assignment, we first learned something about cetacean audio communication (kids love whales, dolphins, and porpoises), and then each was required to make a small piece using three kinds of sounds available to these animals — frequency modulated whistles, burst-pulsed sounds, and clicks. They had to do some analysis — figure out what the salient qualities of these sounds were —, then some synthesis — how to emulate such sounds, or sounds with similar structural or formal qualities whether with electronics, instruments, or voices —, and finally, to devise some musical structure which accommodates all of these sounds, perhaps creating meaningful relationships between them, perhaps leaving them as highly differentiated streams of events in a polyphonic environment. All of the finished pieces offered interesting solutions, the best of them made some real music, and — once again surprising the old appropriate technologists that I am — it soon became clear that there was no inherent advantage or disadvantage to the particular technology chosen; that was a non-issue.  A healthy and fluid situation.

Friday, November 12, 2010

MB on TV

Composer Laura Karpman has completed the late Robert Hilferty's Milton Babbitt: Portrait of a Serial Composer video documentary. It's viewable on line here. It nicely ties in all of the odd connections that make Babbitt such an improbable and interesting figure — from his childhood in Jackson, Miss., to Princeton and the merry old RCA Synthesizer, to teaching Stephen Sondheim or Stanley Jordan — and, with the old battle lines within the East coast avant-garde somewhat forgotten, I think it's become much easier to separate Babbitt's music from that of his camp followers and recognize how good he is when he's at the top of his game, which, in his case, is talking about music as well as musicking proper. BTW, the best parts of the video, for me, are of Babbitt holding forth before family and friends in a Chinese restaurant; it's in these moments that the film really becomes something close to ethnographic film recording a micro-musical culture that is quite exotic to my own (as a Californian, the East coast Chinese restaurant is something very different from the Californian Chinese restaurant, but that's something for quite another blog item.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Knowing enough

These videos of some very cool solo viola studies composed and played by Garth Knox are vivid illustrations of what a virtuoso performer with some serious compositional chops can do. I look forward to hearing more from Knox in forms beyond the technical etude.

The rich diversity of composed music is due in part to the wide range of experience and imagination that each individual composer is able to bring to writing for particular instruments, voices or ensembles.  Of those composers who write particularly well for instruments (let's be honest: not all do), many are generalists, with broad knowledge of each of the instruments they compose for, while others are themselves are more specialized — often as both performers and composers — on particular instruments.  I don't think either generalists or specialists have an edge here, but rather that our musical lives are livelier because we have both.  We benefit from the virtuoso pianist- or violinist- or percussionist-composers, but also from someone like Berlioz, whose own instrumental skills (he played flute, flageolet, guitar, and timpani) were not necessarily prerequisite or even terribly relevant to his own virtuosic writing for orchestra. Likewise, we benefit from having both a Mahler — whose scores were micro-managed with technical details — and a Sibelius — who managed to create large works of comparable detail and complexity with an efficient minimum of notation.   

For the generalists, not knowing many specifics about the techniques which may be brought into play in order for players to realize their scores, can often be an efficient and profitably open situation, an invitation for players to bring their own experience more closely into the rehearsal process.  Some generalists make a point of not knowing too much about instruments, on the principle that knowing too much usually means knowing overly restrictive limitations or settling into stereotypical writing for an instrument. The obvious risk of not knowing too much is not knowing enough and then writing something that is impossible or simply dull for an instrument.  On the other hand, some generalists are practically encylopedists when it comes to technical matters, adding very fine details and specifications in their scores.  As admirable as this is, it can also carry a bit of a risk. For example, a fingering for a particular tone may work on one mark and model of an instrument but not on another.  For myself, although I'm perfectly capable of adding complete bowings, fingerings, breath marks and more to my scores, I hope that I am able to restrain myself somewhat in recognition of the limitations in my knowledge.  My bowings or fingerings may well "work" reliably enough, but I gladly differ to the expertise of players whose experience and imagination can be drawn upon to often offer better solutions. 

And then there are the specialists.  A composition grounded in a performer/composer's own virtuoso playing technique is a legitimate and honorable genre.  (I am a particular afficionado of the earliest virtuoso literature, for recorder, cornetto, viol, and virginal.)  In many cases, the particular mechanics of a given instrument may be such that that the generalist may be wise to defer to the specialists altogether.  For example, writing for the accordion — in any one of its daunting number of variant forms —  means either writing in a very general, even basic, way for the instrument (which I have done), or making a commitment to working very closely with a particular player and a particular instrument (which I have not yet done (never say never.)) Likewise, I am very hesitant to write specific woodwind multiphonics, unless the project is writing for a particular player on a particular instrument.  I might also consider using a notation which was open to a variety of multiphonic solutions within some specified characteristics.  


Sunday, November 07, 2010

A Veritable Cornucopia

Some late, loose items:

(1) China Miéville has a new-ish blog, rejectamentalist manifesto.  It's aperiodic, often fragmental or pictoral, but reliably interesting.   The recent posts on the the UK coalition government's plans for cut-and-burn reductions in cultural and social spending are on the mark, and much of what is noted in the UK applies equally well to the Netherlands, the Republicans in the US, and the German coalition government.

(2) Here's a recent small item at The Eastside View, Charles Shere's blog, which is a model of engaging and useful critical writing: honestly sorting out opinion and taste from just-the-facts-ma'am reporting, making interesting connections, and not treating the musical as an autonomous category of cultural activity.  Charles, a fine composer as well as critic, is a treasure in the musical landscape. 

(3) Pliable notes that 95% of Gramophone magazine's readers are male.  Why is this the least surprising factoid of the week?  Gramophone is the UK classical music bidness's equivalent of a mixture of Sports Illustrated and Model Railroader.   It's about "industry" gossip, sport, and collecting, a particular constellation that is only sustainable in a high testosterone environment (one from which my better angels have protected me!)  Moreover, as the magazine's title honestly indicates, it's about recordings, commodified recording.  It's about buying, trading, and collecting recordings and it's about ranking them, like baseball statistics (and yes, as often fantasy as real.)  Boys with toys. The classical music live performance world, on the other hand, which includes everything from music education to professional performance and audition, is one in which participation, with exceptions for the recalcitrant fields of conducting, management, and a pair of European orchestras,  is no longer so decisively dominated by one gender or the other. Audiences for classical music concerts are often predominantly women and the most important figures introducing classical music to young people are women as well — music teachers, whether in school or privately.  That's the real news of the day, not the readership of a magazine devoted to a male hobby rapidly going the way of the dodo.  


