Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Step one: merge. Step two: downsize. Step three: export production.

Sounds like some music administrators are ready to repeat some of the business practices that have made the past two decade just so peachy: American Music Center and Meet The Composer, Two of America’s Leading New Music Organizations, Announce Merger Plans. While there may be some organizational synergies to be had, it's always healthier to have some diversity and competition among those connected to commissioning, awards, publicity, and any other brownie buttons to be handed out.

The one bit of good news in this comes in the subtitle — American Composers Forum Will Assume Membership and Professional Development Services From American Music Center — it was never a very good idea to organize a "national" music information office as a membership organization and it's an even better idea, in terms of both costs and focus, to have the national professional services organization somewhere out in the middle of the country.

Monday, March 28, 2011


Ambiguous parameters
Memory & Prescience
Task & Practice
Metric, non-metric, ametric
Precision & Rubato
Necessary & Arbitrary
Echoes and Shadows
Figure & Ground
Continuity, Line, Narrative
Natural & Artificial
Pleasure & Pain
Signal & Noise
Calculation — Choice — Chance
System & State
Center & Extreme
Amplification & Compression
Live & Recorded
Real Time, Musical Time & Zero Time

Saturday, March 19, 2011

An Exercise in Modern Usage

All the fuss these days about the new Modernist Cuisine volumes is an invitation to ponder that term "modern" in each of its variants (-ist and -ism and -ernity etc.) and with all of the familiar appendages (anti-, post-, pre, and prae- etc.). Let us review: Modern is clean and lean and clear except when it's messy, thick and dense. Modern is slow and low and empty except when it's swift, sky-scraping and full. Modern is both high tech, knowingly low tech, usually appropriate tech, but sometimes extravagantly tech. Modern is fresh and local except when it's well-preserved and long-traveled, often international. Modern is both futurist and primitive, forward-looking and nostalgic, cold as ice and warm as a pup. Modern is a walk in the wood and a ride in a jet-pack. Modern is atomic and anti-atomic. Modern is dissonance and noise except when it's the same time consonant and concord. Modern is specific except when it's generic, expertly handcrafted except when it's mass-manufactured, one-of-a-kind except when it's infinitely reproducible. Modern is slick, glossy black & white, but also fuzzy-edged, matte and polychromatic. Modern is rough and complex, except when elegantly simple. Modern is ambiguous and ironic, except when it's straightforward and earnest. Modern is knowing when one is acting (or eating) archaic. Modern is all ornament, except when it's plain as can be. Modern is going to extremes as well as focusing on the medium and mediocre. Modern is the 20th century except when it's now the 21st. Modern is now, except when it's that modern back then or this modern up ahead. Post-modern is not modern except when it happens to be modern. Modern is comic except when it's not. And so on (except, of course, when modern is non-sequitor.) With so much contradiction, is the term at all useful? (Have you ever noticed that when you write a word — like "modern" in this item — often enough, it begins to appear strange, misspelled, unfamiliar, even foreign?) Actually, I think modern can be useful, if one is prepared to live with the contradiction, to see it as a term that itself thrives within fields of contention and, ultimately, a term whose value or utility ultimately dependent more on local context and application than universal applicability. And, unless you're prepared to back up your use of the term with sufficient context, be prepared for it to signify nothing at all. Which, in itself, is just about as modern as you can get.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Godzilla the warm and cuddly

One short question: the Japanese series of Godzilla (Gojira) films (1954- ) began with the title character a mutant monster product of atomic detonations, a horrific metaphor for atomic weapons. However, over the course of the series, Godzilla become more of a positive, heroic figure. To what degree was this metamorphosis in character propaganda for the "peaceful use of atomic power" as opposed to simply creating an impetus for the continuation of the series?

Force majeure; Better: silence

I just wanted to catch up on the news, so I turned the TV onto the German-language 24 hour station N-24, only to discover that most of the reportage over the disasters in Japan were rolling features underlaid with the cheapest stock background music, unnecessarily over-dramatizing a story which damn well needs to be reported with only the best facts the reporters can assemble. While all reporting is going to be manipulative in one way or another, isn't it an objective of journalism to either reduce the level of manipulation or at least to be honest about it? AFAIC, this use of background music is an altogether unnecessary abuse of both the viewing audience and of music itself.


Great natural disasters seem to trump even the wildest of musical imaginations. Handel's late oratorio Theodora failed to win audiences in part due to an earthquake a week or so before its premier in 1750. John Cage long tried to write a piece, based on the ten 100-letter thunderclaps which punctuate Finnegans Wake, which was to involve electronic modifications of instrumental and vocal sounds and to be "more like going to a thunderstorm than to a concert". Although some of the ideas ended up in the Lecture on the Weather and Roaratorio, the piece seems to have defeated Cage. Ligeti tried over many years, with plenty of mathematical and computational assistance, to create a proper orchestral Tempest with which to begin a long-planned opera of the same name and he gave up as well.


