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.)