Sunday, May 30, 2010

Passing, smartly

In the recent post about China Miéville's new novel, Kraken, I neglected to note one small but truly cool passing reference, and one which actually has something to do — if via a filial tangent — with experimental music.  It is a reference to John Cage's father.  Yes, the composer's father.  I suspect that this is the first appearance of the senior Cage, an engineer and inventor, in a work of fiction.   In the passage in question, Miéville appears to be referring to John M. Cage Sr.'s work in the design of submarines.

Addendum:  Gordon Mumma wrote:

re John Cage Sr.'s inventions, his work went far beyond
the early submarine projects. Cage Sr. held patents on
many devices and concepts, all the way through the 2nd
World War. And (composer) Cage Jr. assisted his father
with some of that research, even when it was "classified
war-work." That activity was one of several reasons the
composer Cage was not conscripted into military service.

All that above is from what Cage told me privately back
in the 1960s. Now there is excellent research underway
by Richard Brown (at USC) in which he has located
many recently de-classified documents involving patents
for Cage Sr.'s work in the 1940s. Brown gave a superb
presentation of his research on this subject at the 2009
Philadelphia American Musicological Society meeting. 

Now that I think about it, it's actually pretty surprising that the elder Cage has not been a more frequent figure or model for a character in fiction.


Friday, May 28, 2010

A Brief Message Regarding a Title

To the composer out there who is considering TOP KILL as the title for a new piece of music: 

Please don't.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

More on the economics of the era of recorded sound

John Gruber cites a BBC interview with Mick Jagger:

But I have a take on that — people only made money out of records for a very, very small time. When The Rolling Stones started out, we didn’t make any money out of records because record companies wouldn’t pay you! They didn’t pay anyone!

Then, there was a small period from 1970 to 1997, where people did get paid, and they got paid very handsomely and everyone made money. But now that period has gone.

So if you look at the history of recorded music from 1900 to now, there was a 25 year period where artists did very well, but the rest of the time they didn’t.

That date in the late 90's coincides rather precisely with the mass introduction of cheap digital recording equipment and media as well as the widespread use of portable digital players.  The old model of radio advertising paying royalties for recorded music which were licensed cheaply for broadcast with the idea that randomly-heard broadcasts of songs were advertisements for the purchase of albums — which allowed the listener to select particular songs on their own — pretty much collapsed at that point in time.  The technological innovations leading to ever-cheaper and ever-more accurate recording and storage capacity were inevitable but the whole thing gets ugly when one considers that the firms selling the new recording technologies were, in many cases, also publishers of the music that was inevitably going to be recorded.   

And so the grand experiment in the commodification of music more or less collapsed.  While it may become possible to design some mechanisms for mass surveillance of online music consumption and to find some way of collecting fees, it seems highly unlikely that this is going to be done in any way that gets meaningful remuneration for anyone but the most popular musicians and the largest publishers, as even the most lucrative models are in terms of very small fractions of a cent for a single usage.  Although recordings and webcasts may have some advertising function, in the end, the grand experiment may leave us back where we started, with live performance the most important — and in many cases, only — opportunity for a musician to earn money. 

A Difficult Taboo

A couple of years ago, I drafted a libretto loosely based on reports of palace life in the People's Republic of Korea.  The effort soon convinced me that I was not a librettist (and that Alaisdair Gray's novella Five Letters from an Eastern Empire had treated a similar theme much better than I ever could) but I don't regret having learned a lot about that strange and — for its own people, and potentially its neighbors — tragic country.  (If you're interested in the topic, I recommend Bradley K. Martin's book, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader and the blog North Korea Leadership Watch;  I am also fascinated by the Pyongyang Metro webpage.)   I have tried to keep up with news from North Korea and was fascinated by a recent item describing the country's National Defense Commission Reconnaissance Bureau which included this:

The general bureau now consists of six bureaus for operations (Bureau 1), reconnaissance (Bureau 2), overseas intelligence (Bureau 3), inter-Korean talks (Bureau 5), technology or cyber terrorism (Bureau 6) and for support of other divisions (Bureau 7), according to sources. There is no Bureau 4 due to a traditional Korean taboo on the number four, which is pronounced the same as “death” in Korean.