In a time like this, in which a terrible catastrophe, indeed chain of catastrophes, preoccupies heart and mind, the need to respond in some musical way is simply blunted by the magnitude of the event. Not even my greatest conceits about my skills as a composer can disguise the fact that I haven't the talent to match the demands, the scale, the dynamics, the horror of the moment. A lament? Yes, perhaps, but later, when there is some concrete sense of the nature and dimensions of what has been lost. But an earthquake, tidal wave, or tempest of my own making? No, the shakes and splashes of my own music are necessarily inadequate responses. Better: silence.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Terry Gilliam to direct The Damnation of Faust

This is either the best idea in the world or one of those terrible ideas of such epic dimension that it, nevertheless, should not be missed. Damnation, that marvelous not-opera not-symphony, is a work that, AFAIC, demands the companionship of some visual extravagance; Gilliam has a remarkable track record with neither-fish-not-fowl genres and is no slouch in the extravagance department; connecting the dots between the extravagant and difficult figures of Berlioz and Gilliam (and, okay, we can throw Goethe in as well) is one of those startling moves that seems obvious in retrospect. Let's hope that the producers are up to the demands of both director and composer (yes, Norman, you do need 8 to 10 harps to have adequate presence (not volume, presence) in the finale.) (I wish the video had more visual information.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

To publish or not to publish (1)

Colin Holter has a post at the New Music Box noting Terry Riley's decision to now publish his scores through G. Schirmer. From what I understand, this decision comes out of Riley's preference, at this point in career and life, to get away from the everyday burdens of running his own publishing operation. In the far past, Riley made some of his scores rather widely available — with the original LP of In C including the score and Olson III available in a well-known anthology — but in general he held onto the music he performed himself or reserved for other musicians with whom he had a close, personal working arrangement and only in recent years committed the bulk of his notated works to his own publishing enterprise.

The decision for a composer not to be published for so many years by a conventional publisher has both practical and artistic grounds. Practically, the composer keeps all of his or her publishing and license fees (as opposed to forking over half to a publisher) and maintains a better overview of performances and subsequent fee collections, including exclusive performance rights (which are not unimportant when a composer makes a large part of his or her income from performing his or her own work; the whole issue of "cover" recordings is included here as is the question of a work's market saturation.) Artistically, it allows the composer considerably liberty to continue to define the contents, character, and performance practice of the work that a fixed and sold score might well discourage.

(At the end of Holter's post, he asks specifically about the works of La Monte Young. Having worked with Young in a publishing capacity before my time in Budapest, I can say a couple of things. The first is that although Young's control over access to his score may have frustrated many, Young has given a lot of thought about the matter and has had some very concrete experiences — many of them appallingly disrespectful towards both him and the work itself — with all aspects of the question and come to quite rational decisions about the optimal dissemination of the performance materials, based on a realistic assessment of the market for his work, his need to make an income for himself from his work, and his desire to maintain artistic control over work for which he has unique expectations — no shared programming, performance in specific physical environment, minimum durations and rehearsal periods, his own (or selected colleagues') participation in rehearsal, etc. — and which he clearly understands as very much still in-progress as both compositions and performance practices. Rest assured that Young has long-term plans for all of his works.)

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Lute and the Incongruent Bicycle Bell

Reading Errol Morris's new blog series has reminded me of my own introduction to Thomas Kuhn, in an seminar on the Sociology of Knowledge in Santa Cruz taught by Harry Eastmond, an extraordinary figure, a lecturer both more sharper and more animated and deeply funny than nearly anyone I've ever encountered, Barbados-born, seldom without sunglasses, driver of very fast cars, who took his office hours at the Space Invaders game in a downtown disco, and who was not to last very long in academia, even at the supposedly progressive Santa Cruz. I was a freshman and clearly over my head with the material, but I can still vividly recall how, eventually, the course turned on questions of objective and subjective constructions of knowledge (the ever-controversial Berger/Luckman classic, The Social Construction of Reality, came into play as well), when I had the minor revelation that musicians negotiate this territory all the time. Take loudness. We can haul out a decibel meter and measure absolute loudness, from a particular source, within a particular space, etc., and this kind of information is useful. It's useful to know that a trombone can output so many decibels. It's useful to know how a room responds to such inputs. But subjective differences in loudness can be even more musically relevant: if I have a very quiet stream of music — say, a series of chords played, pianissimo, by a lute —, interrupting this stream with, say, a single stroke on a bicycle bell will be heard as startling, perhaps devastatingly, loud, although the absolute loudness of that bell is not great. There are so many elements that go into the perception of such a musical event, including the very incongruity of the interrupting bell, that even if we were to come up with some formula for adding in objective measures of all these elements, the efficiency of the subjective perception in both approximating the objective and adding in the strictly intuitive seems to me to trump the objective measurement in both acuity and utility. But the main point is that, as musicians, we have it both ways, objectively and subjectively, all the time, and the musical experience is none the worse for it.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Ars Subtilor

How many times have you heard something like this:

But can this truly be the music of the future, or simply an interesting style practiced by a splinter group of passionate musicians who care about this difficult and expensive form of high-end composing?

