Friday, November 22, 2013

A Rage for Complexity

A friend of mine, in one of those threads elsewhere about "where I was when I heard about the assassination of John F. Kennedy fifty years ago", remembered his mother coming up the stairs in their home, in tears, shouting that "they've killed the President."   I don't think that this was so unusual, in the first moments of assimilating the news, as vague as the information was at that point, to jump straight to the assumption that it had been some conspiracy, a sophisticated act planned and carried out by a group of villains, representing some organization or consortium of organizations (rogue government agencies, political opponents, big business interests, organized crime, international agents...), rather than the work of a lone gunman, hence an automatic presumption "they've killed" instead of the much more probable "someone killed".  I think that this was because a conspiracy gave the event more sophistication and more complexity than the crazed action of one nut with a gun, and that this sophistication and complexity was somehow more appropriate to the weight of the assassination.  Oddly and persistently, it gave a degree of meaning and even dignity to the event that was missing from the single shooter narrative, which would have reduced the story to a near random event, and one of near-meaninglessness.  And we've had fifty years of this*.

There is often a kind of rage for complexity born out of this need to find more meaning in things or events. And it, in turn, often leads to finding complexity when there is actually very little and, conversely, a reluctance, if not inability to find the complexity in phenomena which appear externally to be clear and apparently simple.  As examples of the former, I find a lot of self-identified "complex" music which does may have a densely notated, highly variegated score, but results in masses of sound from which meaningful details cannot be retrieved and also, via the sheer volume of information, incidents of cohesive relationships which are actually accidental, not evidence of depth.  And from the latter, I think it is often lost in the slick attractive surface of a work using minimal means in one or more dimension, that those reduced means have been chosen explicitly for their capacity to frame or underline, or otherwise make more audibly articulate details of great subtlety and complexity (La Monte Young calls it "getting inside a sound.")  In the radical music, never assume that a "complex" composer actually produces significant levels of complexity and never assume that a "minimal" composer has not. This is clearly an area in which the radical music productively plays with the perception of trees vis a vis forests (and vice versa) and also in which not only the ratio of signal to noise is in play,it's not always clear what is signal and what is noise. Some signals are inherently noisy. Some noises make useful signals. Deal with it.

* I can't help but point to Errol Morris's new short video about Josiah “Tink” Thompson and the photographic evidence from Dallas.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Following Rules

The filmmaker Errol Morris: "I've my own personal definition of art, which is: Set up a series of arbitrary rules and then follow them slavishly." (Source.)

As a lifelong player of games (cards, mostly, poker in particular, but I've been enjoying the current chess championships as an observer (never having been the least bit good at playing the game, I did go through an Edgar Rice Burroughs and Martin Gardner-inspired adolescent phase of designing chess variants — boards with alternative geometries, pieces with alternative moves, more than two players in teams and alliances, uneven distributions of pieces and real estate, alternating moves in patterns other than black-white-black-white etc.)), I am fascinated both with the consequences of playing according to a fixed set of rules and with the possible consequences when even the slightest variations in those rules comes into play. There is a real thrill here at the possibility of a single grain of sand moved slightly giving rise to completely different universes. This thrill is aesthetic, and I find it in every piece of music that thrills me.

It used to be the case, in composing, that I would set up my rules in advance of composition and then keep strictly to them.  Nowadays, although I believe that I work just as strictly in my pieces, I don't always begin with all the rules laid out in advance. Instead, I let them emerge as problems and possibilities arise and then, deciding on a rule, stick with it.  This strikes me as more in line with the way that social and political worlds actually work.  Even if you start out with some formal constitutional arrangement, whether minimal or maximal in scope and detail, something is either left out, or gotten completely wrong, or some unforeseen or even completely unimagined configuration arises demanding substantial decisions on the spot.  And that process of dynamic decision making,  requiring the near-spontaneous articulation or clarification of the problems and possibilities can be a compelling activity in its own right.  The presence of a set of rules won't guarantee that a piece (and they certainly don't make a society) will work automatically, indeed at all — and indeed, the most immediate thing a rule may define is often only its violation, not its successful implementation —, but they can create structures and opportunities to make it work with far less anxiety than operating from brute force.

This past year has been one spent more with experimentation, and rule-based experimentation at that, than with producing musical scores with the shiny veneer of the well-finished.  For example, I've made a number of small pieces — amateur pieces for friends, most of them not for publication — for solo instruments based on the rhythmic and sonic patterns and structures of poetic forms (sonnets, sapphics, rondeaus, limericks etc.) which have introduced some musically potent new ideas about local and global rules into my music. And yes, the play of composing (as Lou Harrison put it) is very much here as well. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

NO IDEAS BUT IN THINGS: the composer Alvin Lucier

Viola Rusche and Hauke Harder's film about Alvin Lucier, NO IDEAS BUT IN THINGS has finally been released on DVD by Wergo.  This a beautiful, spacious work of film making, with the single most breathtaking direct cut in any film I know.  Wergo's page is here.  A web site dedicated to the film is here.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

My Harmonielehre

In the summer between finishing my MA and starting work on a PhD,  thus temporarily without academic attachments, I wrote the eight-minute-and-change score that might be my first grown-up piece, a Passacaglia for chamber orchestra.  It's only been read-through once, and that didn't go as well as I would have liked, and I'm not altogether enthusiastic about pushing it for performance rather than more recent music, but it was a milestone for me in terms of identifying a personal sound or style.  This was the first opportunity to work out the terms and possibilities of the "dysfunctional" or "not-yet-tonal" voice leading style I would call my own, my personal Harmonielehre. 

(I don't think this is an unusual practice for composers.  Many of us go through some phase of major theory-making before building a catalog of compositions which use (and, eventually, disabuse) the theories produced. It's like working in pair of new shoes until they fit far too well.  I had certainly spent many years by that point in time trying to reconcile a long and deep study of musical intonation with the temporal conditions of a real music with counterpoint and harmonies played by real voices and instruments in real time. Particularly impressive to me in this regard are Harry Partch, Jim Tenney, and Clarence Barlow.  In retrospect, however, I think I was most directly spurred on by the example of Jo Kondo, who identified his Threadbare Unlimited for string ensemble as his own Harmonielehre.)

This Passacaglia has a repeating core melody, but it's not (at least not always) the bass line, rather one of three inter-twining lines in a continuity that sits mostly in the middle register. And this melody is not fixed in length, but expands through interpolated tones.  The piece is in 3/2 time and the prevailing texture could be thought of as a species of counterpoint conspicuously left out of Fux: each voice plays a series of dotted wholes, staggered by half-notes, creating double suspensions.  The treatment of consonance and dissonance (and everything useful in-between) is my own: voices lead but are not necessarily followed; the presence of tonality can be suggested by local emphases on small collections of tones; spectrum-like arrangements of harmonies can form a local optimum but music doesn't move in continuous optima...  I do expand the dotted wholes and overlap some statements, creating denser harmonies, but the basic texture remains this staggered three-voice pattern,  the instrumentation varying from changing colors with every tone to more homogeneous scorings (yes, Webern's Op. 1 is in the genetics of this piece, too.) All of this is done with the ad hoc mixture of system and spontaneity that still operates in my work. Written in Morro Bay, where my grandparents lived and an uncle owned a wonderful bakery, I can't help but think of this music as Californian in character: both substantial and eccentric, cool but caring.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Heavy Blogging, Heavy Reviewing

In case you don't know it, Stephen Soderberg's blog Essays & Endnotes is one of the best things going of late, if you have an interest in the some of the possible relationships between notes and numbers.  Steven shares my enthusiasm for perfect shuffles, but takes it well into mathematical territory outside my modest expertise.  Ultimately, this is all about how the workings of simple systems can create lively music. Recommended for people who like the music of Babbitt or Krenek, but also those who like that of Tom Johnson.  Stephen is on a small break from blogging at the moment, so it's a perfect opportunity to catch up with some very long threads.

Also this:  the second part of Franklin Cox's virtuoso take-down of Taruskin's  is now online at the Search Journal for New Music and Culture.  While I have a handful of tiny quibbles  (i.e. I can't quite agree to identify Benjamin Boretz as a "formalist" (a point which is somewhat ironic in this context, given Boretz's very explicit turn from a formalist program, culminating perhaps with the treatment of Sleeping Beauty in his Meta-Variations), I think Cox is very solid here in his criticsm of Taruskin on both matters of musicological evidence and opinion.

Friday, October 25, 2013


Let me call attention to this video  of the late South Indian vocalist K.V. Narayanaswamy.  I believe that I've praised KVN (as he was known) in these parts before, as quite possibly the finest musician I've ever heard live (at the very least, on a short list with Carlos Kleiber.*)  If you're not familiar with Karnatic music, just pay attention to the small details, the gamakas or ornaments in the melodic line, which are functional within each Raga, so that the movement between particular tones in the mode is associated with particular gamakas, which can involve oscillations between tones. slides to and from tones, and subtle intonation. KVN executes these beautifully, but even more, he projects these with elegant hand gestures (start around 17:30 for some of the most expressive movements), which are too individual and intuitive to be considered systematic or formal in any way, but yet so consistent and clear within his own performances to be thought of as merely casual.  The music, indeed all South Indian music, has a strong extemporized component, but the relationship of voice to hand here is not impromptu, but integral to a powerfully worked-out and complex rhetorical art that is also and immediately expressive.