Saturday, November 06, 2010

Follow the Money, Impending Firesale Edition

Always on the right path, Pliable has been following the story of EMI's descent.  With the latest successful claims by creditor Citigroup against EMI, what can we expect will happen to the back catalogue in classical music? I suspect that there is a real opportunity to be had here in picking up that catalogue at fire sale prices and immediately turning it into digital goods.  Sure, the amortization may be long-term — and in terms longer than any major financial concern is now willing to consider — but these goods are reliably durable audibles. (If the present UK coalition government really had their capitalist chops about them, they would find some way to claim these as assets of national interest, make the modest investment to create the platforms required to sell downloads, and then reinvest the income in contemporary music making. Unfortunately, I suspect that there are interests in the present government who actively hold any engagement by the state in culture in such low regard that they would just as soon lose money and let assets like these disappear into the portfolio of a creditor with no idea what the assets are, let alone what they might be worth, as actually exploit the potential of the assets.)

Friday, November 05, 2010

Signal, too.

In principle, I'm on the "side of the noises" (as Cage put it), but I'm not altogether certain that that is actually saying anything particularly significant or interesting anymore.  I remember being thrilled to read, in the pre-Sokal-discount days of Social Text, the first excerpts of Attali's Bruits to appear in translation.  Attali's use of the Breughel Battle between Carnival and Lent remains a brilliant metaphor, AFAIC, but when I finally put paws on the whole little book of Noise, it was serious disappointment time, as he really took things no further than the equally deterministic schemes of either Weber or Adorno.  And, more critically, he seemed not to have anything particularly deep to say about how music is actually put together.*  (A more useful, it seems to me, treatment of the topic of noise, and largely because its discussion is not exclusively or even primarily about musical noise, is in Bart Kosko's Noise.)   An identification of one's own musicking with and/or as noise has some fashion currency now, particular among those using electronics (the more analog, hacked, and bent, the better) but also (as this thoughtful review of the recent anthology Noise & Capitalism, points out) among the so-called "free" improvisors (note that both areas of activity represent traditions with considerable vintage.)  Cage's "side of the noises" was a parallel/echo/extension of the "emancipation of the dissonance"; music history took sides decisively for both in the ultra-modern music which apex-ed in the early 1930s (Cowell, Varese, Antheil, Crawford, Wm. Russell, Brant, Ornstein, etc. in the US with similar cohorts elsewhere)  only to make an equally decisive u-turn away from noise and towards consonance in the strongly statist — whether left, right, authoritarian or consensual — era which followed and continued through the second world war. This shift, from noise to notnoise, from dissonance to consonance, was in the form of moves along a spectrum, stylistic shifts which still recognized the accumulated increase in variety of each spectrum.  And if you think about this, even casually, these processes have always marked music history — hunting horns, martial trumpets and drums, and tower trombone choirs once represented alien invasions of concerted music, noisy additions to the orchestra by members of guilds (foresters, soldiers, civil/religious servants) whose membership had not yet merged with the local musicians' union, and all of the audio special effects requisite to the opera stage were added to the back-of-the-pit toy box of the timpanist/proto-percussionist, a job category that only the last century universally regarded as the work of proper musicians; likewise, the category of the consonant gradually overtook that of the dissonant, embracing ever-denser harmonic configurations (in itself, a move along the spectrum towards noise)  as the distinction became one of formal context rather than abstract category. So now, having experienced all of that opening of the spectra of the acoustically possible, doesn't describing oneself as on the side of the noises or of the dissonances have more the tenor of a consumer choice than an authentically oppositional stance?  What is noisy or dissonant, any more, of a music made solely of noises or dissonances? 

* This is not unusual.  In my student days, and particularly in my Santa Cruz days,  "theory", as used in the humanities was all the rage, from structuralism forward, and I read as much as I could, especially when it seemed that something useful or relevant to music was supposed to be present.  Although I don't regret the reading (Debord, of course, the Deleuze of The Logic of Sense, too; I'll always have a soft spot for Barthes's Empire of Signs and Levi-Strauss was simply a pleasure to read) , as a working musician, I was usually disappointed, as the musical content was inevitably superficial.  The appropriation of musical forms in Levi-Strauss's analysis of myths, for example, should be enough to send anyone running ASAP to read their Tovey to see that there is a profound, accurate, and relevant tradition for writing about musical form and structure that has more to offer theory in other disciplines than they may have offer music. 


Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Comparing Notation/Engraving Programs for New Music

I propose the design of a comparison survey of the present music notation/engraving program landscape; should there be interest in such a project, this is an open invitation to make suggestions as to its form and content.

This is an interesting moment for notation software in that we are not limited to Finale and Sibelius, for — as good/bad/ugly/useful/useless as those two programs may be — no single program has (or even should have) universal functionality or flexibility and having the additional options provided alternative or auxiliary software is a very good thing. At the moment, there are some interesting new-ish programs available as free or commercial software and a couple of older programs with useful features have become available as legacy items.

The comparison ought to have two components, the first a comparison chart (this program can or cannot do this) with some evaluation (how easy or well the program does this or that) and the second, if possible, a comparison of output engraving from the individual programs based on a model piece, with a lot of hoops to jump through and hurdles to jump over, including both graphic-only output with graphic+ audio output.

Among the features that ought to be investigated are (1) complex rhythms, including nested tuplets, broken or partial tuplets, aligned and non-aligned polymeter scores, and non-measured or "spatial" notation (all of the above with and without playback); (2) microtonal accidentals, whether of a fixed set or of your own design, and playback; (3) continuous linear items like crescendi/diminuendi, portamenti/glissandi, accellerandi, and their playback; (4) house style capacity, including choice of fonts, symbols, and layout flexibility; (5) graphic capacity, including cutaway scores, insertion of graphics, export of graphics including ps and pdf formats; (6) playback capacity, including midi and audio commands, generation of midi and audio files; (7) input methods: text or command line, computer keyboard +/- keypad (and a description of the keyboard layout used), mouse/pen/joystick/etc., midi keyboard, midi or audio file, import from (and export to) other engraving software or earlier versions of the same software; (8) general interface and workflow design.