Now note this:

"But can this truly be the food of the future, or simply an interesting style practiced by a splinter group of passionate chefs who care about this difficult and expensive form of high-end cooking?"

from a review of the new six volume cookbook, Modernist Cuisine.

Taking Pythagoras Down A Notch or Two (or some incommensurable part thereof)

Errol Morris's new blog series is well worth reading in its entirety, but all musicians with a theoretical interest will especially like part three, here.

Insertions and Deletions

This page is a fascinating record of the editing process of a David Foster Wallace piece recently published in The New Yorker. (The piece, Backbone, is highly recommended as an example of Wallace at his most obsessive.) Curiously, my fascination for the working processes of writers — I'm perpetually getting serenely lost in all those volumes of Joyce's notes, sketches, drafts, and proofs — doesn't extend much to the work of composers, and I've more or less given up on maintaining my own sketches and drafts. I used to love to puzzle through things like this — having worked intensely with manuscript materials by a diverse collection of composers including Machaut, Ockeghem, Lully, Ives, Partch, Cage — but found myself soon imitating methods too much for my own comfort. (Some scores should carry a warning label: Analyzing music other than your own can be infectious!) Perhaps the translation of methods from one medium into another involved in following a writer (or a writer/artist like Duchamp or Klee) provides a useful distance.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Orchestration Oddjob

In an idle pause last night I swept once through the eight TV channels we receive and landed on the German first channel's broadcast of Goldfinger (1964), of all things, a movie I remember from my childhood (watched, IIRC, from the backseat of my parents' 1960 Pontiac Tempest in one of those Southern California drive-ins that has long since been replaced by a track of condominiums or a strip mall.) The famous music — the Bond and Goldfinger themes and their direct derivatives — was well-impressed in my memory, but somehow I had completely forgotten the other soundtrack music (by John Barry), not directly connected to the famous tunes (and only tenuously connected to them by chromatic character and the emphasis on winds) and much of it a- or non-tonal. There is a common argument made against non-tonal music that it has never secured any wide acceptance. But bits of film music like this are indisputable evidence against that argument: the music, while — with the exception of some superb writing for solo contrabassoon* — not particularly sophisticated, is perfectly functional. While I personally have little interest in effective film music (and, by extension, effective films), it's clear that a- or non-tonal music can be extremely effective in supporting a whole array of settings, moods, or situations in which some form of common practice tonal music will probably not work well and may well not work at all.


* I have to really wonder how that contrabassoon sounded from the little drive-in loudspeaker that hung from the car window...

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Palling Around

Observation: Once a composer starts making music for anyone other than her- or himself, that composer becomes a community organizer.

Oscar rant obligato

(First and last Academy Award-themed item on this blog.) I generally side with Robert Bresson that the best movie music is diegetic — made by sources (on-or off-screen) understood to be part of the scene itself rather than an external accompaniment — and the handful of non-digetic scores I like are few and far between, so I've had to learn to not listen to scores. I do listen closely to sound editing and mixing, however, and find, as a composer, that the sound design is often the most interesting, subtle, and complex part of a film. As far as I'm concern, last year presented some classic examples of mainstream sound design done both very well and very poorly, particularly in the mix. But my ideas of what works or doesn't in a sound track seem to go against the grain: Inception took both sound Oscars this year, but boy, I thought it had a dog's breakfast of a mix. The look of the film was great, but there was almost no differentiation or detail to the sound mix, the leaden Zimmer score (how leaden? it manages to drain all life out of some perfectly good Philip Glass-y turn-around enharmonic chord sequences) was both too continuous and too dominant in the mix which, as a whole, was too dense in the lower registers. While I suppose that an acoustically oppressive sound design might have been chosen for some psychological resonance with the storyline, I think that there are alternatives which would have been even more effective. In fact, if the visuals were not so attractive, the relentless, all-boom, no bite of the sound would had me me walking out mid-film. (And that's saying a lot: I have managed to sit all the way through O.C. and Stiggs. Twice.) On the hand, Ren Klyce & Co.'s mix for The Social Network is a superb example of getting the sound design right. It works without calling overt attention to itself but strongly reinforces the narrative, whether in creating discrete acoustic spaces onstage (the isolated character of these spaces commenting, perhaps, ironically on the whole network topos) or in punctuating the flow of the film with a diverse set of elements, not least of which is the rhythm of the lead actor's speech. (Quite how impressive that the computer screen-based social network of the film was conveyed in the film most vividly by the sound track.)