* As long as we're talking elegant gestures, if you don't know the black and white pit footage of Kleiber conducting Tristan in  Bayreuth in the early '70s, you definitely ought to.  Kleiber uses his whole body in a way that ought to be extravagant, but he's performing to an audience who cannot see him, and in many viewings, I've increasingly become convinced that not a single gesture or movement is wasted.  Ecstatic, yes, extravagant, no.  

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Melodies in the Marketplace that is Tonality

A small thought experiment. Read this lay-person friendly article about the complementary work of two of the recent Sveriges Riksbank Economics prize winners, Fama and Shiller, and then summarize it in your head, substituting for "market", "tonality", and for "securities prices", "melody."  The fit isn't precise (do we identify final tones in the tonic as dividends?), but I think you'll get a useful charge out of the exercise, particularly with regard to the questions of anticipation — which would predict some recurrent directionality — and random fluctuation — which would go along with melodic variety.

I don't want to push this any further than is warranted, but I have the suspicion that had economists been thinking in terms of tonality rather than markets in goods, services or securities, then they wouldn't have doddled about too long with Efficient Markets Theory. Efficiency may play a role in other aspects of music making, but a good, distinctive tune rarely works efficiently; indeed, for all the conservative tendencies that appear frequently in melodies (i.e. what goes up must come down, skips return by steps in the opposite direction, etc), the best tend to enjoy their eccentricities and extravagances.  Modeling this with a mixture of goal-oriented directionality, representing the habits and, when present, constraints of a tonal system and random fluctuation, representing composerly flights of imagination, is a reasonable point of departure.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Williams Mix, re-mixed

When John Cage composed Williams Mix for eight tracks (yielding potentially 16 simultaneous layers) of magnetic tape in 1952, he wrote a score detailing graphically the precise orders and shapes of the thousands of segments of tapes that were to be spliced together from libraries of material categorized as  city, country, electronic, manually produced, wind, and "small" sounds.  Cage and his colleagues in the Project for Magnetic Tape took most of a year to assemble the complete piece.  Although the score existed in published form the composer did not anticipate further realizations.  However, with the benefit of digital technology, it has been realized via detailed reading and analysis by Tom Erbe, in multiple (and, potentially, indefinitely many) versions, which you can hear here.*

Although there is obviously considerable variation possible in the material content of Williams Mix, I'm going to go out on a limb and assert that there is definitely a shared and distinctive sound quality common to Cage's electronic and tape music. It is direct in character, sharp edged, with something of the flavor of documentary film.  It is edited, mediated, and shaped, but not made directional, effective, or smoothed out.  The continuity from moment to moment is jumpy but not urgent, and over longer stretches of time, much more coherent than one would expect. And these qualities persist whether the sound sources are conventionally musical (as in Imaginary Landscape Nr. 5), predominantly speech (as in Rozart Mix), or representing an environmental diversity as here in Williams Mix

* There is also a cleaned-up version of Cage's original realization of Williams Mix by Larry Austin, to which Austin has appended his own variations, each using more restricted sets of sound categories, generated by his own program Williams [re]Mix[er].

Monday, September 16, 2013

Reductive, a process not a style

Robert Irwin: "I went through a reductive process, which was misidentified as being minimalism. Minimalism had become destilled into a style that had about it a kind of finality in regards to the work not having content and essentially existing on its own. I started out with all the same presumptions as everyone else, all the same baggage. But I found there were just too many things in my paintings, things that did not contribute enough to justify their being there. So I made the simplest assumptions: everything in a painting either works for you, or by its mere presence it works against you. So I started editing my work, taking out what was really not crucial or critical to it."   (in Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries, p. 49.)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Atonal oder tonal?

I recently followed a thread online somewhere about one of those monstrously dense total chromatic pieces associated with the New Complexers* and the question came up of whether or not segments or fragments found here or there which could be articulated and heard as resolving onto conventional tonal templates — triads, seventh chords, alterations of these, sequences or progressions of these, etc. — could then, and if so, ought to be heard as 'tonal' although the prevailing atmosphere of the piece was — for better or worse (and yes, some participants in thread wished to jetison the term altogether with some argument (and a reasonable one, though I disagree) about its impossibility) — 'atonal.'  

I happen to think that it's possible to have a stretch of music that is atonal in the sense of its not being parseable as belonging to a particular key-centered tonality.  To get there would require an even distribution of the possible pitches such that samples of any reasonably large size would tend to have the same net content.  James Tenney's ergodic concept is spot on, here, and the classical Princetonian 12-tone technique could come very close, but there is an inevitable rub and that's the fact that (a) our auditory nervous system doesn't take in every collection of pitches thrown at them with indifference as to the qualities of the relationships between tones and (b) most of experiences with music are with music that privileges particular tonal relationships and/or gives otherwise constrains their use.  The phenomenon of sensory consonance is a real physiological one (evolutionarily piggybacked with some likelihood on speech perception), and configurations of pitches which fall into sensorially consonant relationships will be distinguished from those which don't.  The strictures among the early adaptors of Schoenbergian 12-tone technique included an avoidance of octaves and major/minor triads, possibly from the insight (inhearing?) that these would assert themselves acoustically from other configurations, defeating the atonal ideal. 

There is a story about John Cage, then an editor of New Music Edition, meeting Milton Babbitt with great enthusiasm to talk about how Babbitt had "broken the rules" and used major and minor triads in his Three Compositions for Piano (1947) which Cage had then recommended for publication.  Cage's enthusiasm for a neutral approach to the natural affects of musical intervals can be understood in the context of his own early works in which had used a 25-tone collection, thus rejecting the principle of octave equivalency found in the more orthodox 12-tone techniques of the time.  Babbitt reported being amused at Cage's enthusiasm, for it appeared to be emphasizing an aspect of his musich which he had heard as incidental, as his work with 12-tone technique was as much an auditional practice as a compositional one, and that auditional practice was predicated on treating intervallic and chordal arrangements as distinct but with equal structural compentency. (This would lighten up considerably in Babbitt's later music, as a more playful approach to the nature and nurture of pitch relations appears allowing at times even the prominent foregrounding of local materials that evoked tonal music.)  I don't think that we have come very much further from this standoff between Cage and Babbitt, the first with a form of music-acoustical realism, the second a species of idealism or platonism, but I do expect that there's still considerable charge to be found and heard in the very distance between these positions.

* I believe that the work in question was by Michael Finnissy, but I won't bet the house on it and the following notes don't ride on it.

Stone's Style

I heard a beautiful set by Carl Stone Tuesday evening.  Stone provided an essential element in my musical education (and, presumably that of other musically precocious youths in SoCal) during his stint as music director at KPFK, the Pacifica radio station in L.A..  Among the programs most important to me, he was responsible for the first American broadcast of the music of Jo Kondo, the then mint-new recording of Einstein on the Beach, as well as works by Cage, Reich, and Lou Harrison.  I remember literally climbing a tree in order to get KPFK's signal up in the mountains at Idyllwild (where I was a summer music camp counselor) so I could hear the live broadcasts from New Music America in San Francisco.  Later, I got to know Carl a bit while he was himself co-director (with Joan LaBarbara) of New Music America in Los Angeles, a truly remarkable festival.

(KPFK had a remarkable series of music directors with Stone and his two predecessors, David Cloud and William Malloch; Malloch, in particular, was a virtuoso in explaining the art of musical interpretation, with his documentaries, in particular on Mahler, Nikisch, and Stravinsky, still essential listening.  Tragically, "serious" music programming has essentially been eliminated from the KPFK offerings.)

But, above and beyond his radio work and other organizational engagements and entanglements, it's been Carl's work as a composer that has kept my attention, and done so, now for more than three decades, vicariously following his moves from LA to San Francisco, and, for the last decade or so, to Japan. Though I've followed his music via recordings, I hadn't heard Stone play live since the '80s and I was struck first this last evening by the continuity with his earlier work.  Sure, the technology has changed — in the mid-80s, it required some big analog boxes, now it's mostly done with just a laptop — but the basic procedures he uses are very much a constant: sample, delay, loop with accumulated changes, modulate one source by another.  He's just gotten better at them: more focused, more resourceful, more tonally clear, altogether more virtuosic.  In particular, Stone's sound design has acquired a unique depth.  His was always a clean sound, but it has become much sharper, tactictly using silence as a rhythmically articulative element (and thus avoiding the trap of unbroken continuity heard in too much live electronic music), and his use of stereo placement is disciplined and uncanny, also using space as a powerfully articulative element in his prevailing contrapuntal textures.

Stone's music is based on samples of existing music and, here too, the continuity is great. His sources were and are always superb, whether using art music or music coming from popular as well as unashamedly kitschig repertoire.  From twenty-some years ago, I remember his samples of baroque music and Motown classics; now the library still includes a Bach chorale but features a lot more Asian music, vocal in particular, both courtly and profane in origins.