Now, the taboo against thirteenth floors in high buildings found in the U.S. is silly enough, and a sign of residual superstition in a country that has never been shy about its relationship to "faith" of one sort or another.  But it is ultimately something one can work around, as even the biggest cities have limited numbers of buildings over twelve floors high, and you can always stick a 12A or a storage space up there between 12 and 14.  A taboo against the number four, however, would have to be a more frequently encountered obstacle and is a sure sign that we're talking about a country which is definitely not being run from an entirely rational worldview.


I like to keep track of new notation/engraving programs, and here's an interesting new one: Nihavent.  It's designed immediately for notating Turkish maqam and microtonal music with appropriate accidentals and accurate playback, but the structure of the program, as a whole, even in this beta version, is very promising for general use.   Among other things, it may well have the easiest learning curve for any notation program available, with the seven page users' guide all you really need to get started; I was able to compose a small piece on screen immediately after opening the program for the first time.  [As a bonus, AFAIC, I was able to enter time signatures with non-powers of two denominators — 2/3 or 6/5, for example — and not only to space and print correctly but playback without a hitch.  Henry Cowell would have been very happy about this!]

This is a beta version and a number of additional features will be required to make it competitive with well-known general-purpose professional engraving programs, but it's a great start and — for maqam and microtonal music — already a serious player, offering capacity out of the box that the majors don't have without serious  kludges.  I recommend testing the program and am curious to see if this can developed, with feedback, in more useful ways for new music.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

As Good As It Gets

In the past week, chaperoning a young supernumary, I've heard a rehearsals and two performances of Don Carlo, which has been ample reminder that, in the 19th century, opera was the principal genre for innovation in orchestration and that, among opera composers, Verdi was an orchestrator with only one major competitor, Berlioz.  (Yeah, Berlioz, I've been wanting to add Les Troyens to my list of landmarks for long, long time but have been more than a little frightened by the prospect of writing something, even something very brief, about the grandest of the grand operas; the piece, as a whole, and in so many details, is more than remarkable.)

In any case: Verdi, orchestration. Pay attention to these things: the economy of his ensemble writing, allowing for the most potent use of the entire range of scoring patterns, from solo instrument (in Don Carlo, exquisite writing for clarinet and cello in particular) to chamber-scale groupings all the way up to full orchestra, choir and soloists, a combination that registers more on the memory than actually appears in a score, then his usage of the on-stage bands to achieve very subtle spatial distinctions, and his reserve with the use of the full string section, with the weight of winds, particularly solo winds, but also the horn and trombone (agile, originally for valved instruments) sections, used as sharp points of contrast. To some extent, these are features of orchestration that we have more or less internalized as a standard of good practice, but the degree to which Verdi is responsible for that practice is either overlooked or taken for granted.

The 20th century started out blockbusters for opera orchestration, between Debussy and the two Strauss Einackters. Why then, with the exceptions of radically different pit bands for Glass or Ashley, so late in the century, did opera so lamentably stop being a genre for instrumental innovation? I suspect that the "too big to fail" scale and status of opera houses and orchestras as institutions played a major role, with considerable inertia in the composition and usage of the pit orchestra. In any case, the failure to innovate has come at a large cost to the genre as both a wider public attraction and a musical/intellectual playground.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mit Schmalz

Once again, from the lattice of coincidence:  My daughter and I are in the kitchen planning a rainy day baking project and listening to the radio.  We settle on an oatmeal cookie recipe, on an old 3"x 5" card in my grandmother's handwriting, but attributed to one of her neighbors in Sacramento. The recipe, conspicuously, includes butter as half the fat in the recipe with the other half assigned to lard, yep rendered pig fat, an ingredient that almost shocks with its out-of-stylishness.  As we discussed whether to double the butter or even to use a substitute vegetable shortening for the lard, with a long detour into the pros and cons of rendered pig fat*, Emma began to giggle at the music coming from the radio.  It's an old recording with plenty of wobble and rhythmic surface noise and the solo violinist is using a lot of shockingly out-of-style portamento.  