Any additions, corrections or suggestions about this would be most appreciated, as would any suggestions for a model piece.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Dead-Dropped Music?

Artist Aram Bartholl is embedding usb drives into walls, buildings and curbs for public but anonymous data up- and downloads. Not surprisingly, the comments focus in on the risks of acquiring viruses or having your equipment sabotaged, making this media equivalent of anonymous sex or sharing used needles; sad how modern public life gets stuck with such risks. In any case, it's certainly one way to try to get your music out there via sound files and sound-playing applications.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

On and Off the Grid

I've been digging into the work of the anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott.  His Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed is particularly interesting*,  showing how authoritarian modernism can disastrously simplify and fail to "read" traditional cultures and the body of knowledge and techniques that these bring to working in complex environments.  His examples come both from state regimes both right and left and both villainous and rather more benign (i.e. Soviet collectivization and Tanzanian Ujaama villagification)  and include intriguing oppositional voices, for example Rosa Luxemburg contrasted with Lenin and Jane Jacobs with Le Corbusier, oppositional voices from the left making the case for the complexity, sophistication, and value of traditional cultural practices.

A startling juxtaposition here for me is that that between modernism and simplification, from the need to make things clear (Scott's term of art is "legible") — roads straightened, cities drawn to grids, fixed units of measurement, a fixed system of personal and family names, monocultural agriculture, etc. —  in order for a modern authoritarian state to assert greater degrees of management and control.  A more startling quality is that the impulse for much of this is more aesthetic (or even "faith-based") in nature than rational.  Yet,  as it often enough happens, these become objects of real, if often subtle, revolt and subversion from forces at the base and margins of societies and beyond state control, taking the opportunity of the failures of planning, through their ability to deal with real material conditions more effectively, indeed rationally, than the statist or corporate planners.  (I suspect that the most successful modern societies succeed from a carefully, if tacitly, negotiated compromise between these forces.  If I have a criticism of Scott, it is perhaps that he does not give enough consideration to the notion that these responses to the state are themselves, as tied to tradition as they may be, a form of modernism.  Yes, we want the universal high quality drinking supply the modern state provides (or promises to provide), but no, we don't want forests with third generations of dying, monocultural Standardbäume.   Yes we want modern highways, no we don't want them next to our homes and schools or straight through the middle of our communities.  Yes, we want modern utilities, but if we are able to provide our own utilities more cheaply and cleanly by going off the grid, then we want to be able to do that.)     

In recent art music we have, of course, our own dynamic between simplification and complexity, as well as between tradition and modernism.  This dynamic is full of interesting and productive contradictions and even paradoxes.  Minimalism in music, for example, can be a means toward recovering and projecting complexity, while notationally complex music may be such a reification of the note as a musical atom, ripped out of either larger tonal contexts or sealing off attentions from any inner activity within the span of that note, that much complexity is lost.  

While there is a relationship of the modernist projects of both states and corporations (and these both authoritarian and consensual), the existence of experimental art music has been either highly controlled or completely deprecated (in authoritarian political regimes) or ignored (under multinational capitalism or consensual republican states).  (Interesting how all of these regimes tend to treat culture as non-essential superstructur; for me at least, a complete reversal of hpw things ought be valued.)  The relationship of music to the authority can then either be collaborationist, creating propaganda or commodities for the state or the market; oppositional; or autonomous, operating in parallel to but unengaged with the authority.

One of the most interesting ways in which modern art music has been engaged as an oppositional force has been in the project of playing with and around and circumventing rigid lines of demarcation and identity.  As I mentioned in a post last week, in the musical use of time,  syncopation and rubato are means of going against the grid.  A constant in the work of Morton Feldman, for example, was the investigation of ways to compose directly within a graphical rigid score (early on, on graph paper; then in works with an imprecisely defined single graphic note value, later on score paper with pre-drawn measure lines) that blurred, disrupted or even defeated pulse, metre or barlines.  (Contrast this with the School of Babbitt's "time point system", which was ostensibly ametrical but in practice a rigid reinforcement of both a fixed pulse and metric accent.) 


* Doesn't that title recall John Cage's Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), another text with decidedly anarchist sympathies?   

From the Dept. of Film Music Clichés

An old friend, pointing to the soundtrack to The Day the Earth Stood Still, remarked that Nothing says, "Little green men approaching" quite like a theremin...in this case, TWO theremins!,  to which I had to reply that  "Nothing says 'here comes an ass in a perm and a leisure suit' better than a vibraslap and a heavy brass section."  So between the two of us, we've just got the 1950s sci-fi and 1970's action film music genres down.  

[We're still working on a pithy formulation of the early 21st century aspiring-to-hipness genre, with the obligatory faux-Philip Glass enharmonic common tone arpeggiated turn-around chord sequences.]  

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Musicians using Science

A note on the recent passing of the mathematician Benoît B. Mandelbrot.   Whether directly, via close study, or indirectly, even impressionistically, from a condensed version in the popular science press or from the illustrations in his coffeetable book The Beauty of Fractals, Mandelbrot had an impact on contemporary music.  While the heyday of enthusiasm for compositional applications of fractals and other related self-similar and non-linear phenomena was probably back in the 1980's, the resonance has been long and lively.  As each piece of information about this stuff came out in the press or from battered photocopies of off-prints, many composers would immediately start to ponder how to turn these things into sounds.  How about a Nancarrowish canon with tempos based around the Feigenbaum number?  One of the first pieces directly citing Mandelbrot which I can recall was Larry Austin's Canadian Coastlines (1981) and another composer with a lasting relationship to Mandelbrot's ideas was György Ligeti.  I believe that Ligeti's approach to these ideas was not formal, down to the details, but many younger composers, particularly those working in computer music, found stricter applications.  (The coincidence of the emergent chaos theory and more accessible computing power was not unimportant for scientists and mathematicians, nor was it for musicians.)  