Sampling was once exotic, but is now obiquitous; Stone uses some formal strategies to keep his material exotic and avoid falling into studio cliches.  One formal plan, used by Stone with source popular songs in particular, is to parallel the development of the song by developing (through looping and accumulated modifications) samples taken at real-time intervals from the song.  He then uses the metric unit of the sample as a little frame or even a theatre in which interesting things happen before skipping on to the next.  The tonal activity over the course of these frames aquires a step-time quality much more rapid but functionally very much akin to that found in Reich's Music for Eighteen Musicians.  Another strategy involves the reconciliation of, well, not opposites, but very much differences, here in a piece allowing a sensual Vietnamese female vocal to modulate (via something like a vocoder, I presume), thus taking on the tonality of, some well-known stretch of Bach, the whole punctuated with unpredictable but oh-so-right pauses. The effect, both tragic and erotic, was completely unexpected.   Finally, Stone's sense of his library of sources as a potential economy for a piece is marked most strongly by his restraint.  In the most substantial work of the set, he had one clearly predominating sound source in the foreground, but there were just tiny hints of material he had held back, for example, a couple of tabla strokes that came and went with little development, the kind of world-building detail that give a piece increased depth and complexity.

If Stone had come from a certain musical-intellectual milleux, I am certain that his choices and mixtures of sources could and would have come framed and packaged in the terms of certain fashionable critical and cultural discourse.  But I don't have the impression that he is working that way at all.   Also although his working methods come from an experimental tradition (his teachers included Subotnick and Tenney), and that, by performing in real time, he does make discoveries, I don't believe that his work is really experimental in the sense that eliciting unforeseen outcomes is a primary goal.  I think — and I may well be wrong about this, so please correct me — that his approach is instead very much that of a musical classicist, using a body of tools and techniques which he has mastered in order make more of the music he values and has thus created his own repertoire.  I hear something of the practice of the 18th century's so-called Galant Style or in the catalog of extraordinary music produced by the aforementioned Jo Kondo in his approach — a stock of techniques and materials has been pre-established, much of it used communally, but the continuity among them, in the form of musical pieces is very much the work of an individual musical intution, yes, a style.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

This work is based on a true story as fictionalised in a made-for-TV movie as reinterpreted in an evening-length dance performed by swans and handpuppets

One of the common turns or tricks used for program or liner note in recent music is that in which the composer identifies his or her work as based on X  [where X = some story, novel, painting, dance, film, poem, sculpture, installation, video, TV or radio serial, building, mathematical/physical/biological property, function or feature, philosophical idea, etc., take your pick]  and this reference may, in some cases, be interesting, useful, provocative or otherwise of value to the reader-who's-about-to-become-a-listener.  Composers are frequently interesting people with non-trivial interests in any or all of these things, and sometimes these interests get wrapped up in non-trivial ways with their compositional production.  But not always.  Sometimes a reference like this can come off as obscure, unhelpful, or even appear to be pretentious to the reader-who's-about-to-become-a-listener.  (Let's face it, many composers are sometimes, often, or even always obscure, unhelpful, and/or pretentious. (And yes, you may indeed count this composer in this number) so holding this quality in check can be a useful social skill.)  While I will grant the possibility that it is, in a very few, limited situations, appropriate to be suggestively obscure or playfully misleading about a work of music, and to be suggestive or playful in a program note is certainly fair game, allow me to advise some moderation in this.  If a work is based on X, and knowing that a work is based on X may be useful for the reader-who's-about-to-become-a-listener, then fire away, let us know all about your X life.  But if this based on X relationship is buried deep in the DNA or algorithm of a work of music, consider leaving this referend buried as well.  Now, this isn't to say that a program note can't most usefully detach itself from the piece of music, one step away as metaphor, or further around the field as a minor league literary diversion, or a bit of misdirection to keep the reader-who's-about-to-become-a-listener in suspense, or just a bit of light reading (how about a poem or a good recipe?) to keep the reader-who's-about-to-become-a-listener occupied while waiting for a piece that really wants no introduction.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Paying Attention

A friend asked me the other day why I had been spending so much time of late with the music and writings of some composers who were not exactly experimentalists, including names like Milton Babbitt, Seymour Shifrin, Nicolas Nabokov, William Denny, Ben Weber, and Roberto Gerhard.  Indeed, some of these were, as both composers and actors in the musical world, active opponents of the experimental.  The answer was that although each of these musicians did work that was distant from my own disciplines and tastes and, to my ears, moved mostly into musical-historical cul de sacs, they were working seriously and musically and my sense of ecology within the musical world was such that I couldn't ignore that seriousness and musicality, let it go to waste, let alone lose the opportunity to explore for myself some of the musical potential that might be left in those cul de sacs.  So, I have no apologies for spending time with a Gerhard Symphony that brilliantly incorporates electroacoustic sounds, or with Ben Weber's Symphony on Poems by William Blake, a beautiful piece with a striking orchestration idea (single winds, harp, piano, a tam tam, and the string section reduced to a single cello) and a completely intuitive tonal technique; it's well written for a good baritone voice, and doesn't seem to have received another performance since Stokowski recorded it.

One example: Almost in passing, while making a point about the rhythmic relationships implicit in an ordering of pitches in his essay on Twelve Tone Rhythmic Structure, Babbitt lists 11 possible relationships between two tones (in fact, if you allow for silence between separate appearances of the tone, there are 13:  given two points in time, duration ignored, two tones can start and stop together; with three points in time, A can follow B immediately or B can follow A, or A and B can begin and either A or B stops before the other, or A or B can begin alone and then be joined by and end with the other tone; with four points in time, A can play and stop with a pause before B plays, or vice versa, or A can play and B starts after and ends before A or vice versa, or A starts, then B starts, overlapping for a while until A stops, allowing B to extend past, or vice versa.)  Above and beyond the immediate context of Babbitt's essay, as far as I'm concerned, this is a basic, profound — and profoundly musical — observation.  These relationships are found in all polyphonic music and this description appealed to me, because, without durations, it had something of a topological flavor (as topological relationships are descrtibed without a precise (in terms of measurements or proportions) shape), and the idea of separating the relationships from a particular metric or set of durations strikes me as having considerable compositional potential.  And, naturally, I got to wondering what the situation would be for more than two tones which led me to consult with my long-term mathematical advisor.  It turns out to be a known mathematical problem (the number of different relationships between n numbers on a line), with a solution that, to me, suggests the rich musical potential of this way of think.  From 13 possible relationships for two tones, three tones jumps to 409, then to 23917 for four tones, and 2244361 for five (see: this and this); in musical terms, the variety of time relationships between tones increases significantly.  For two or three tones, we may well still have the ambition in a piece of music to exploit all of the possible time relationship, but using all of the relationships between four or more tones becomes all but unmanageable in a work of modest proportions.  Nevertheless, if exhaustion of the list is not a requirement, being able to list and access all of the potential relationships is something that strikes me as useful and I've since eagerly  used it in some pieces that have nothing obvious to do with my source. 

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

With Four Melodicas You Can Do Anything

If you're in London on the 5th of July, the next season of Music We'd Like to Hear begins with an ensemble concert curated by Markus Trunk.  And yes, one of my pieces is on the program.  Concerts curated by John Lely and Tim Parkinson featuring solo violin and cello respectively follow at one week intervals. Fridays, and all at the Church of St Mary-at-Hill, off Eastcheap, London EC3R 8EE

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Those added degrees of freedom

Eight weeks after having a heating pipe bust, with the insurance company willing and the plumbers & painters & floorers finally done with their work, (and perhaps the good will of a couple of benevolent pagan demi-Gods,) we're finally in a position to put the furniture back in the living room.  And* with walls and floors and celing looking fresh and new, the temptation to reposition the furniture is great, a chance to make our old familiars (tables, chairs, sofa, cabinets, lamps, home entertainment devices (piano, harpsichord, music stands, the electronica), pictures) somewhat less familiar.  But our stuff, less chosen than accumulated, none of it especially valuable or (one drawing excepted) attractive, our stuff entered our house piece-by-piece over many years, each piece chosen largely on the basis of being able to fit into whatever space the existing piecery left vacant, so that the number of possible repositionings in the room is greatly limited and the number of functional & desirable repositionings is even more limited, so much so that the optimal repositioning of the objects in the room is pretty much exactly the same positioning we had before the pipe broke, give or take an inch here or a centimeter there.  And yes,** we could probably gain some modest additional degree of freedom by admitting that we have too much stuff, but that we know, already and all-too-well, even if — in an effort to delay the reality of our fading youth — we pretend that that is not the case, keeping up with the accumulation of our stuff as a way of artificially staving off age & death & all that:  it's a way of saying, or signaling that we are still in the game, even though we don't really have space any more for any new stuff.  WHICH IS ALL A ROUNDABOUT WAY OF MAKING AN OBSERVATION ABOUT COMPOSING AND ITS ADVANTAGE OVER JUST LIVING AN ORDINARY LIFE:  unlike real rooms (or at least those rooms that folks like musicians could ever afford), there is really no natural limit on the degrees of freedom with which we can rearrange our acoustical furniture (sounds in general or their absenses; musical tones, noises in particular; from instruments and/or voices and/or neither; in established or novel configurations; comfortable & familiar or disturbing & strange), and indeed the very rooms (forms) into which we fit our music are elastic in the extreme.  However, there is a real and non-trivial musical joy in taking the most well-known, even banal, of our acoustical goods & properties and the most established of our formal scaffolds, the oldest cookie cutters or aspic molds in the drawer, and trying to find just one more undiscovered way of nudging things around a bit. And*** often that is our best, even most radical work.

