Friday, November 28, 2014

Johnson on Harmony, Soderberg on Theory (& Yes, I Get in a Lot of Words Edgewise)

The estimable Tom Johnson has just published a book on harmony, Other Harmony, "other" here indicating. heterodox to the mainstream of contemporary music theory and history teaching.  I haven't yet read the book, but some of the names sticking out from the online summaries — Euler, Hauer, Forte, Messiaen — make it appear very interesting indeed, in particular as ways of arriving at a greater diversity of voice leadings.

I think about theories of harmony a lot — perhaps too much for my own good — as both a practical and an intellectual concern.  A useful theory has got to do a handful of things at once:  It has to offer a taxonomy of resources within a given tonal system or environment, first among them managing the diversity of chords available (which need not always be simultaneities and need not always be complete and may sometimes be visited by guests or non-chordal tones, yet retain their identity) in terms of both their own content and their distance/relatedness to other chords and larger collections of tones but also in terms of the movement between chords, which is voice leading (which need not always be elegant or "parsimonious", a current term of art (I can't emphasize enough how important I think voice leading is; voice leading is a strong distinguishing quality among repertoires and I believe that it's the useful bridge between counterpoint — which I believe should be taught first — and harmony.))

That distance/relatedness exists in terms of both quality (yes, chords can be located qualitatively on a continuum of sensory consonance and dissonance (and yes, you have to consider things like registration and voicing and timbre and dynamics and duration (and yes, chords can be puns, simultaneously being identifiable in two or more ways)); yes, two major triads share a quality independent of their root relationship) and function within larger tonal contexts (scales, keys, and systems or networks, or collections and aggregates; yes, chords can be functionally dissonant independent of their sensory qualities (and yes, there's that punny business))   Finally, a theory of harmony should have the capacity to distinguish and describe individual and local harmonic practices, the things that an individual piece, an individual composer, or a particular repertoire do distinctively.  (These typically emerge not only in the choice of materials but in their temporal orderings.  Example:  in much repertoire, dissonances typically resolve forward to consonances. Example: the western classical, or "common practice", tradition allows IV to come before V but generally not V to come before IV; popular repertoires often do not share this prohibition.)

Ultimately, a theory of harmony is a tool that helps composers make more interesting or compelling works, helps players and musicians to engage with the works both practically and more deeply and is also a tool in discovering — or negotiating, as the case may be — the aesthetic foundations of our practices as composers, performers and listeners: not just what are our harmonic practices but what are our harmonic preferences?  

Stephen Soderberg is currently in the middle of a very thoughtful series of blog items about theory and its feedback relationships to practice.  I believe that hovering behind these relationships are, however, some psychoacoustic or neurological considerations and some private or social preferences that mix together and form or contribute to aesthetic criteria.  The entire twelve tone and set-theoretical project (from which tradition Stephen is working)  has a lot to admire about it, but attention to sensory considerations was not a prominent feature and, inasmuch as the tradition was or is pre-compositional or speculative theoretical, there was precious little said about the criteria with which musical works produced on the basis were to be appraised as successfully musical or not.

I was very impressed by the concern expressed by the late Heinz-Klaus Metzger that we are operating in a criteria-free era, but I suspect that we do, in fact, operate with criteria, but that we are almost painfully inarticulate about them.  (Yes, there were/are local and underground rules — they might be about octaves or starting rhythmic figures on downbeats or forbidding exact repetitions — but those are usually cloaked by the doctrine of deniability that governs things like admissions committees and awards panels.)  I will even go so far as to assert that we tolerate a lot of bad musical production because of this avoidance or even loss of the ability to be articulate about what we like and don't like (dare I go even further — this being aesthetics after all —: about what we find beautiful and not beautiful?.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

from 100 Questions Composers Are Not Often Asked by Journalists

Nr. 3 What's your day job?
Nr. 8 Do you now use or have you ever used a 12-tone row?
Nr. 9 Do you now use or have you ever serialized a parameter?
Nr. 10 Do you now use or have you ever used chance operations?
Nr. 12 If you were sent to a desert island and could only bring two Betamax cassettes of Hollywood youth films from the 1970s and 80s, what would they be?
Nr. 15 How many notes are too many notes?
Nr. 16 How many times have you been invited to attend a concert or festival featuring your music only to find out that the promised accommodations are a living room sofa or a mattress on the basement floor and a sleeping bag?
Nr. 17 On how many of those occasions did you have to share the sofa or mattress with a stranger?
Nr. 20 How many times have you been invited by a promoter or arts administrator to do lunch at the Russian Tea Room?
Nr. 21 On those occasions, were you asked to go Dutch or did the promoter shout "dine and dash!" leaving you with the bill?
Nr. 23 Have you ever composed under the influence of caffeine, nicotine, or other narcotics or controlled substances?
Nr. 32 If you could have any other superpower, what would it be?
Nr. 33 Are you now or have you ever been a member of a show choir?