Fractals were only one of the ideas that composers in the last generation or so have eagerly grabbed at, if only from readingf over the shoulder's of our friends in the natural sciences.  That Scientific American article about generating music from pink and white noise sent many composers productively back to their manuscript paper and their computers.  Many of us were enthusiastic for Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature, others for the ideas of Buckminister Fuller still more for cybernetics, information theory and algorithmic composition. Linguistic theory has had a long resonance with composers.  I never found a compositional interest in chaos theory myself, but one of my youthful yet enduring enthusiasms was for another area of dynamical systems, catastrophe theory; René Thom's Structural Stability and Morphogenesis (1972) was an eye opener, and perhaps more importantly, it sent me to the pages of D'arcy Wentworth Thompson's classic On Growth and Form (1917)  which had a tremendous effect on my sensibility for the overall shape and continuity of a piece and its relationship to particular events or details in the music. Inasmuch as no calculation I ever use in a piece of music is larger than can fit on an index card,  I fall more into the impressionistic than calculating category of science-indebted composers, but however modest my own scientific insights may be, this stuff has registered in my music in an honest, useful, and productive way.     

Follow the money, again

E.L. Cory Doctorow (hat tip: Paul Bailey): "If you think about it, this is a rather curious circumstance, because it means that once a technology company puts a lock on a copyrighted work, the proprietor of that copyright loses the right to authorize his audience to use it in new ways, including the right to authorize a reader to move a book from one platform to another. At that point, DRM and the laws that protect it stop protecting the wishes of creators and copyright owners, and instead protect the business interests of companies whose sole creative input may be limited to assembling a skinny piece of electronics in a Chinese sweatshop." 

Tools of unknown power

Here's an item by Daniel Silliman about writers and their preferred working tools.  Some like pencils, others pens; some like 3x5 cards, others notebooks, still others quad-ruled paper; some still like typewriters (whether acoustic or electric),  others embrace whatever technology is latest.  Composers are particular about their implements as well.  I've written here about favorite pens (in the past a handful of Rapidographs and a calligraphy pen, now exclusively (and exclusively for sketching) a uni-ball micro.)   Some composers insist on pencil and eraser (Schoenberg used to insist on the importance of the eraser end of a pencil), some field armies of colored pencils (Elliot Carter, is such a General; I happen to follow Cage and write only in ink.)  "Onion skin" ozalid prints were once the masonic handshake of a certain class of composers; I've always been a xerographic composer, but do insist on off-white, creme, or pale lime paper, heavy stock.  There are composition teachers who insist on archaic paper sizes and only portrait orientation as a "professional" standard; I call BS and will wager my "professional" status on A-sized paper in any damn orientation I want.   Back when, some composers did their own engraving, hammering and scratching plates of metal while others stockpiled sets of stencils and rub-on letters, numbers, and signs.  Now the passionate concern is for notation/engraving programs, and not just the market-leading Sins and Fibs.  (At last count, i had 12 notation programs on my desktop computers and have used each of them at least once for a feature not possible — or not readily possible — in another.) And let's not get started on the question of the right table, desk, chair (see Morton Feldman on chairs), lighting, etc., or whether one should compose sitting, standing, or as horizontally as possible.  (Let alone accounting for the right amp and loudspeakers, right keyboard, right coffee machine or ersatz-Mini Bar, exercise bike or rowing machine, and don't ask me about the gamelan or the terrier which usually co-inhabit my  studio.)   Daniel Silliman's article concludes that these tools are fetishes, and thinking about them is "another way not to think about writing."  And while there's a great deal of truth to that characterization, it's avoiding the fact that we fuss and worry about these things because the act of writing or composing inevitably has a component that is mysterious or even magical: we don't know exactly what it is that allows us to get our work done when all of the forces of the universe and our own natural inertia conspire to keep us from going forward.  As productive as one may be, we are always on the edge of the dreaded block, and so we cling on to all elements just in case the absence of even the apparently least significant will affect the magic.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Richard Buhlig

The name of the pianist and composer Richard Buhlig (1880-1952)  is now probably best known as having been a teacher of John Cage (and for having given Cage a strict lecture on the value of time.)  I had never before seen a picture of Buhlig, so was pleased to find an image from 1930, photographed by Johan Hagemeyer, courtesy of the Online Archive of California. (Another archive has a home movie with Arnold Schoenberg and Buhlig together, the latter in "pith helmut"; that I would like to see.)   American-born of German parents, Buhlig studied in Vienna with Teodor Leszetycki, concertized widely in Europe and the US with a repertoire balanced between classical and modern works (among them, Buhlig gave the US premiere of Schoenberg's Opus 11, and Busoni's Fantasia Contrappuntistica was dedicated to Buhlig), taught for a time at The Institute for Musical Art (now Juilliard), and eventually settled in Los Angeles, where he primarily taught.  His students, in addition to Cage, included Grete Sultan, Henry Cowell, Wesley Kuhnle, Leonard Stein and Peter Hewitt.  Buhlig apparently sponsored Sultan's immigration to the US.  As far as I can tell,  Buhlig and Kuhnle's performance of Buhlig's two piano transcription of The Art of the Fugue and a solo recording of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue are the only available recordings of his playing.  (Buhlig, Kuhnle, and Cowell gave a concert tour of the Soviet Union together in 1928.)  I have been unable to locate any examples of Buhlig's own compositions.  

Taking Time

This article, by Bunita Marcus, on Morton Feldman, notation, and rubato, is well worth a look. I've gone out on a speculative limb before in these pages in placing Feldman within the Skryabiniste* tradition with regard to rubato and to its equivalent in the pitch domain, and perhaps also to timbral issues — a certain delicacy of tone without any sacrifice of drive and the use of the pedal to create an ensemble blur or an indistinct, often edgeless, but internally lively tone.  (This is a perfect example of the utility of recordings: I highly recommend the recordings made of piano rolls punched to Skryabin's own performances.)  

Feldman did have a legitimate connection to Skryabin, through his piano teacher Madame Press, but I'm not sure exactly what of Skryabin's music Feldman knew; he certainly did not talk about Skryabin as a model as he did about Schubert or Debussy. To some degree this is unimportant as enough of Skryabin's style is certainly as well represented as a style of performance practice as it is by the compositions themselves.  Skryabinism did have a fairly wide reach, within Russia, in France through Lourie, Obouchov and Wyschnegradsky (and through the latter to Messiaen and Boulez) as well as in the US, with Dane Rudhyar and the great Nicholas Slonimsky (particularly in his Minitudes).  Much of this reach was more about mysticism than musical technique (though certainly not for either Boulez or Slonimsky), but shared influences on technique can clearly be decerned — a supple rhythm, fine-grained ensemble textures, and a harmonic language that tends more towards static samplings of collections of tones than to functional harmony. 