* Yes, once again I am caught starting a sentence with "And...."  Blogging wild.
** See above.
*** ibid.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Alphabetized Winterreise

Here's a new score by Eric Carlson, a composer previously unknown to me, Alphabetized Winterreise.   The piece is exactly what the title says it is: Schubert's song cycle Winterreise, disassembled into its individual words which are then reassembled in alphabetical order.  There is some precedence for such re-assembly of the contents of an existing work (Christopher Hobbs's The Remorseless Lamb does, measure-for-measure, something of the sort, and both polyphonically and randomly, for a four-hand arrangement of Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze) and there is a body of experimental literature in which alphabetizing lexicons of texts is a formal move (Walter Abish has done this brilliantly, first a paragraph, then the alphabetized list of words which, emptied of their word-order-driven syntax, have a emotional power of their own.)  But Carlson's piece seems to me to be a uniquely virtuoso effort within this field, and reading through the score has been an experience quite unlike anything else I've heard or played.  The music is crazy and obsessive (in the best possible sense, and well it should be, given the crazy and obsessive compositional procedure), non-relenting in its stuttering, jerking continuity, but the wonder here is that it has a definite continuity, a trajectory even, if driven only by the structure of the alphabet and the background radiation of the source song cycle.  Zwei zwei zwei Zweige zwischen. It has moments of great humor and lightness, but also moments of tenderness, melancholy, even despair, everything that the original Winterreise had, but is a very different journey altogether.  Why does Winterreise work so well for this purpose?  I honestly can't imagine the same procedure working for Dichter Liebe or the Spanisches Liederbuch and, while I can't prove it, I suspect that its due to a previously unrecognized degree of stability in large scale musical-lexical correspondences in Schubert's setting of the Wilhelm Müller texts. I am really looking forward to hearing a performance of this piece.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

A little less consorting, please.

One of the commissioning trends of late has been for several performers or groups, from chamber musicians to choirs and orchestras, to jointly commission a new piece from a composer, with the prospect of multiple performances of the work more-or-less guaranteed.  While all commissioning is good and pooling resources is usually good, and the promise of performances beyond a premier is always good, I think that a greater good to the diversity and liveliness of our musical lives would be done by if all the individuals and organizations interested in commissioning new work would each commission a new work from a different composer.

Yes, this more than likely means much smaller commissions, but the commission is basically a gift upfront and is only part (and the least reliable part) of the composer's complete compensation package. That guarantee of a first performance might compensate significantly for a significantly more modest commission when coupled with a second or third performance and good documentary recordings.  Those additional performances can be the difference between a work getting "read through" and actually being turned into real music, and the existence of the recording (and remember: I'm not a recording enthusiast) can often be the key to a work becoming a repertoire item shared with other players or groups.

The bigger picture here, of course, is one of managing the abundance and diversity of new music, in which an individual work of quality is often simply lost before it can become known and recognized as well worth singing, playing, and listening to.  (More posts on this topic to come.) A commissioning consortium arbitrarily isolates and identifies one (prospective, unheard) work as significant without offering musicians or listeners a meaningful sense of the field of alternatives from which it actually comes. I can't help but see that as representing a loss of freedom: composers will find themselves trying to compose to the patterns and models that have already had success with consortia, and players and listeners will be offered an ever-smaller menu of music to play or hear by local musical organization.

We're in an odd stage of musical history in that so much music is readily available in recorded form, that the music we actually get to hear live is necessarily only a tiny slice of that abundance but one which has been, in the end, capriciously monopolized.  I believe that the best way forward towards both dealing with the variety and trying to avoid that caprice is — perhaps paradoxically — to go in a direction that looks somewhat more like an earlier period of music-making, when news traveled slowly and musical activities were strongly localized. Yes, the immediate access to anything and everything in recorded form is here for keeps and will always form a powerful background radiation to all the music we make and hear, and the forces that would like to make the selections for us are probably there as well, but if we don't take ownership of the musical air immediately around us, we've already given up.   

Friday, May 10, 2013

Delicate or robust?

Composing blogger James Ricci, in an item about his mentor, Milton Babbitt, recalls one of the too-many Babbitt stories about a premiere performance shortchanged by inadequate rehearsal.  In this case, an orchestra's inadequate rehearsal time for a Babbitt piece was compared with the apparently over-generous rehearsal for a repertoire warhorse which shared the program, Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade.  The complaint was, more likely than not, justified, but attempting to reconstruct the rationale behind such a rehearsal schedule might be more than an idle exercise and may, in fact, reveal something interesting about how repertoire is handled in real life by the institutions which dominate concert music-making.

From Babbitt's point of view, his work — here, Ars Combinatoria, but the understanding is general to his catalog, not specific to this chamber orchestra piece — was something rather delicate, with every detail projecting and embodying its underlying structures, thus a flawed execution of a detail — be it a wrong pitch, rhythm, or dynamic — is, in effect, a crack through the whole piece.  (The compositional rigor and performance practical demand that Babbitt made strongly contrasts with some of the "new complexity" repertoire, in which detail may be even more dense, but not as structurally integrated as Babbitt's music and may embrace performances  in which approximation and even failure to literally realize the score are acceptable or even desirable practices.  Such works, however complicated on the page, are thus potentially rather robust, performance-wise, in tolerating considerable variation in the character and quality of their realizations.*)

But from the orchestra's point of view, however, it's Sheherazade that's the delicate work. Not because of its technical demands, which are not extreme, but simply because the work is familiar, to both musicians and to larger audiences. And because it's familiar, there is a fear that mistakes — both technical and interpretive — will stand out and reflect more immediately, and poorly, upon the performers. The conductor and the orchestra are probably completely aware that they are taking advantage of the audience's total lack of familiarity with the new work and accepting more than a few wrong notes and, more than likely, they are assuming that the Babbitt has a degree of robustness that the composer himself doesn't recognize  — drop a bunch of notes, mess up some entries or exits, wing the dynamics altogether and fall apart completely here and there, and it's still going to sound like finicky, agitated, serial bebop. So, it's not the Babbitt exactly, but it's something in that general neighborhood, goes the line of thinking, and since we don't visit that neighborhood very often in the first place, the investment in the skills required to get more exact are better spent elsewhere, and elsewhere just happens to be the same Sheherazade that every other orchestra plays every other year.

Yes, there is a real dishonesty here at work, and one unfortunate effect is that the investment and continuous reinvestment in the conservation of the best-known repertoire places ever higher hurdles on the possibility of new work joining the repertoire, up to performances that completely fail to represent the work.   But it may also be useful for composers to reflect a bit on the sometimes contradictory ways in which their work — for example, in terms of performance practical robustness or delicacy — might be understood, and use this, potentially, to help nuance some of these performance issues when, for example, negotiating rehearsal time or introducing efficiencies into the rehearsal, as when, as Ricci describes it, Babbitt quietly accepted a conductor's over-simplified description of the piece's form as a set of variations.  No, it's not quite that, but if it gives the musicians a handle on or a point of entry into the work, why not?    

* Babbitt: "The difference is of a different kind. Mine is an ensemble difficulty, making that ensemble work. The individual parts do not have that kind of virtuoso demand that some of Elliott's parts do. And as for Ferneyhough and Dillon and composers such as that, of course they're not. But we can talk about that in a way that would probably not do either of us any good, because I've checked on some of those Ferneyhough performances. I mean, Brian's a very good friend of mine, and I'm sort of sympathetic too what he thinks he's trying to do. But, you know, Brian Ferneyhough once said that he's satisfied if the performers get one-tenth of his piece. I don't want to settle for one-tenth. If I settle for one-tenth, I'd write only that one-tenth. He said he likes to see performers sweat. Well, I don't like to be near anybody who sweats. That's a totally different attitude towards these things."

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Lost Thread

For all my engagement with formal experiments in my music, usually involving extensive planning, research, development, design, calculation etc., as often I just compose from brute force, drawing a continuous thread of music which starts someplace and goes wherever it (through that mysterious combination of habit, taste, caprice, and imagination) happens to lead.  But such unplanned excursions carry more of a particular risk than the planned journeys, as they depend — at least for me — on having a great deal of continuity in the compositional time and environment. When that continuity is broken, the thread can get lost and sometimes irretrievably so. Then you're left with fragments (which could be useful), outright abruptions (which could be useful), or fragile, tentative, questionable, or even broken continuities (which could be useful as well: think exquisite corpses.) (But could be useful is not necessarily useful.)

A broken heating pipe is never expected and the pipe (yes, it would have paid to have had copper instead of steel pipes!) that broke in our house two weeks ago unexpectedly interrupted a piece I was making that had been following precisely such a thread.  The damage to the house was, fortunately, minimized — wallpaper and flooring, and, interestingly, the 8-volume set of Wagner's writings got soaked beyond repair — and the process of repair already set into motion, and the weather has been warm enough that we could make do without heat, but all of the hectic and inconvenience of calling and organizing everyone and everything necessary to return to normalcy has put my piece in exactly that unplanned hiatus. I lost my thought. (What was I thinking?) I lost the thread. (Where was I going?) Time lost, continuity gone, no chance of reconstructing a plan when none existed in the first place.

So now, I play through the music I had made so far and wonder what to do next?  Do I file it away in the sketch box or drop it altogether? Do I analyze my own music and try to invent a plan, after the fact, from which further developments may be built?  Or do I just start when I left off, brute force after brute force, accepting whatever continuity — or lack thereof — circumstances now offer? How can I not be optimistic about this opportunity?