The more I listened to the soloist, the more I became convinced that his portamento had been exactly right for the music.  I didn't, however, have the same confidence when baking, and the chosen substitute for lard made good cookies but not great ones, and certainly not authentic ones. 


* My daughter Emma, who spent her first years in Hungary, was exposed to a lot more lard than most American or German kids these days.  In addition to its ubiquitous use in cooking (most Hungarian recipes begin with frying onions in lard), a typical childrens' meal in Hungary is a slice of bread, smeared with lard and dressed with red onions and a dash of paprika.   As such, it was basically unavoidable.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Here's a guilty pleasure: China Miéville's latest novel, Kraken.  Among many other things, it's the big squid book that someone one "i" and an accent more than the famous author of a famous book about a big whale was bound to write and it's the author's long-overdue take on the whole cult'n'conspiracy-thriller genre, from Dan Brown on down, adapting an appropriately brisk diction to rush from a recognizable London by a serious of ever-more startling leaps of imagination and suspensions of disbelief to an ever-weirder revision of the city.  It begins in the preserved specimen jar collection of the Darwin Center at the left end of the Museum of Natural History (which is the closest thing to a cathedral for non-believers as the city has, and frames the story nicely for its dynamic between science and religion) and rapidly moves into parts of town more reminiscent of Miéville's UnLunDun or even the parallel cities of The City & The City or the unmatched weirdness of Perdido Street Station's New Crobuzon (yeah, disturbing urban environments are a Miéville specialty).

Here's a small sample that could serve as a description of Miéville's methods:

"I know, I know," Moore said. "Mad beliefs like that, eh? Must be some metaphor, right? Must mean something else?" Shook his head. "What an awfully arrogant thing. What if faiths are exactly what they are? And mean exactly what they say?"

"Stop trying to make sense of it and just listen," Dane said.

(Which, now that I've typed it out, strikes me as pretty good advice about much new music as well.) 

The best thing here, though, is the fact that Kraken is a comic novel, the only possible intelligent response to such a wooden genre and in the pair of killers-for-hire, Goss and Subby, Miéville has created his most frightening creatures yet. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Claque

At a concert last week featuring works by a handful of younger composers, a phalanx composed of friends-of-composer-X positioned themselves across the last row with the intention of providing the loudest possible acoustical approbation for the performance of a new work by amigo X. No problem there: bringing an ample number of claqueurs to a concert is an old and even semi-honorable tradition. Unfortunately, the members of this claque also decided to use their forces to provide the loudest possible acoustical disapprobations for works by composers Y & Z. This was not good form. Further, they were unrestrained in audible comments during the performances of pieces by Y & Z. This was even worse form. The pieces on the concert complemented, even amplified one another, so there was was no competition among them, no zero sum to be protected for the net bonus of composer X, and no one would have been in the least insulted had the entire team entered only for X's piece and waited out the rest of the concert at the bar.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Landmarks (45)

Guillaume de Machaut: Ma fin est mon commencement.  

I'm going to cheat here and let this little rondeau — with all of its play of multiple symmetries and self-similar constructive wit uniting text and tunes — stand in for the whole corpus of Machaut's music, because I came to know the whole surviving catalogue more or less at once and I'm attached to all of it, secular and sacred, monophonic and polyphonic, and must refuse leaving anything out.   It may be fairly argued that Machaut's musical style is not sufficiently distinct from the surviving music of his contemporaries, but none of his contemporaries, nor his immediate successors left a body of work comparable either in size or variety to Machaut's, and none, to my ear, was his match for the shape of his tunes or sensitivity of his ensemble textures. (And, of course, his musical work was a complement to his poetry.)      