Let me briefly identify a few salient features in Skryabin's rhythmic practice. The first is a flexible subdivision of the beat, whether moving with a great sense of direction from two to three to four to five to six or more subdivisions (which connects Skryabin both back to Chopin and forward to the Henry Cowell of Fabric or the Quartets Euphometric and Romantic**), or in static ensemble textures of multiple divisions (ultimately an extension of Monteverdi's concitato style), with extended five-against-three passages, for example, as a favorite texture.  

This is the first phrase from the first of Skryabin's Seven Preludes, Op. 17. In three-quarters time, against the steady eighth notes in the right hand, the left hand moves from three quarters, to four quarters in the space of three, to five in the space of three, and then to the eighth notes (i.e. 6 in the space of three), coming back in sync with the right hand. Through this written-out accelerando in the left hand, there is an increase in rhythmic dissonance that resolves as the hands return to rhythmic synchronization as well as to the d minor tonic harmony.  

This accelerando is straightforward, in that the tuplets in the left hand should be played as subdivisions of the dotted half pulse uniting measure and harmonic rhythm.  But other examples are not so clear, suggesting that an acellerando should be phrased as a continuous movement over several measures, rather than precisely "chunked" into complete measure-length equal-division tuplets.

Another feature is that Skryabin is often breaking phrases over bars, and not always as a metric  anacrusis, leading into a phrase, but often as a sustained syncopation throughout whole phrases or sections.  This play with the rigidity of the barline is clearly continued  in Feldman's music, and not only at the level of the measure, but at larger scales, frequently coinciding with whole systems and pages (which Feldman usually barred prior to composition).  


* I use the spelling "Skryabin" here (instead of the more common "Scriabin" or any of the alternatives) not out of any orthographic insight but exclusively out of personal aesthetics: I  happen to like the shape that particular combination and sequence of letters makes together on the page; perhaps appropriate for this blog item, inasmuch as it is about notation and performance.

** I assume that Cowell's rhythmic experiments began well prior to any familiarity with Skryabin.  Fabric is dated to 1920 and, although he may have become familiar via Slonimsky or Rudhyar with Skryabin in the 1920s, there is probably no certainty here until the time of Cowell's concert tour of Russia, co-billed with Richard Buhlig (later, a teacher of John Cage) and Buhlig's partner Wesley Kuhnle (who would become well known on the West Coast as a pioneering harpsichordist and authority on historical tunings and temperaments).     

Saturday, October 16, 2010

What Samuel Says

Composer and poet Samuel Vriezen  writes about the struggle of art and its relationship to the public space.  (Scroll down for the English version.) The immediate cause is the new Dutch minority government's plans to radically cut cultural spending,  but the principles are universal and timely, indeed urgent.  

I've long insisted here that the function of [culture, art, music] is to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable, and that insuring quality, diversity, and liveliness in our lives — our musical lives in particular — is a serious business demanding that we call out any petty abuses of musical-partisan micro-politics as a distraction from our common cause.   In any case, Samuel puts it far better than I can. 

Turning Thumbscrews

It's always useful for a composer to try to work through her or his dislikes. John Cage disliked the vibraphone, recordings, and improvisation, yet managed to come to some productive terms, late in life, with the latter two.  (At least we have Morton Feldman's use of the vibraphone as some compensation.)

One of my greater dislikes is the music of Benjamin Britten.  Since High School, I seem to perpetually find myself in the company of people I treasure but who find themselves massively disappointed in this particular dislike of mine. These advocates have constantly pushed scores, recordings and concert tickets in my direction.  Way back when, I dutifully studied much of the music closely, was a rehearsal pianist for some works for a high school choir and even once played the recorder solo in Noye's Fludde.  But my opinion hasn't much budged. There are aspects I do admire — the conductorless, often only loosely coordinated ensemble music in the Church parables, for example, but the vocal music is really the center of Britten's work and I can't get around my dislike for the edgeless envelope that seems to be the official, Peter-Pearsish production style, just puffs and swells of air with minimal intervention by the consonants which ought be in-between.  

I recently saw The Turn of the Screw, which from its constructive aspects — its formal architecture and tonal discipline — ought to be my favorite of the Britten operas, which it is, but also because of the musical dramaturgy which gradually — even gently — tells its deeply disturbing story, almost without ever making matters explicit or having anything actually eventful happen, a style deeply faithful to the source text. But the work is flawed, to my ears, by three things which could have easily been fixed, (1)  by eliminating the prologue — narration works only in operas for puppets (Lou Harrison made the same mistake in trying to turn Young Ceasar into an opera for real boys*), and anything in the text of the prologue which was necessary to the opera should have been saved for dialogue in the first scene, thus very usefully reserving the only adult male voice for a strategic later appearance —, (2) by cutting the scene with the ghosts — which unfortunately removes any ambiguity about the central question of their existence independent from the Governess's imagination —; and (3) finally by thinning out the scoring of the celesta and the tubular bells, which play continuously through one scene — some instruments just demand discretion, thinned out either in number of appearances or in dynamic level (providing another reminder that Morton Feldman really understood how to write for celesta and tubular bells).**

Okay, I haven't moved much in my opinion about Britten, but working with the material nevertheless can still provide some useful composition lessons.***  [Also this note to self: should I ever have to write a James opera, let it be William rather than Henry; The Varieties of Religious Experience or Essays in Radical Empiricism, perhaps?] 


* Manuel de Falla's El retablo de maese Pedro smartly uses Master Pedro's narration and comments to mediate between levels in a puppet-play-within-a-puppet-opera structure.

** My daughter also pointed out that it was unfair that the male child, Miles, actually got to be sung by a boy, but the role of the sister, Flora, was — and is, conventionally — sung by an adult. We had a long discussion about such conventions, the abundance and prestige of boys' choirs compared to girls' and mixed childrens' choirs, and similar topics, concluding that it probably should be possible, nowadays, to cast the role with a girl of approximately the same age as the character. 