Monday, April 22, 2013


I was in marching band for exactly one summer, the summer before I started high school.  Although I began with high expectations for marching, as a trombonist, in the front row of the Montclair, CA High School Marching Cavaliers in their smartly tacky Columbia Blue and Black uniforms, I quickly found out that I didn't like marching and marching didn't much like me. Not yet 14 and already over six feet tall,  I was at precisely that awkward moment in pubescent motor development when control over my limbs was more a matter of random nervous system activity than the control required for marching, enough so that I was, honestly, very bad at it (once obliviously and famously marching several complete rounds of the parking lot with each sides' arm and leg in complete synchrony, just the opposite of how it's naturally — and supposed to be — done), but I probably could have gone along with the program had I actually liked the music. For each morning spent that hellish summer marching was matched by a miraculous evening at the (last) Claremont Music Festival, a season ticket to which was my parents' present to me upon graduation from Junior High.  An odd present for a 13-year, to be sure, but odder still was the experience of a morning spent playing the theme song to Hogan's Heroes over and over and over again (in between choruses of which, upper classmen from my lower brass section would take turns with pranks, a favorite of which was mooning passers-by whenever our beleaguered band director turned away (you could pretty well guess when he was coming around a corner, as he wore loud tap shoes as part of his training method) and then to hear, say, Hermann Baumann play the Brahms Horn Trio at night.  The ridiculous and the sublime, every day. Summer marching band was not a total loss, however, as the band director did manage to encourage some useful skills, one of which was spending hours in a practice room with a Conn Strobe Tuner.  Very soon, I learned that not only was it a useful skill to get that scope to stop moving, to create a precise and steady tone, it was also a great skill to select some intermediate place on the dial, between semitones, and get the strobe to freeze there, or to play very slow glissandi — both lipped and with the slide — and get those wheels to slow down or speed up.  I was an odd kid, to be sure, but it remains a more engaging experience than any video game I ever tried and probably the beginning of my active interest in matters of musical tuning. The other positive experience, in the long run, was that I composed a lot that summer, including the beginnings of three traditional marches. I was, and am — with qualifications — a serious Sousa fan, and was disappointed that our marching repertoire was largely themes from TV shows and bad pop tunes, and didn't include a single class march by J.P.S., but my more immediate model came from a pair of youthful marches on a Charles Ives recording by the Yale Theatre Orchestra.  Disappointingly, my high school band director, probably writing me off for the ineptitude of my marching, had no interest in my composing, but my junior high band director, Richard Johnson, generous shared a few hours to help me with harmony and instrumentation.  I wish I could say that my 13-year-old head, in those days with the Indochinese War still hanging heavy, was hip to the military character of the marching band and its repertoire, but no, that thought only came later to me, another story altogether.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

On not being a film composer

I'm from Southern California, east of L.A. and grew up in in environment where film, no, movies had a deep presence.  I loved (and love, though parental responsibilities have slowed down the pace) going to the movies and watching old favorites or new discoveries on late night TV (for which German TV can be good.) Sometime in high school, something clicked and I suddenly had a revelation that movies could be more than just entertainment, they could intersect with the real world in unexpected ways and use the manipulation of time, sound, and image to tell me things about the world, sometimes shocking things, that I didn't know before.  The could help make the world more interesting and lively, creating opportunities for reflection and action.  Movies became almost as exciting as music.  What I liked, and like, most about watching film was/is paying close attention to details:  a line of dialogue written and executed supremely well, an uncannily timed cut, secret depths in sound design (done well, polyphonic sound design can contribute more to making the most implausible world believable than the most detailed visuals), the wallpaper in a Feuillade serial. or an obscure and curious object unreasonably situated in an otherwise unexceptional film set.  I can recall hundreds of favorite lines from films and probably as many favorite bits of editing, both sound and visual, and have some very strong opinions about how films work or don't work.  I can go on for hours about my favorite Bresson, Buñuel, Huston, or Ozu.  I can even spend a half hour trying to convince you that O.C. and Stiggs was exactly three technical mistakes short of being Robert Altman's masterpiece with a darkly paranoid subplot shared with Nashville.

Although I have, from time to time, done some sub-contracted emergency orchestration work for overdue film scores and have enjoyed the money (when it's actually been paid), I've never seriously considered trying to get a gig to write a film score.  I could make an intellectual argument (following Bresson) that I only really believe in diegetic music (the "real" music that incidentally takes place on screen), but I do really like a film score done well.  But I don't think I have the aggressiveness required to promote myself into that business and, to be honest, I'm not sure I have the composing speed to produce a score in the time frame required for a film (the score usually comes late in the process, after a director's provisional edit, and thus has to be done (= short score -> orchestration -> recording) quickly (weeks, days, quickly) and I, perhaps to my own career detriment, like to ponder, no, ruminate on, musical ideas for a good long while. The movie business doesn't pay composers for ruminating.  Also, a film composer needs to have a very rare balance between solid self-promotion on the business side and the ability to complete submit her or his ego to the fact that a film is a corporate production and the score and its author(s) have to adjust to the overall design and working atmosphere; again, although I've done orchestrating according to the strict guidelines handed me, but beyond that limited piece-work, I'm not sure I could hold my own ego back as required. 

But more than any of that, and not unrelated to the issue of holding one's ego back, although I can sometimes produced good Imitat, I probably don't have the stylistic chops to be a Hollywood composer. Hollywood film scores tend to emphasize similarities over differences and incorporate innovations only slowly  (it's interesting to note that some smaller film scenes, like Britain in the 50s and early 60s, or the GDR, actively employed contemporary composers working in idioms more akin to contemporary concert music.)  I can understand this conservatism, in that a film is a big investment and the producers have to balance risks, in this case the possible attractions of musical novelty against the security of audience-proven musical tropes. Fortunate is the composer like Philip Glass who can come into a film composing career by being sought after on the basis of his concert work. And unfortunate is that producer who turned down a Morton Feldman score for its accompanying a scene of violence with quiet strings and a celesta, likely a cold and ironic move on Feldman's part that the producer couldn't accept either because it didn't pass in the accepted catalog of film music figures and affects and was unwilling to risk the possibility that it might — and powerfully so — extend that catalog. 

My old friend Jonathan Segel recently, and correctly called out the Game of Thrones TV series on the cheap production quality of its score, although given its budget*, I find it's still, musically speaking, an improvement over, say, Lord of the Rings. Why do these pseudo-medieval fantasy films (you know the ones) always have to go pseudo-symphonic in the first place? How about imaging the kind of instruments and musical material that would have been current to the local time, place, and technology instead of trying to pull a full Korngold (which no one presently working in Hollywood has the technical chops to do anyways)?** The deep irony, of course, is that sound design, as a whole has become very interesting territory for experiment and complexity (don't believe me?  Just listen, sometime, eyes closed to Ren Klyce's sound track for The Social Network — the whole film could have been done to a blank screen and would've worked), while the musical track has declined so badly (yes, if I see the name Hans Zimmer on opening credits, a composer reliably producing yardage good labeled as music, I immediately head for the exit lights.)
* Yes, it's TV and TV is still not film, but it is a area of some formal experimentation, particularly in the long-term series, that has welcomed some interesting music. The score for LOST by Michael Giacchino, for example, focused on ensembles of strings (often with extended techniques) and trombones,  with some airplane fuselage percussion, creating a wealth of material that extended well over the first few seasons and, in the total sound design, contrasted spectacularly well with the diegetic music.   
** Yes, there has been some diegetic music along these lines in the series, but it's not been great stuff and has not played compellingly with the line between the diegetic music and the musical score.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Kraig Grady on Erv Wilson

This is a nice informal video of composer Kraig Grady talking about his studies with music theorist Erv Wilson.  I'm also a student of Wilson's, having my first lesson with him while I was still in high school.  He lived (and still lives) in one of the oldest houses in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles, a wooden place (the stone chimney fell in an earthquake a couple of decades ago) high above Arroyo Seco, now the oldest section of the the west's oldest freeway.  The terraced garden in front of the house was planted with corn seedlings (later to be joined by chenopods) which, I would learn, he bred from wild plants and old cultivars he had gathered, to plant on his family's ranch in the mountains of Chihuahua, where he had been born. (Wilson speaks English with a slight trace of Chihuahuan Spanish.)  The inside of his house was full of guitars fretted in unusual ways, not one of them with twelve equal steps to the octave, bamboo and wooden flutes from South America and a variety of mallet instruments of metal tubes and slabs, wooden bars, and bamboo, each of them in a different tuning system.

When I identify Wilson as a theorist, it is not as the type of scholar who researches and teaches how to imitate or analyze harmony and voice leading, or counterpoint or form in existing tonal music or "set theory" in atonal music (though there is a certain relationship to the latter.)  Instead he's a speculative theorist, investigating the huge vector space of possible new musical materials and relationships and attempting to locate those with the most potential for use in new musics.*  His great predecessors were the theorists Huygens, Bosanquet, Novaro, Yasser and Fokker and he was also a collaborator with Harry Partch.  To this end, he has designed keyboard layouts and notations for these new scales and systems and a series of techniques for generating new materials and tools for visualizing their properties (Wilson's was a professional draughtsman in the aeronautics industry, among the last generation of pre-CAD virtuosi.)  I have written before that Wilson is probably the most productive collector and inventor of scales since Ptolemy, and that's not likely to be an exaggeration; aspects of his work in classifying scales and systems have been taken to further consequences by members of the tuning community, revealing some extraordinary new environments for potential tonal practice, much of which is now made practical (if not possible) only by computer-assisted analysis and synthesis.