The Machaut celebratory year of 1977 was an important one for me, as discovering Machaut's music showed that music research and performance could be complementary activities, and the combination of both activities was compositionally inviting.   A summer workshop in the mountains, with a collegium led by La Noue Davenport, was an exciting introduction to the rhythmic and tonal vigor of this music and an incredible contrast to the fare in high school band or choir.  Copying out scores by hand, with the ambition of getting friends to sing or play them, was an opportunity to gain fluency in all the c clefs and try to puzzle out the Medieval French, but most importantly, to discover, for the first time and from inside-out, how a style of music, and the formal or textural variants within that style, actually worked.   In the polyphony, especially, I was drawn to the great degree of freedom that voices could have between points of resolution or cadences, an experience marvelously echoed in the elaborating voices and instruments in Javanese gamelan music, Karawitan, which come together at seleh, targeted tones at the end of formal units.   All the elements of this style — the fixed forms, some syllabic, others melismatic, the cadential formulae, the use of accompanying tenors, the use of extended syncopations and hockets — all registered, deep, in my musical consciousness, and with this a certain aesthetic ambition, that music should be able to live both in the depths, in its construction, and flow, at its surface.  

Sunday, May 02, 2010

X is for Xenophile.

The New in The New Music immediately suggests an element of the unfamiliar, unusual, strange, foreign, or alien.  Sometimes this may indicate wholly novel materials, but mostly the novelty is in the deployment or arrangement of the materials (John Cage/N.O. Brown once again: syntax is the arrangement of the army).  Sometimes a rage for the new (Morse Peckham: Man's rage for chaos; biology, behavior, and the arts) is a form of criticism, a more-or-less explicit expression of dissatisfaction with existing states of affairs.  Sometimes this is an ethical judgment, other times this is simply fulfilling a need for variety.  We all have some need for variety: in music, in food, in clothing, in landscapes, in the arrangement of furniture in our living rooms. And, most likely, we have some need to manage a balance between variety and stability, between the unexpected and the predictable. (In his later years, Cage always wore the same kind of clothes, French worker's denim, so that he needn't think anymore about them.) Someone once told me that variety reminds us that we're alive, by inserting events into our lives, while repetition reminds us that we're still alive, and measures our lives by creating intervals between events.  Thus a passion for the new is not necessarily a discounting of the old, familiar, but can be a way of renewing our experience of the old, through ever-new contexts.

(N.B.: X is done, and without hiding it behind an "e" (exile, extreme, exotic), nor grabbing onto the musician's inevitable xylophone.)


Saturday, May 01, 2010

Johannes Fritsch

News comes that the composer Johannes Fritsch has died at 68 after a long illness.  His name is probably most familiar for his days as a member, usually playing viola, of Stockhausen's touring ensemble, but should be better known for his work as a composer, publisher, and teacher, succeeding Stockhausen at the Musikhochschule in Cologne and serving for decades, with his students including Volker Staub and Caspar Johannes Walter, two very good composers.  Fritsch was the founder of the Feedback Studio and Verlag, always billed as a cooperative but basically a one-man-show.  Initially focused on sharing resources for making electronic music (very much in the spirit of Ann Arbor's Cooperative Studio or the San Francisco Tape Music Center) and some concert presenting, the focus became publishing, both of performance materials and of a journal, the Feedback Papers, all produced in a cheerfully informal manner.   Fritsch focused on issues of acoustics and tuning (via Kayser and Partch) in his music, with his work in live-electronics and improvisation representing a gentler and more pragmatic approach to that he had experienced with his work with Stockhausen.  (Although he often got lumped into the category of Stockhausen's students, his own composition teachers were Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Gottfried Michael Koenig; Fritsch's ability to balance distance and respect in his relationship with Stockhausen was, as far as I know, unique.)   I did not know Fritsch well, but each time we met it was clear that his reputation as a kind, supportive, smart and elegant guy with open ears was spot-on.