*** Much of the critical literature on The Turn of the Screw focuses on the 12-tonish aspects of the work and the question of their greater or lesser importance to the piece as well as the question of the composer's relationship to 12-tone and serial musics in general.  I think that the 12-tone "theme" usefully provides for both an immediate and a general circulation of tones and it sets up some useful reference pitches and intervals. As to a relationship to other musics, Britten's practice may make a nod to Berg, but it is really a species of the hybrid informal 12-tone-cum-tonal music that was more widespread in postwar music than any strictly classical 12-tone or serial practice.        

Friday, October 15, 2010

Drawing straight lines and following them

Today, one tube of the Gotthard Basis Tunnel broke through, making the longest tunnel on the planet, 57 kilometers long, cutting through two- and three-thousand foot mountains.  The whole purpose of the new railroad tunnel is to get as much of the North/South traffic that jams through Switzerland in and out of the country on rail and as fast and unobtrusively as possible and that seems laudable enough, particularly when the promised increases in rail speed will eliminate unnecessary car, truck and plane travel. But there are still several years left before the project is really finished and the moment now is one to spend in a little bit of awe at the tunnel as an engineering and, yes, aesthetic achievement, for long tunnels of this sort are indeed major earthworks, with the curves of their surfaces remarkably smooth, minimal art made on an unprecedented scale.  It's a healthy thing, Ithinks, to take some awe from time to time at a large scale human achievement other than war or pro sports or consumerism or mass entertainment. (David Foster Wallace's Great Ohio Desert (catch the acronym) in his novel The Broom of the System was designed and built precisely to provide some awe in a state which, by nature's gifts, was rather devoid of same.)   Ives's Fourth Symphony always leaves me in awe, Cage's Rozart Mix certainly did it,  and there are moments in Mozart, Berlioz, even Beethoven's Seventh in the Kleiber recording that do it for me.  Alvin Lucier's I am sitting in a room and La Monte Young's Chronos Kristalla are reliable sources of awe.  Hearing the late great Carnatik musician K.V. Narayanaswamy sing and playing the great Javanese Gendhing Bonang Tukung and Gadhung Mlathi were experiences which still summon awe.  Often it's not the composition per se, but a performance that transcends the limits of the composition.  Last night, I heard an Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann sung by Brenda Rae — music that usually leaves me cold — that was both so precise and gracefully musical that there it was again.  What a piece of work and all that. But now, this is a moment of awe at a very long hole dug right straight through a good part of the Alps, before we take another breath and remember that the Alps themselves are pretty awesome in their own right, with or without the tunnel.         

Performance Practice

A student and I recently worked on a realization of a portion of Stockhausen's Studie II (1954), as a way of getting into the piece in a more concrete way.  Like many pioneering pieces of electronic music, it is best known in its original realization, with the then-state of the art resources of the WDR Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne.  Although I have heard that Stockhausen preferred his realization to other, later versions made by others — a thought I will come back to —, the limits of the equipment available are obvious and, if we are to take the score of the work (Universal Edition 1956) at its word that "it provides the technician with all of the information necessary for the realization of the work", then questions about the faithfulness of that first realization to the requirements of both the score and the composer's stated conceptions of the work provide some incentive for trying, with contemporary resources, to hear what, precisely, a more faithful realization might sound like.

For example, by using multi-layered recording of individual sine waves, Stockhausen was unable to synthesize his tone complexes in a way that fused as one supposes he had intended and the pitch accuracy of his plan was seriously compromised first by rounding off to the next Hertz in the score and then accepting whatever amount of resolution error the oscillators then had. Today, neither fusing of composite wave forms nor the accuracy of pitch resolution are significant issues; the score can readily be realized on a home computer, whether in recorded form, via something like CSound, or as live synthesis.  (We happened to be trying the latter, using PD, a program authored by Miller Puckette, who has admirably used PD in his teaching to re-create a number of works of "classical" electronic music.)    Despite these improvements, in trying to realize the score, issues of authenticity in performance practice were persistent.  

For example, the tuning:  without having an equipment limitation of a one Hertz resolution, should the realization use the notated frequencies, or should they be a better approximation of Stockhausen's intended 25th-root-of-five tuning scheme?  If we chose a one Hertz resolution, with digital accuracy to several decimal places, strictly speaking the piece will then be realized in a kind of expanded just intonation (without getting into an argument about the definition of just intonation, which is something for another time...) and, aside from the interval 5:1, that is not what the composer was after.  Should we realize the score with a more accurate representation of the 25th-root-of-five tuning?  It's certainly worth trying out both options.  

Or this: Stockhausen combined his sine waves by overdubbing and then played back and re-recorded the composite tones in a reverberant room to get a better fused and what might be described as a warmer tone. We can now begin with a better fused composite tone and add reverb electronically or acoustically.   (For that matter, we can realize the score directly with the specified sines and eliminate the middle step of creating a library of composites.) 

Or, how about dynamics: Stockhausen's score differentiates dynamics over a 31-step scale, in which each step represents a difference of one decibel.  Should we instead take a bit of psychoacoustics in consideration and adjust this scale to compensate for the Fletcher-Munson curve?   I suspect that such a consideration would be taken into account in the equalization of a playback of the recording, but it's nice to have the option to build this into the realization itself.  The original attack envelopes were made by hand, by raising a pot, but we can now do this with precision.  On what basis do we decide how to shape and time these envelopes?

Finally, Studie II is a monophonic piece and, arguably, all of the tones and composites in the work belong, conceptually, to a single scale/spectrum.  Is our realization limited to a single channel of sound, or might it be useful and musicial to project the sound onto multiple channels; if we do use additional channels, on what intutional or analytic basis would such a project be made? 