Kraig Grady, now based in Australia, has been a far more loyal student of Wilson's than I, having made a formidable body of music in alternative tunings and most of the instruments required to play that music, much of it connected to Grady's (imagined?) island nation of Anaphoria.   (That website also hosts a formidable repository of Wilson's papers, which are not documents with scholarly expository prose but the visual accompaniments to his oral teaching and demonstrations.)  Although I have made quite a bit of music in tunings other than 12-tone equal temperament, and much of that in extended just intonation, the bulk of the music I get asked to make is in a nominal 12 equal, but the impact of an early exposure to the possibilities of intonational and tonal-structural alternatives has its way of infecting everything I do with pitches in any collection configuration, whether through unexpected modulations, flashes of harmonic or subharmonic spectra, or the play between local and global tonalities.  Thank you, Erv.
*One of Wilson's ideas, the Moment of Symmetry, which occurs when a generating interval —let's say a perfect fifth with the ration of 3:2 — reiterated within another interval space — let's say an octave (taking octave "equivalencies") — creates symmetrical melodic patterns when closed (returning to the initial tone) by a single anomalous intervals — for example 6 perfect fifths and 1 diminished fifth in a 7-toned scale, but also for four perfect fifths and minor sixth in a 5-toned or 11 perfect fifths and a wolf fifth in a 12-toned scale  —  a property which is prescient of the attention given to well-formedness and Myhill's Property in the academic music theory community. Wilson's "scale tree" is essentially a catalog of Moment of Symmetry scales indexed by the size of their generator and the number of iterations.

Around and about

Here are a few blogs and sites that have turned up recently:

Sound Expanse, composer Jennie Gottschalk
Detemporalizing, composer & poet Samuel Vriezen, now blogging in English
Desiring Progress, pianist & musicologist Ian Pace
Composer Daniel Goode
New Musical Resources,  trumpet player & musicologist Peter Gillette
Classical Music is Boring, photo funnies
Well-Weathered Music, composer Miguel Frasconi
The Great (un)Learning, composer Christopher Shultis
Helen Bledsoe, Flutist, exactly that
Essays & Endnotes, theorist Stephen Soderberg
Divergence Press, a new web magazine

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Landmarks (50)

Luigi Dallapiccola: Quaderno musicale di Annalibera (1952) for solo piano.

A set of 11 small pieces or movements, intended to be played all together in sequence, at once individual character pieces (some with particular technical concerns ("Accents", "Rhythms", "Colors") and variations or variants on/of common material (a single 12-tone row in transposition and in its classical transformations). Some of the pieces are aphoristic in length, others a bit more substantial, the whole perhaps 14 minutes in duration.

Much has been noted about the 12-tone aspects of the piece — I can recall, as a 14-year old, working out those rows as if they were the more sophisticated thing in the world, and yes, I'm a bit surprised to be including two mid-20th century 12-tone pieces in a row in this list of personal landmarks — as well as the connections to Second Viennese School (not least to piano pieces by Schoenberg and Webern*) and further back, through both the strict and not-so-strict canonic aspects (some even housed in a trio of movements identified as Contrapuncti), a recurring down-a-semitone, up-a-minor-third, down-a-semitone (yep, that spells B-A-C-H) figure and that "notebook" title to J.S. Bach, all of which is an interesting mix of the potentially useful and the possibly misleading, and none of which may actually capture much of the substance of this work.

This is in part due to playful misdirection on the composer's part.  The title, for example. Bach's famous little notebook was a collection of delightful but modest pedagogical pieces for a student (Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena) to play. But Dallapiccola's piece, while dedicated to his young daughter, Annalibera, is sophisticated and challenging music intended not as a loose collection of teaching pieces but as a whole and integral work of concert music that is also well-suited for private use.he first piece or movement, "SIMBOLO" (symbol), is permeated by transpositions and transformations of the B-A-C-H figure, but it avoids a literal B-A-C-H cypher at that pitch level and in that direction. What he's after is something musically more significant than a alpha-musical homage and that is to use that tight semitonal cluster to anchor smooth voice leading in a harmonic environment that is not shy to suggest tonal movement, indeed even cadential resolution.

This suggestion of the tonal is something quite different from the embedding or citation of authentically tonal material within a 12-tone scheme (like Berg, for example); it is almost uniquely comfortable in its ambiguity and that's something I have always found refreshing in Dallapiccola's later music.  This did cost Dallapiccola some street cred with the serial generation on both sides of the Atlantic, with their programmatic tendency to deprecate any tonal suggestion, from objects like triads and seventh chords (which Dallapiccola welcomed, if cautiously, as products of voice leading but not of functional harmony), or processes like canons (on which Dallapiccola thrived) .  Even his admirers sometimes appear to dismiss the work as too simple or too pretty. And it is often gorgeous, but cooly (cool, not cold) gorgeous, although inspired by the almost anti-pianistic keyboard works of Schoenberg and Webern, it was written by a pianist-composer whose catalogue was mostly vocal, but who knew how to write atmospherically, often even vocally, for his instrument, understanding register, articulation, handedness, the use of the pedal and resonance in a very different way than his Viennese models, focusing on the more delicate features of the instrument. The ninth piece, "COLORE",  for example, with a gentle counter-metric swing of seventh-ish chords is very much a piece that can be located with the coolest jazz pianism of roughly the same era as not influenced or influencing but sharing aspects of a common sensibility (again: cool, not cold). 

* Babbitt, in the lecture collection Words about Music, has some striking observations about the relationship of the Quaderno's "CONTRAPUNCTUS SECUNDUS" to the second movement of the Webern Variationen, in which the relationship between fixed pitches and intervals is exchanged.


Friday, March 22, 2013

What composers mean when we say we're "writing" music

The usual assumption is that we're producing notation, putting notes down on paper (or, more recently, pushing pixels around a screen to emulate putting notes down on paper) just like Sebastian Bach did when he adjourned to his composing room each evening, lubricated by a bottle of brandy and powered by some costly candles (the costs of those candles alone had to have put Bach among the relatively well-off in his day.)  But that's not broad enough to describe the diversity of what we do.  Composing is also "writing" when we're committing something to a text or graphic score, or programming in some language or code, or committing something to memory.  I just read an interview with David Tudor, who also used the word writing as the verb associated with pieces he made even when they had no notation at all: perhaps some tentative oral instructions (when others were involved), sometimes circuitry diagrams or often just the circuits themselves, especially when the work was for his own use. Perhaps the whole set up of Tudor's "table of electronics", combined with his practice at playing that table (both routines and extemporaneous discoveries (perhaps the best recorded example of one of those discoveries by Tudor comes in that recording of Christian Wolff's Burdocks, when the organ Tudor was 'til then rather discretely playing suddenly roared with a wonderful and shockingly unexpected stop mixture)) adds up to a kind of writing, among the circuits, on the table, in the hands, etched in the ears/brain, etc..  But I don't think that that's quite it, either.  The aspect of writing-writing which composing-writing most critically emulates is actually the production of delay (see Duchamp: a delay in glass), the movement or shift in time which stands between writing and reading. Composition is putting music into storage for future retrieval as performance/listening.  (See also Duchamp: In Advance of the Broken Arm.)  The length of the delay is, of course, a variable, as is the presence of noise in the delay line. (See also Large Glass: dust, cracks.)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Landmarks (49)

Roberto Gerhard: Concert for 8 (1962) for flute, clarinet, guitar, mandolin, accordion, percussion, piano, and double bass.

The Catalan composer Gerhard (1896-1970) was one of Schoenberg's Berlin students (an international group that included Nikos Skalkottas, Marc Blitzstein, Norbert von Hannenheim)  and his career bridged over the Second World War, giving an unusual breadth with some of his early works incorporating folk elements, his latter works using twelve tone techniques, electro-acoustic tape, and even some degrees of Cage-acknowledging indeterminacy.  Fleeing Franco's Spain, his latter career was spent in England, with some important teaching stays in the United States.

Gerhard's use of Schoenbergian  twelve-tone techniques was sensitive and sophisticated, but the twelve tone aspect is perhaps the least interesting thing about the Concert for 8:   it can say something about where the pitches come from, but this music is about far more than pitches and certainly more about where they're going than whence they've come. I suspect that it was his experience with electro-acoustic music that made the critical difference here for Gerhard.  He insisted on the advantages of a composer working in the immediacy of his/her own studio, with an individualized components and set-up without the apparatus of staff engineers and bureaucracy that went with the large continental studios hosted by state radio stations. Working with only the assistance of his wife in recording sounds, Gerhard's relationship to his material had an immediacy akin to that of the independent studios in the US (and he would, indeed, have a more positive relationship to the young composers at the Cooperative Studio in Ann Arbor than his colleagues at the University of Michigan.)*   Let's be clear: Concert for 8 is not electroacoustic music, it is instrumental chamber music for a highly unconventional, even unlikely combination of instruments (if I recall correctly, it was the result of a private commission from a musically gifted family with an unusual instrumentarium) including plucked strings, an accordion, and a large battery of percussion instruments mostly not of determined or even discrete pitches (using such percussion is frequently a challenge to a twelve-tone premise, particularly when the composer wants to go beyond accents and noisy ornaments to the pitch scheme**) but it is music that is so focused on quality of sound the formation of sounds into broad gestures that the assumption is inescapable that it has been informed by an electroacoustic experience  — that of concrete and instrumental sounds combined and placed into a continuity by the manipulation of magnetic tape.  I cannot help but hear Concert for 8 as belonging in the company of "textural" works of its era, like those of Ligeti or Xenakis (composers a good generation younger than Gerhard), yet this is music that sounds consistently and refreshingly right at both the level of detail and of broad stroke, a kind of anti-stochastic music, to the degree to which a stochastic approach can mean that one is disinterested in or even ignores the precise details so long as they sum up to the desired larger view.   