Nr. 34 What's the difference between a prepared piano and a ready piano?
Nr. 36 What Hollywood actor should play you and your love interest in the made-for-tv biopic?
Nr. 41 How does one properly eat a peach using only a knife and fork?
Nr. 42 Can you bake a souffle?
Nr. 43 Can you debone a fowl in less than 45 minutes?

Nr. 44 Can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical?
Nr. 48 In your concert experience, what venue has provided the best free reception food?
Nr. 49 If composers got concert riders, what would you insist on having in yours?
Nr. 54 If Stockhausen really was from Sirius, could you explain how humanoid life would have developed and survived in a binary star system?
Nr. 55 Can you name two living composers whom you suspect to actually be aliens?
Nr. 61 Brahms or Wagner?
Nr. 62 Verdi or Wagner?
Nr. 63 Debussy or Ravel?
Nr. 64 Ives or Mahler?
Nr. 65 Schoenberg or Stravinsky?
Nr. 67 Nico Muhly: Ghost or Monster?
Nr. 68 Who serves imperialism more: Eric Whitacre or Mathias Spahlinger?
Nr. 74 Shaken or stirred?
Nr. 75 Innie or outie?
Nr. 76 Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly?
Nr. 77 Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin?
Nr. 79 If you were to be the celebrity endorser for a consumer product, what would that product most likely be?
Nr. 82 Did Richard Nixon steal the 1968 Election by secretly persuading Saigon to abandon the Paris Peace Talks?
Nr. 83 Did Ronald Reagan steal the 1980 Election by secretly persuading the Iranian government to delay releasing the US Hostages?
Nr. 86 Do you know the combination of the cupboard?
Nr. 93 What is your weapon of choice in a Zombie Apocalypse?
Nr. 94 Does Pierre Boulez cast a reflection in a silvered mirror?
Nr. 95 Why isn't there more music for Flexatone?
Nr. 96 How many cowbells?
Nr. 97 The Vibra-Slap (TM): Why? and How do we make it stop?

Nr. 100 If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?

Wednesday, November 05, 2014


So if you're sitting in a restaurant after a concert with a crowd of Newmusiclanders, nothing will likely stop the conversation sooner than mentioning in passing that you happen to like a piece by Alan Hovhaness. Sure, he composed a lot and he composed not only for virtuosi (Stokowski and the Ajemians, to begin with)  but much for semi-pros, locals, and other amateurs, and yes, you can recognize the reuse of similar techniques again and again in his catalog*, but he was a freelance composer composing practically and pragmatically, composing not from a masterpiece ethic but composing repertoire to be played, and when he was on his game, he could be very inventive indeed, coming up with remarkable (and remarkably robust and efficient, in terms of performance practice) ways of making striking music.

But his music has had a reception problem, not a musical problem. Part of the reception problem was that he came from the Boston area, not New York, and was something of an outsider even there, and then, when he settled in Seattle, would remain decidedly outside of the NY sphere. Part of the problem is, perhaps, that his influences (Sibelius, the reimagined Armenian music of Comitas, Handel) were off-fashion, and his friendships (Cowell, Cage, Harrison, Brant, but also Hanson**) were as well, and that he was prematurely (and thus, like Cowell, often superficially) a "world music" composer, thus the stickiness of the orientalist and Armenianist labels.

But inventive he was: above and beyond his modal and metrical experiments, in moving from strict canon to loosely canonic to the textural use of non-coincident repetitions he was ahead of a game that Ligeti and others would famously play later. His Noh-inspired chamber operas, The Burning House and Pilate predate Britten's Church Parables. All that said, here's Hovhaness's Symphony for Metal Orchestra (flutes, trombones and percussion), one of his stronger pieces.
* One of my own teachers, who had has a composition lesson with Hovhaness as a young man, insisted to me (and later in print) that Hovhaness's "secret" to his prolific composing was a prolific use of repeat signs.  A survey of his scores will quickly convince that exactly the opposite was the case: Hovhaness's actual use of repeat signs in his scores is very limited, wide stretches of material that initially seem repetitive turn out to have many subtle variations, and man, the guy wrote and wrote a lot of notes in longhand. He was prolific simply because (a) many people asked him for new pieces and (b) he just plain spent a lot of time at his desk composing (the story goes that Hovhaness would compose all night and sleep all day. I can respect that.)  
** Mr Harrison once told me about being sent by the Herald Tribune to review an all-Hovhaness Town Hall concert.  Hovhaness had a certain reputation in New York and  Harrison had come prepared to pan the concert, inviting Cage as his guest. All of the Coplandites and all the 12-toners were there, and were apparently loudly dismissive of the music which just didn't do any of what their own music did. But Harrison liked the first piece, Cage agreed, and they decided to wait for something not to like. But that something, Harrison reported, never came.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

In Public

So there's a story going around about a classical pianist who wants a four-year-old review of one of his concerts scrubbed from a newspaper's website.  (Lisa Hirsch writes about it well, here.) While the pianist mentions the EU "right to be forgotten" court ruling, the pianist's argument is an appeal to "the truth" over the review — and a review that was certainly not "over the top in sheer negativity and toxicity" as the pianist claimed.