Stockhausen's preference for the first realization deserves some thought.  While a purely mechanical reading of the score could have been made,  I suspect that the series of musicianly interventions made necessary by the equipment produced a result which while necessarily introducing inaccuracies, ultimately created a more approachable, even endearing sound. Likewise, in the 13th hour of his final compositional project Klang, Cosmic Pulses, a work with 24 layers of looped melodies with tones connected by portamenti, the actual speed of the portamenti was done by hand, perhaps a similar expression of preference for a human intervention in the surface of an otherwise through-calculated process. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Follow the money, once more

Ron Silliman's blog — which has become my reliable one-stop shop for everything in new and experimental American poetics — is approaching three million visitors.  As is to be expected, his celebratory post gets to the point, the state of the art:

Amazon’s offer to pay authors 70% of e-book royalties is, we should note, a deeply defensive gesture. What they are trying to prevent is watching the authors collect 100%.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Follow the money

This thread at The Rambler is well worth reading and ought to be fuel for some long-overdue discussion.*


 * The degree to which "commercial recordings" of new music are actually commercially viable has, for the most part, always been small.  The exceptions are all exceptional — Harry Partch did earn some money from his own Gate Five label (taking advantage of having no middle man and minimal overhead), I assume that Phillip Glass's recordings have generally been income generating, and sometimes there's actually the odd hit that makes a speculative investment in musical obscura pay off: the Nonesuch Subotnick recordings, that Gorecki Symphony or such. 

Even in the days in which only a handful of labels existed with any interest in the vanguard, unless the label had deep enough pockets and an inventory-friendly tax code to risk a long amortization periods it was a common expectation that a composer would front the costs of the recording, either out of his/her own pocket or with grant money or the largess of the few patrons we've had.  There was really no great problem with this — indeed it put music out there in the world in a useful form that the market participants were not otherwise rushing to produce — so long as the simple existence of a recording was not viewed as anything more that it was, for example as C.V. filler for academic hiring and tenure decisions or for the awarding of grants and prizes and residencies. In the big world of commercial music making, the medium may be the message, but in our little niche, any question of substance has got to turn on the music itself, not on the arbitrary fact of whether it got captured as a vinyl, plastic or downloadable commodity.   

Nowadays, actually getting a high quality recording made and pressed, burned or uploaded is cheaper and easier than ever. (A good comparison is to my high school years, in the late '70s, when vinyl was produced by a small cartel of factories owned by multinational firms and in increasingly bad quality, often little more than cardboard sandwiches prone to falling apart.)  It has become clear that a prime function of cd recordings now is that of calling cards for composers and performers, as advertisement for the real action: getting gigs. (AFAIC, not an entirely bad state of affairs.)  (A friend recently told me that it has become a custom in circles of the well-recorded to inspect the shelves of those who have received their calling cards — to see if the plastic wrap has actually been removed from the jewel cases! No, in the privacy of their own living room, even your best friend may not be your most loyal listener...)  Yes, there will always be a small number of "serious" composers for whom a purchasing audience for their recordings exist, sometimes even approaching the conditions of a market, but let's try to be up-front about this, so we fall neither into the trap of over-estimating the prestige value of a recording nor into viewing every recording firm as a vanity press. 

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The advantages of making music under the radar

The current dramatic cuts in cultural funding — whether due to market or political forces, and whether done in slow steps (as in Germany, where the rapidly rising costs of the rights for soccer broadcasts, for example, are gradually eating up state broadcasting budgets whose fee-supported funding would otherwise be stable or growing) or in sudden cuts (as in the Netherlands, where a nationalist/populist political coalition has found common cause in attacking "elitist" arts organizations, even when some of these organizations are best evidence of what that nation can be) — have been well-described and commented upon elsewhere.  All I can usefully add is a firm expression of solidarity with the protests, as these reductions are being made to institutions which are a essential part of lives led together, if those lives together are to be lived with any purpose more than simple survival, entertainment-fed passivity, and assent to a status quo.

My realistic assessment of times to come, however, is that we will probably have to get used to the largest cultural institutions, if they are able to survive the current rounds, functioning only with dramatically reduced resources and forced to cut back their activities to minima.  That usually means very little for the most adventurous programming, even when such programming ought to be seen and heard, at the very least, as an investment in the future vitality of the institutions. It's a vicious downward spiral, but I take some heart in the fact that no institution can or should be viewed as immortal, and this mortality is actually a good thing in the long term. So long as resources and interest remain or are found for the invention and support of new institutions, there is potential for the creative renewal and reinvigoration of institutional art making.

In the meanwhile, it is useful and heartening  to recognize that most of the work done in experimental and innovative forms and idioms takes place well outside of large institutions. Most new and experimental music does not require the resources of orchestras, state radio stations or opera houses, but is made for soloists (often composer-performers), small ensembles (often composed of collaborating composers-performers sharing resources) and can now include a technical sophistication that is no less that formerly monopolized by the large institutions.  Every composer can now carry the equivalent of a Kontakte-era WDR Studio, RCA Synthesizer and the complete apparatus of Repons in their own laptop.  Most new and experimental music can be performed and heard away from the formality and expensive of large concert halls, can be recorded on equipment and media that one owns at home, and no longer requires a licensed radio station for its broadcasting, nor is that broadcasting limited to the reach of a single broadcast antenna. (It can, however, be limited by the censorship of the PRC or North Korea, or perhaps by an end to net neutrality in the US.)

Perhaps more importantly, in these times, the fact that new and experimental music is essentially invisible/inaudible to the state and corporate apparatus can be very useful.  (James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State is a superb introduction to the limits of the legibility of real, existing traditional structures to the modern state and the disasters that the best of wills have led to because of that inflexibility.)  States and corporations alike prefer and tend to respond only to structures which follow radically reduced schemes and orders.  States and corporations draw straight lines and grids and group things according to least common denominators, losing detail, texture, tone, the nature of which is often more essential than crude, uniform measures. Recognition of this may not make states and corporations pay for our rent or lunch (that's what day jobs are for, buckaroos), but it does suggest a considerable artistic advantage of going under the radar.  

In recent protests against funding cuts in the Netherlands, the police were apparently able to control crowds of protesters because the protesters moved together, with a recognizable front line, and the police are said to have used the protester's own concerted music-making as a cue for their own actions.  How much more effective it would have been had the protesters moved, not as a coordinated mass, but as individuals roughly flocking in a general, but not manageable motion?  And however could the police have taken a cue from the music had it been, instead, sung quietly but independently by hundreds of individuals moving at the own time and trajectories through public spaces?  There's an interesting invitation to compose!  

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Getting Started

How to get started is a very nice project, extending a late work of John Cage, a lecture/performance which, among other things, is an example of Cage's attempt to work through a productive relationship between composition and improvisation. (The audio excerpt online includes mention of Walter Zimmermann's beautiful piano piece Abgeschiedenheit, the title of which roughly, very roughly, translates as "seclusion".)


