Monday, November 19, 2012

The Origin of Table Manners

(This is the third in a series of items which begun with The Raw and The Cooked and continued with From Honey to Ashes).

When a rule of etiquette first appears in the historical record, it enters as a corrective, not yet a norm: an instruction to use a knife and a fork indicated that people were eating without the use of knives and forks; an injunction against unpleasant noises indicates that meals were once taken in the company of conspicuous sounds.

It's actually the other way 'round with composing.  Our rules of etiquette, found in treatises by Fux and Morley and Schenker and Hindemith and dozens of MacHoses and others even more deserving of obscurity, have to be read — if read at all — as invitations to misbehave: every rule represents a path not taken, but damn likely a path worth revisiting if we are at all to move forward.  The etiquette for table manners is all about ever-more narrowing the range of possible behaviors; the etiquette of composition, in contrast, is all about expanding the range of possible behaviors; the composer's task is to make a convincing case, within a piece of music, for doing something that was previously forbidden.


In the back of a used book shop I recently came across a copy of Heinz-Klaus Metzger's translation of Ernst Krenek's deceptively titled Studies in Counterpoint, a pamphlet from 1940 which was probably the most widely read introduction to 12-tone technique in the '40s and '50. (I had actually read the English original, from a copy borrowed from Claremont Public Library when I was in Junior High, and even produced a set of small pieces, "inventions" as Krenek styled them, which my band director seriously didn't like, preferring that I learn figured bass from his well-worn copy of the dreaded (but, to its credit, proto-algorithmic) MacHose.  Probably just as well.)

I believe that Krenek's little book was very important in transmitting just enough practical information about Schoenbergian technique into the community of working commercial composers that at least some aspects of the technique became permanent staples of the film music menu.  Suspense? Angst?  Krenek's little book had a usable formula for accompanying scenes of extreme emotional content.

Revisiting the Krenek after all these years is, as one might expect, a curious experience. To be honest, part of the curiosity comes from the vague familiarity of reading a book I encountered in English as a teenager now in German and with a more substantial exposure to the repertoire behind me.  But the larger curiosity comes from the sense that there is now nothing particularly urgent about  the 12-tone or serial projects and there is now substantial and useful distance in any re-reading.  In particular, it has become clear that Krenek was working at a now-distant juncture between method and style and that many of the "rules" he presents  (restricting the repetition of pitch classes to the same octave, for example), can emerge, with the benefits of hindsight, as much less essential  — when not altogether unnecessary — and deconstructing (if you'll pardon my po-mo) the theory to recover the underlying style (or vice versa) is not uninteresting and — may be/kind of/sort of/possibly/absolutely not — of compositional interest.


In contrast, Henry Brant's Textures and Timbres: An Orchestrator's Handbook needs no deconstruction as he is absolutely upfront and candid about the nature and limits of his project, which is restricted to balancing and mixing instruments.  His recipes for homogenous and well-balanced combinations can be used as is, or, perhaps more productively, as negative examples.  For me, the greatest utility of these recipes often comes less in following them exactly than in figuring out where they can be varied, whether substantially or in detail. So I have a bunch of bletting medlars in my kitchen, but no useful medlar recipes.... haul out the old copy of The Joy of Cooking and I look for variations:  medlar in place of pumpkin in pie, in place of banana in nut bread, and in place of persimmon in pudding.  Likewise, Brant's cookbook provides similar openings for innovation in the orchestra.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Discipline and Belief

So, I've initiated a project — the details of which will be hush-hush until the end of January — which involves at least 18 composers and an equal number of ground basses.  For my own contribution, I decided to compose first and notate later, getting the music I wanted in my ear, mind, hands, and tongue (it's wind music) before committing it to paper or monitor, as a way of increasing discipline in a musical environment that is, for me, both so rich and so familiar that going on auto pilot and just writing something out was simply too easy. (Sounding easy, which I might want, is not the same as composed easy, which I don't necessarily want.)  At the same time, knowing that I was going to commit some notes to paper put a powerful  — and powerfully useful — constraint on my paper- and screenless composing, in that I was not going to accept just some more noodling-around-out-of-habit improvisation.  When it came time to notate, this discipline had turned into a serious commitment to each note, a need, even, to believe in each note before drawing it on a page or clicking it into the data file.  Perhaps most symptomatic of this is the fact that I couldn't bring myself to copy and paste anything, not even the repetitions of the ground bass.  If that ostinato is going to remain obstinate, then I damn well want to mean it, and if that ground bass starts to get a little less grounded, then I'm taking full responsibility.

Thursday, November 08, 2012


Christopher Shultis has a terrific post about interpreting John Cage's work for amplified plant materials, including a pod rattle and, typically, cacti, Child of Tree, here.  "Interpreting", in this context, means not (or, at least not in a conventional sense) following a score and eliciting some expressive content, but, on the basis of a set of verbal remarks, assembling the instrumentation and amplification, developing playing techniques, and devising a playing score, a project which begins with an apparently very open situation and develops, through practice, into a distinctive musical work with real constraints and recognizable features.  Above and beyond the attractive richness and gentleness of the piece for listeners I don't think that it can be emphasized enough how much Child of Tree is enhanced by the project-like character of its score, drawing players into discovery of its qualities, extents and limits.

The experimental tradition offers a wealth of pieces which invite or even require that players go beyond the usual level of commitment, research, discovery, development and lots of rehearsal.  Pieces which require that players find or build new instruments or significantly alter or adapt existing instruments (or voices.)  Pieces which require players to realize, within composer-defined processes or rules, scores for their own specific use.  (In my experience, this is also very much like the experience of playing early music from original notation and/or with instruments with historically interrupted performance practice traditions.)  Project-like pieces can be found in the catalogs of composers like Cage, Harrison or Cowell, or cued pieces of Wolff, the acoustic explorations begun with Lucier, and very many pieces in the verbal score tradition.  (Yes it can also be a project if one decides to read Kant alongside Beethoven, the transcendentalists for Ives or Mallarmé with Boulez, and yes, many of Stockhausen's mid-career pieces were so thickly distinctive as to require a similar level of attention.)  I guess the word that belongs here is "engagement", though which the player and piece become intimate. And while audience may not be party to that intimacy, it's been my experience that audiences can reliably recognize an engaged performance as a qualitatively better performance. And while many a Cage work will ultimately require a kind of detachment in playing (or listening, for that matter), I suspect that you can only reach that detachment through deep and sustained engagement.       

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Signal & Noise

With the current election, many Americans are getting lessons in statistics these days, and the focus has obviously been on trying to elicit strong signals from noisy information sources.  Many composers also use statistical methods in our work, but it strikes me that the intention is subtly different, as it's more our interest to introduce noise into otherwise orderly circumstances.