* For a point of comparison, consider that Gerhard's colleagues working in German radio studio, would typically have to work with the mediation of a Tonmeister,  a Sound Engineer, and  a Tape Recorder Operator, who kept a protocol of each session.
** Compare Babbitt's highly rigorous use of trap set percussion in All Set.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Metre: The End of the Line

I'm in the middle of an old-fashioned exchange of letters (envelopes, stamps, mailboxes, everything but the pony express) with an old friend about poetic and musical metres. (It's a fascinating, if often confusing field, not least because poets and musicians tend to count things — metre, feet, stress, accent etc. — slightly differently (in particular, as a musician, I think I recognize an anacrusis — a pick-up —  more readily than most poets do. (Entertainingly fictionalized, and in his usual obsessive style, Nicholson Baker's novel The Anthologist treats this question.)))

I think we have reached some consensus that song and dance metres differ from each other in a fundamental way in that dance assumes, indeed requires (i.a. so that dancers don't fall over themselves trying to follow a stretch of music when a foot/beat too many or too few appears or doesn't) a continuity from measure to measure, a non-stop flight of music (the music always goes on, and sometimes its vamps to allow a dancer to come in on the next rhythmic cycle when one is missed), while the line-to-line continuity of poem and song often has got to be more flexible. A voice has to breath, after all, and the listener probably needs some time to catch the sense of the text.  So how is this flexibility realized in performance?  Will a series of, say, pentameter lines, admit either regular or occasional additions of a foot or two, whether for breath or sense or just a break in the texture, becoming hexameters or longer, or should the measure vamp (whether imagined or via some form of acoustical accompaniment) allowing the reader/reciter/singer wait for the next line to jump in?  (This happens a lot in South Indian music.)  Or do these insertions of time intervals at the ends of lines exist in some kind of "zero time" as in some of Christian Wolff's cuing pieces, a break in the continuity that literally "doesn't count"?  And what about texts which contain sentences that wrap themselves around the end of a line, ending somewhere in the middle of the next? (This is actually surprisingly rare in premodern verse/song.)

Monday, March 04, 2013

The New Division: New Music for Recorder

I'm very pleased to announce an online publication, The New Division, a collection of works by a large and international group of composers for solo alto recorder with or without accompaniment, based on ground basses found in the The Division Flute of 1706.

The Division Flute, published by John Walsh, was a collection of pieces for solo treble/alto recorder, mostly with accompaniment by continuo bass playing repeated grounds.  (The collection also included a number of unaccompanied preludes, chaconnes, and Cibells (a gavotte-like dance based on a hit tune by Lully.))  Like similarly-named collections for the viol (which has been lost) and violin, it provides one of the best insights into the state of the art of instrumental music-making — from amateur to virtuoso — in its time. The art of playing divisions — or, if you like, diminutions or variations — to an existing piece of music or over a repeating bass line and/or harmony was a central part of Baroque musical practice by both by composers and improvising performers. Sophisticated bodies of solo divisions survive for violin and viol, lute and keyboards and, among wind instruments, principally the recorder, cornett, and, somewhat later, transverse flute.

The basses used in The Division Flute includes a number which were so long and widely used that their origins are lost — like La Follia, one of the greatest hits of the 17th, 18th, and also much of the 20th century —, some are associated with particular tunes — here Green Sleeves or Johney Cock thy Beavor, and others are associated with particular musicians, including Godfrey Finger, John Banister, and Solomon Eccles (one of the most interesting personalities in English musical history.)

The New Division includes pieces offering a wide variety of styles and solutions to the elaboration of a bass as well as a Cibell for our time, with composers including (in alphabetical order) Jon Brenner, Steed Cowart, Elaine Fine, Christopher Fox, Danyel Franke, Jeffrey Harrington, Anne La Berge, Mary Jane Leach, Scott Mc Laughlin, Christopher Molla, Lloyd Rodgers, Conal Ryan, Jonathan Segel, and myself, with at least two additional items in prepation.  This includes music playable by virtuosi as well as, in some cases, very good amateurs and both music comfortably within conventions and traditions and music that cheerfully challenges those conventions. And it's all online, here.

Monday, February 25, 2013

In Our Theatre

Around the middle of the 20th century, one cutting edge of American poetry found its theatre of operations* in the line, flexible in length (sometimes brief, sometimes extending so far past the edge of the page that it is graphically split and begins again at an indent, perhaps several indents for the long-winded), perhaps tied to a speaker's breath, certainly marking phrases and junctures in the poet's thought.  (See, certainly, Charles Olson's essay Projective Verse.) The line took over the weight which it had previously shared with couplet-ed pairs, stanzas, verses. At the same time, the line in this repertoire, generally speaking, was one without any of the traditional regulatory instruments of rhyme, metre, stress, and/or accent associated with lyric (but each available in principle as an optional local feature.)

Similarly, in some music, particularly the most densely notated, the theatre has shifted from the phrase — usually identifiable by a thorough-going line of some sort and a sustained or continuous pulse and metrical pattern, to the individual measure  (& often that measure is counted in smaller units — which can be very slow indeed  —  eighths and sixteenths and smaller, rather than the quarters and larger pulses of most "classical" repertoire, contributing in many cases — and ithinks not accidentally — to a graphic impression of complexity.)

Of course, there is considerable variation around this tendency towards the measure, some of which points towards phrases rather than measures. In the early — largely percussion and prepared piano — music of Cage, the phrase systems of Harrison, and the predrawn-measures of late Feldman, the measure is the constructive formal unit, replacing the pulse, thus representing a tendency towards extension of the theatre rather than reduction. And in Milton Babbitt's time point system, the single measure, divided into twelve (or whatever) points, is simply the minimal possible space for the presentation of a complete aggregate, with sets that don't fit into a minimal statement spreading out over several measures, consequently creating a reduction in density and/or the pulsed but, in principle at least, ametrical tempo.**

If we do go in the direction of the measure, though, it's probably useful to consider (and often: make clear to performers) whether elements of the traditional pulse-metre-measure-phrase practice, in particular those regular dynamic and durational markers of metric stress, have been preserved or are, in fact, no longer operative.  Does a measure have a pulse-defined tempo and if so, does it extend beyond the single measure, and does that tempo include any pattern of regular stresses or accents (in old song and dance days, when one might have spoken of "movement".)  Personally, I like to keep some of the potential for ambiguity present in the traditional system in reserve.

I've played and sang a lot of renaissance music in which there is a background metre present, but it is not over-determinative, and barlines — often edited in with the intention of assisting musicians more used to modern notational conventions — frequently coincide only weakly with regular metric stress patterns, if at all (one of the important steps in the historical process of opening a distance between lyrical text and tune; such distance to regular patterns of dance steps appears to have come much later — no surprise, I guess because there's more immediate physical danger with missteps than misspeaks.) In my own work, I'm increasingly drawn away from the empty stage of the blank measure and attracted to both lower and higher levels of organization — metrical feet and phrase systems.  But the experience of the measure as the principle theatre continues to be powerful background radiation.

* Yes, using a military term like "Theatre of Operations" is provocative, probably outright objectionable, and though there is a tradition (Emerson, N.O. Brown, Cage) of objecting to the militarized language to which I feel quite close, maybe it's usefully demilitarizing in itself to extend the use of a term like this to obviously non-military, indeed pacifist ventures.
** This is one of the mysterious topics, for me at least, with regard to serialism (of whatever sort, pre- and post- as well) and rhythm: how do we square the desire for a measure to be a-metrical — that is, without a hierarchy among the internal pulses — with the actual practice in which the notated metre is both a reference and frequently, an obvious source of compositional play?  If I had the time, I'd really like to examine Babbitt's synthesizer code, for example: did he give downbeats any extra intensity in his timepoint pieces? My impression — and I may be altogether wrong about this, so consider it only an impression —  is that the opening towards early music by Webern (Issac) and Krenek (Ockeghem), has not had the charge in later serial rhythmic practice that it once promised.  

Friday, February 22, 2013

Joseph Byrd re-encountered

Good news:  New World has released an album of works by Joseph Byrd, played with stylistic certainty by ACME, oka the American Contemporary Music Ensemble.  Byrd's music has long been an enthusiasm in these parts, and having these pieces from the early 1960s available goes some distance to recovering the diversity of the radical music of that era, particularly its west coast roots and branches.   Byrd connects to Young and Riley in the Bay area and later to Cage, Ono and Thomson in New York, but also to Douglas Leedy, but also should make us pay greater attention to the orbits around Barney Childs  (while we're at it, let's get some performances of Childs' Four Pieces for Six Winds, soon, with its desert-drawn gamut studies) and Harold Budd (Budd, of course, is the L.A. connection to both David Cope and James Tenney, from Budd and Childs, you also reach into the realm of Peter Garland's Soundings and Jim Fix's Cold Blue label.)