Is it necessary to try to explain, once again, how important Cage was?  The continuing controversies and misunderstandings about his work suggest that it is still necessary. I often have the impression that his reputation as a composer suffers because of a focus on his reputation for almost any other one of his activities — writing, collecting mushrooms, studying zen, Buckminister Fuller, etc. et al — rather than on the actual music that he made. Well, kids, it's the music that's important.  Not all of it (he was as uneven as the best of them and much of it was written for rather specific use, with questions of lasting importance rather beside the point), but there's plenty to pay attention to, and so much above and beyond the oxygen-stealing 4'33": the best of the percussion and prepared piano music, the Concerto for  Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra, The Seasons, Sixteen Dances, all of the string quartet music, the music for magnetic tape (Williams Mix, Rozart Mix, Message to Erik Satie and Roaratorio, in particular), Winter Music, Cheap Imitation, Etcetera, Lecture on the Weather, Inlets, the virtuosic sets of Etudes for piano and violin, The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs and much of the Song Books, some configurations of Music for ___, a very large number of the "number pieces", and the five Europeras. (There is also a small group of pieces — Music of Changes, the various pieces for Carillon, Atlas Eclipticalis, the orchestral version of Cheap Imitation among them— for which I reserve opinion, simply because I haven't yet heard an honest live performance.)

(Not a bad track record for an experimentalist, steadily courting failure.)


There has always been a great deal of dancing about the question of Cage's influence, with some preferring to talk instead about Cage providing an example through his work that became a form of "permission" to do one's own work.  I don't dance well enough, and I've never liked the idea of having to get permission, even if done — as Cage did — from example rather than from a position of music-political power; instead, I admit readily to being under the influence.  

Cage taught me how to organize my desk as a composer: into materials, methods, structure and form. He asked: "Composing's one thing, performing's another, listening is a third. What can they have to do with one another." which I have taken as a productive rather than rhetorical question.  And more than for his use of any particular materials (percussion, the prepared piano, gamuts, tape splicing...) or methods (chance, indeterminacy, contingency, cheap imitations, erasures...), it is in the area of structure, the musical use of time in a work's division of the whole into parts, that Cage seems to me to be most inventive, radical, and — for us — most potentially influential.  

Indeed, Cage's development as a composer is best traced through his treatment of musical time, from the early works — in which a time structure is used instead of a tonal structure, with pieces carrying their proportions as a form of temporality equivalent to the key signature a work of tonal music carried — to the late works in which metre and measure are replaced by space on a page, clock time and/or time brackets with individual notes freed of their proportional and/or durational values.  If some music can be identified with an "atonality", then this is a species of "ametricality" or even "atemporality." That said, as rich a model for structuring time as Cage's is, it is also an example which opens up productive doubts.  For one, just as atonal music made it possible to hear tonal music in a fundamentally different way, the experience of music without fixed measure practically forces one to appreciate and reconsider the particular qualities of measured musical time, which include — paradoxically, perhaps — the possibility of its own deformations and abnegation in the forms of syncopation, cross-rhythms, rubato and dynamic changes of tempo, none of which are possible in a music without a pulse or metre for reference. (There is also a question to be asked about whether the use of clock time was self-defeating, in that it didn't actually erase a pulse or metre — with their fluid, flexible relationships to "real", mundane, clocktime —  but simply substituted the inflexible units of the second and minute and hour.) Here, the utility of Cage's example is found as much in continuing the particular path he chose as in exploring the apparent cul de sacs he left alone.


And this, too:

I miss Cage's voice,

the fundamental of which

— as he grew older —

would waver in and out of audibility

and often just disappear.


Wednesday, October 06, 2010

That sweet space

...composing is all about finding a particular location in the space of all possibilities, that sweet place where all the forces — those you plan, those that you have chosen to leave beyond your control, and those that come to you like a lightning strike from your own habits, taste, and imagination — are in balance: calculation, chance, choice. It's exactly like poker, that near-perfect game, in which the rules are set, the probabilities are clear, the cards are dealt at random, you know what's in your own hand and the other players are real people, with all the experience, hopes, habits, bluffs and tells that real people unavoidably bring to the table. With as cool a calculation as possible, you consider, weigh, balance all these elements and then let your intuition (itself a mysterious mix of experience, calculation, and raw instinct) lead to that particular place of action, to see, raise, or fold...  

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Composerly Bloggery

"Some people do things before they are fashionable. Ned Rorem blogged before it was electronic." - David Feldman
Given the fact that we're supposed to be witty, wise, and creative people, it's striking how prosaic writing by composers -- and blogging composers in particular -- usually is. The weblog format is a young medium, but it seems to have already settled comfortably into some fairly rigid formal and stylistic boundaries. Too comfortably, methinks.* If I ran the circus, the model would definitely be Cage's Diary: How to improve the world (you'll only make matters worse) rather than The Paris/New York/Later/Final (...) Diaries of Ned Rorem, and invest both content and form with a little more composerly invention and a lot less confession and self-promotion.**

I've tried some modest experiments with form here, and a few readers have even caught on to the fun and games (picnic, lightning), but words have a way of failing me, and my items are a pale fire when you begin to imagine the potential bonfire of words music might ought inspire.

At the moment, perhaps the best we can expect from blogs, is precisely the same we expect from critics: a well-worded and unexpected observation, a provocation from a set of ears and eyes independent from your own. How about this one, from Virgil Thomson who, describing a production of the Ring said: "And there stood Valhalla, looking all the world like the Cornell Medical Center."

A gift certificate for a 5 lb. canned ham will be awarded to the first reader to reconstruct the algorithm and data base from which this item was composed.
*Remember: the function of music is to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.

**There is a notion that the orginal, poetic, form of language descended into prose when it became necessary to communicate more concretely in order to survive. If that's true, then it speaks to a sorry state of affairs for new music. However, all the evidence is to the contrary: new music is not only surviving, but being made in a quantity and diversity previously unknown. Sure, there are naysayers still fighting sorry little turfwars (see this interview for an example from someone directly threatened by that quantity and diversity), and sure, it's often tough going, but when has it ever been any better?

(An encore posting from July 2, 2007)