Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tacet, non tacet.

Tacet, a new bilingual (French/English) review of experimental music has just put out its first, John Cage-centered issue. See more, here.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Are we even having a conversation?

I just listened to a 1957 radio discussion with Pierre Boulez and four Bay Area composers, Robert Erickson, Arnold Elston, Andrew Imbrie, and Jack Holloway from John Whiting's My KPFA website. The themes of the discussion run precisely into issues of continuity and coherence which were controversial then and continue to make music (and thinking about music) lively. Once again, Robert Erickson's down-to-earth but very smart way of talking about music was most impressive, the former Webern student Elston appeared most sympathetic to Boulez while Imbrie just wasn't buying it. Given the early date, the fact that a room full of musicians was straying into philosophical territories somewhat outside their professional comfort zones, some insecure moments (i.e. when Boulez couldn't recall Heidegger's name) and a presumed orientation towards a general listening public, I'm struck by the thought that a conversation like this, which once took place on an American free-to-air broadcast, probably couldn't happen today. At KPFA or another Pacifica station, certainly, where some social/political achievements of the new left — the (in itself, necessary) opening to a diversity of minority interests — led, in the zero sum game of sharing airtime available in a radio programming day, to shutting out a great deal of the programming, particularly any musics weighed down by any degree of connection to the classical tradition, even the most institutionally fragile of these musics, the new and experimental.* (Baby thrown out with the bathtub, you know?) In principle, the resources of the Internet ought to have restored some balance to this and, to a certain extent they have. I am, for instance, able to listen to this old broadcast anytime I want, and the offerings in online recordings, interviews, podcasts, articles, composers' or performers' or critics' webpages etc. are rich in real content. But are we really having serious public conversations (and productive disagreements) anymore about complex or subtle matters, connecting to the larger cultural and intellectual life, or are we, vulnerable to some extent due to our marginality, focused rather more on the pursuit of accessibility?**


* The Pacifica stations were VERY important for the reception of other "classical" musics neglected by the commercial classical stations, being pioneers, for example, in broadcasting early music or in composers once considered outside the canon. William Malloch, for example, of KPFA (and whose weekly analytical broadcasts were a more vital lesson in 19th and early 20th century music history than any I actually received in University), had a very important role in the Mahler renaissance. And then there are some real commissioning activities of the stations: from Cage's WBAI to Lou Harrison's Homage to Pacifica. What radio station in the US today is commissioning new pieces?

**You know what I'd really like to hear online? How about a conversation about modernity and music between Alex Ross and Charles Shere, two of our most important writers about music and two who have certainly though hard about that topic and taken home very different (if equally provisional) conclusions. And there is a huge number of composers in some wild pairings I'd like to hear converse uncensored and unplanned about technique, aesthetics, da bidniss of music, art, movies, politics, musical politics, cooking...

Monday, January 23, 2012

Advantage: Blogging

I've been struggling over the past few days to write an article for a (dead tree) academic journal. I was asked to do it by a friend and it's basically impossible to say no, no matter how unenthusiastic I am about the project. In particular, it's the expected form for an academic essay that has become burdensome, and provides some evidence that the blogging form, in all its informality and (most usually) brevity is a better fit for my particular (and godsknow, limited) skill set and temperament as a writer. I completely understand that a public, refereed article needs to be backed up by a certain amount of prosaic bulk and formality and a full set of citations (as well as permissions, when need be, for examples), but academic writing is just not my main gig (and in this case, not a paying gig, which is a real condition for those of us without day jobs in academe), I'm not getting compensated anywhere for that kind of completeness, and if someone really wants more explication and the full bibliography, they're more than welcome to email me for it. Mostly, with writing, I'm just eager to be done with it and go on to the next idea, to the next urgency, and in a blog I can pace myself, while with a journal article, I'm writing to someone else's schedule, which I'm happy to bend to for a commissioned composition but less happy for an article where the pay-off is just another line in my CV. The standard, well-formed essay format, the one you teethed on in high school and training-wheeled on in college, just doesn't fit every research project or opinion piece equally well and making it fit can be pedantic, when not a waste of paper and attention. More importantly, perhaps, as a composer, I think that the blogging format offers the opportunity to experiment with form, to be as laconic or obsessively complete as the writer like. And even though most bloggers don't taken advantage of these opportunities, it's damn sweet to know that they're there.

Friday, January 20, 2012

From a Diary: I:xvii

Distracting spaces.

I've been fortunate, for the past 12 years or so,* to have had workrooms that were, in all their homely clutter, well set up with everything needed to do all the mechanics of composing. The machinery and stationery and table tops and filing cabinets and bookshelves and all of my instruments (yes, that's a gamelan behind my chair), all within reach, and all more-or-less organized enough to be re-findable when stashed away. With computers at work, a big monitor (or two even) is useful, as are a good amplifier and nice speakers. I find a stable if not-too-comfortable chair is helpful, forcing one into a healthy working posture. Windows, too, are helpful, at the very least to bring some natural light into the dungeon or garret (the windows I had in Budapest, high in the hills, with a view of the parliament building and a suggestion of the Danube to one side and just the roof of Bartok's house, through the greenery, to the other side, went beyond helpful to well, inspirational. My present subterranean studio is less inspirational, but just as utilitarian)

But, as useful and practical as all of that equipment and furniture may be, it can all be a distraction. Sometimes it's better, Ithinks, to be less well-prepared, less well-organized, as the preparation organization itself has a tendency to start infecting methods and can, potentially, attach itself to the work itself.

So I've been finding myself dreaming lately about discovering another, heretofore unknown room in our house, an empty, or near-empty room. (When we were first married, and squeezed into 22 square meters, my wife and I often promised ourselves just such a big empty room; kids and the reality of real estate have long since intervened in that promise.) Big windows to the treeline and sky of course. Maybe a carpet on the floor (think Morton Feldman, think beached whales). Am I old enough to wish myself the all-too American excess of a lazy-z-boy? How about a hammock? Alas, our house is not going to expand anytime soon, and I don't have the resources to rent a secret atelier someplace (Duchamp's clandestine apartment where the Étant donnés was fashioned is the obvious model for me), but long walks with Lucky (my terrier mutt) and time spent in the library are useful recoveries of pre-compositional thinking spaces, and those unlimited dream spaces will have to do.

* Before then, I was making do with a desk in the corner of a room with some other principal purpose or a writing surface in a passageway that wasn't properly a room at all (my dissertation was written in an entryway) or even no desk or even pseudo-quasi-room at all, or even staking out a table in a library or other public space