In addition to the recovery of diversity, re-encountering this music helps to strengthen the evidence that many of the musical ideas of the time were not exactly the invention and certainly not the property of individuals but were much more in the air and shared:  coming, perhaps, out of a commonly shared ambiguity with regard to serial/atonal orthodoxies (but also an equally shared distance to the neoclassical alternatives of the time) and open to the achievements of jazz, the early music movement, and the increasing contact with non-western musics; working with small gamuts and cells and of tonally suggestive materials; lots of repetition and loops; comfort with the strategic use of improvised or indeterminate elements, for example, indeterminate paths through fields of material; a preference for the extended, low and slow over the hyper-animated (that desert sound!)

Byrd is probably best-known for his work in popular music (albeit in the decided vanguard of popular music), with two very famous albums, The United States of America and The American Metaphysical Circus.  He did considerable studio arranging and producing work for others as well, often drawn from his scholarly expertise in the history and practice of American popular music — one highlight of which is definitely his arranging on Ry Cooder's album, Jazz — but this work, too, showing off aspects of the radical music as not only a compositional, but a performance practice.

Addendum: The New Music Box has a fine review of the CD, here.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Lucier Introduces

Overthe course of four decades at Wesleyan University, Alvin Lucier taught an open-enrollment undergraduate course, an Introduction to Experimental Music, coded for the catalog as Music 109.* Wesleyan University Press has just published a book titled just that, Music 109, collecting Lucier's lecture notes for the course.  It's a highly personal guided tour through an exciting repertoire, with Lucier's notes more or less in their rough-but-ready-for-extemporaneous-elaboration original form, organized by a series of intriguing topics (from Indeterminacy and Graphic Notation to Repetition, Long String Instrument, and Words) and made more compelling for the lay reader by being told as much in the form of stories and anecdotes as in historical or analytical prose.  He doesn't attempt to analyses anything in great depth, but instead picks a feature or two from each work discussed, piquing curiosity and giving the new listener a handle onto music that might otherwise escape, and, through the course of lectures, these handles accumulate into a rich collection of listening tools.  A real advantage to such an approach is that one can acquire a feel for the scene around the music and its aesthetic without having to bring heavy technical prerequisites.   There is much of Lucier's own musical autobiography here, but that's merely the surface over which I believe he is making a more substantial argument about listening to music as an opening to the world rather than an inward turn to a received culture — and how the skill of listening can be extended far beyond the conventional assumptions about the nature, extent, and limits of the musical.

Much writing about music hovers around in a dull middle ground, in which neither individual trees nor the forest as a whole gets accounted for and I think we're in real need of more writing that deals either in deepest detail with trees — yes, I sometimes do want to learn where each and every tone came from — or in broadest overview, with forests — as Lucier does here —, in both smart and sensitive ways.  

It would be valuable to have more documents like Music 109 around.  Alvin Lucier has a number of colleagues who taught their own courses of legend in their own institutions.  For example, one of the highlights of my own undergraduate years in Santa Cruz was Gordon Mumma's History and Practice of Electronic Music course, which was perhaps more general and technical than Lucier's Music 109, but did cover certain topics reflecting Mumma's unique experiences and expertise, especially with regard to live electronic music, music for dance, and Latin American electronic music. Mumma's lectures certainly should be published.  It does seem, though, that it is experimental music which has been getting its due documentation-wise** and though I'm of the experimental party myself, I'd certainly appreciate being able to read a similar account of recent music history from the viewpoint of someone from a more academic avant-garde or from the quietist mainstream.  Just where are the lecture notes that make the historical and aesthetic case for the new music programming at the Baltimore Symphony or at Tanglewood?

 * I wasn't a Wesleyan undergrad, so did not attend Lucier's course myself.  But one of the reasons I chose to go to Wesleyan as a grad student was the course description for the grad course he taught: 508 GP Contemporary Music. Study of selected works of Robert Ashley, John Cage, Phil Glass, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Alvin Lucier and others with emphasis on scale, chance, phase, coincidence, task, meditation, and the exploration of natural phenomena. Mr. Lucier.
** I have an argument about why this is the case — music history being made by the innovators, those who question the extent and limits of the musical, not the conservators — but that's a polemic for elsewhere. 

Thursday, February 07, 2013


One of the features of an overwhelmingly large share of tonal music is that pieces or, at least, movements of pieces, start and end in the same tonality — with some variations, i.e. starting in minor and ending in major or vice versa etc. — with a typical tonal narrative sense of being someplace, going someplace different — different, by degrees, of course, with going to the dominant or a parallel or relative tonality being relatively modest journeys, and tonalities more distant from the tonic suggesting journeys of more exotic or adventurous varieties — and then returning to the place from which you started.  (The late composer Robert Erickson was fond of a baseball metaphor, then ends of the piece marked by home plate, and the bases implying ever more distant tonalities relative to home.  (Under the Ericksonian system, hitting a homer is slick and efficient, but having to work one's way around the bases — through whatever combination of drives, flies, bunts, walks, and and steals — is certainly more interesting.))

At the Zenith of atonal/twelve-tone/serial music's academic presence, one of the strictures was that, in order to avoid the suggestion of tonality, beginning and ending with the same tone or pitch configuration, or other suggestion of the same tonality (taken, in its most liberal sense) was to be deprecated.  (Alongside restrictions on octaves, major-minor triads and dominant seventh or stacked-third chords (I can recall that one of the common criticisms in certain academic quarters, of Steve Reich's phasing pieces, was that they usually phased all the way around their modules, coming back to the initial arrangement; but it's striking that there was little self-criticism of serial or twelve-tone works which just as systematically — if not auditionally as democratically — cycles right through their own exhausted aggregates and whatever-featured arrays, inevitably implying that the next note, the hypothetical note to follow the last one in the score, was most likely the first one (and, may I add, if we are allowed to imagine implied-but- unsounded tones in Schenkerian analysis of tonal works, then we damn well ought to be able to imagine the implied-but-unsounded in non-tonal pieces.)))  Unfortunately, holding tightly to a rule like this suggests a very weak understanding of what actually happens in a piece of tonal music, and in particular, in the very best pieces of tonal music.  In such music, I contend, the appearance of a return is usually just that, an appearance, not an identity relationship, for one doesn't really return, but arrives at a place, with similarities to the point of origin, to be certain, but so informed and so colored by the experience of everything that has transpired in the journey — and all the more so when that journey is full of tonal fakes and puns and errors —, that "the same" isn't really "the same at all."  (See also these (here and here) recent posts about the useful weakness of "same" and "different" in music.)  

I suspect that one reason we resist recognizing such differences is that we have a lot invested in the metaphorical notion of a piece as a journey with a singular trajectory, that of getting lost and coming home (or, there and back again), so that all the adventures and detours and cul de sacs along the way get largely discounted  (recently, there have been a couple of surveys of German tourists which have shared the conclusion that most German tourists enjoy their holidays least while they are actually on them, and most when they are back home on their sofas, reminiscing and planning the next package vacation) although those are precisely the parts of the journey which give it texture and distinction  (I recently had a gig which involved copying massive amounts of Beethoven & was once again reminded that I'm never sure which is more impressive: the banality (arid, bromidic, characterless, cloying, colorless, commonplace, dead, drab, drag, drudging, dull, flat, ho hum, humdrum, insipid, interminable, irksome, lifeless, monotonous, moth-eaten, mundane, nothing, nowhere, platitudinous, plebeian, prosaic, repetitious, routine, simplistic, spiritless, stale, stereotyped, stodgy, stuffy, stupid, tame, tedious, threadbare, tiresome, tiring, trite, unexciting, uninteresting, unvaried, vapid, wearisome, worn-out, zero altitude) of his material or the extraordinary things he makes out of his materal (like, wow.))  Perhaps it would be useful — if not as a listener or performer of existing music, but at least as a composer of new music — for us to change the metaphor a bit.  Maybe we don't really use music as a form of travel; at least we don't use good music as a means of traveling in straight lines from here to there and then back here.

What might an alternative metaphor sound like?  How about this from Raymond Roussel:  In his How I Wrote Certain of My Works (which is essential reading, buckoes) identifies one working method which begins with a pair of words which have some similarity — which could be homonyms or metagrams or rhymes or assonances or visual but not acoustical similarities etc. — and then creates sentences or phrases around the word with their own punning resemblances, but altogether distinct meanings, assigning this pair of sentences or phrases to the beginning and end of the poem or novel. Composition then becomes the process of connecting these two same-but-different bits of information through a process of interpolation (and often multiply interpolated interpolations (which are represented in Roussel by multiple sets of nested parentheses.))  In tonal music, or not-yet-tonal, or even not-really-trying-at-all-to-be-tonal musics, might it often be the case that apparently-same tones or tonalities are actually only punningly related, with an external marker of similarity or two temporarily confusing the listener into conflating events that are really fundamentally different in character (in a trivial example, but getting back to Beethoven, in the Consecration of House Overture, he begins with all the tones of a C major triad spread thick and wide, but ends with only Cs, in five conjoined octaves — gone to C alright — and, for that matter, hard not to hear as major, but hardly the same C as the opening)?