The problem here is that by performing publicly, a musician becomes a public person. No, not to the extent that aspects of his or her private, non-musical, life become public, but certainly the quality of her or his performance is public and it becomes a proper subject of public discourse. (The EU ruling is completely irrelevant here as it deals with the rights of private not public persons, and search engines rather than content sites.) There is no abstract "truth" here beyond the circumstances of the program we can stipulate as given: time, place, personnel, repertoire, tempi, and, in a general way, whether the musicians were playing together or in tune. Whatever abstract or Platonic truth a musician carries around in her or his head cannot be stipulated, we can only discuss what we hear and perhaps speculate upon what the musician(s) performing wanted us to hear and whether this succeeded or not.   In the end "the truth" we actually approach in our conversation is that of the actual performance, the sounds in the air, in the room, before that particular audience (and you get the audience you have, not necessarily the audience you want!), not the ideals trapped in someone's head.

Some reviewers may be mean-spirited at times, maybe even always, and some reviewers are kind to a fault, but that's a matter of negotiation between readers and editors.  Performers enter into those negotiations at their professional peril, because the decision to perform publicly means an agreement to enter into a community of discourse, with its own terms, history, and dynamics. And that history, including the critical record, can't be censored or erased, but it can be positively engaged through thoughtful argument and — better — more convincing performances.

Musicians (and I write now as a particular sort of musician, a composer) are generally best advised to just listen to the discussion, take from that discussion whatever is convincing and useful to you, and move on to the next rehearsal or the next piece prepared enter the dialog again as a musician, not as debater or censor, and learn to take some joy in the unpredictability and human unevenness of our performances which — while we (both performers and audiences) sometimes will have some off-nights, even some really badly off-nights — is the substance that makes our best pieces, our best performances, most lively and compelling. Complaining about a bad review is rarely a good public strategy for a performer and never a good private strategy.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Reading Composer Biographies

My current pile of books-in-reading happens to have a number of biographies and autobiographies of composers.  I'm more than a little ambiguous about the biographical.  I'm far more interested in learning about the environment — both physical and musical/intellectual — a composer has lived in than in the social, psychological and intimate aspects of a life, because such environmental aspects more reliably attract and engage me to and with a music than expressive aspects. There is also something unseemly about knowing too much of the private life of a composer above and beyond the intimacies one senses when engaging with her or his music, which is personal in a very different way. But still, a biography can be a useful tool in discovering how a music came into being, discovering how parts of the real world or the world of ideas get remade or transformed into musical worlds. For this purpose, I like to have more technical detail than current publishing tastes allow, so a few of the books on my end table leave me wanting more,

...for example Bob Gilmore's biography of Claude Vivier (Claude Vivier: a Composer's Life (University of Rochester Press, 2014), a sensitively written portrait of the composer's life, with both the tragic beginning as an orphan in Quebec and the violent end in Paris too few years later handled with immense care and without reckless speculation. Gilmore makes some useful connections between the life, enthusiasms and personality of the composer and the musical work, and is particularly good in allowing the voices of those who knew Vivier to come through, but there is scarcely any suggestion, let alone detail or notational examples, of the actual materials and techniques that went into the music. To be honest, Vivier's music has a surface that I have never been able to get past and the enthusiasm of musicians I trust for the music makes me wish for something to help get beyond that surface.    

...or Thomas Clark's Larry Austin: Life and Works of an Experimental Composer (Burik Press, 2012.)  At 68 pages of expository text plus some front and end matter, this is a sketch, hardly a book, and a career as productive as Austin's deserves more.  I have always found it a remarkable factoid of American musical life that, during all those wild years of producing the journal Source: Music of the Avant-Garde, Austin was director of bands (both marching and concert) at UC Davis and the few hints we get of Austin's real struggles as an experimentalist in that and other academic settings really deserve better documentation. So the biographical part deserves some thickening, but the treatment of the compositional work really requires more depth and detail.  It's not enough just to attach a list of the "approaches" a composer uses as Clark does here (Clark's list starts with "Fractals, Algorithmic modeling..."), we really want to get some idea of how those approaches are used to produce actual works of music which apply those approaches to actual materials extending in time.

...or Charles Shere's Getting There (Ear, 2007), which is really the author's life (up to age 29) up through his student years, prior to establishing his mature compositional work, so there's hardly any talk about musical technique but, in this case, it's all the more interesting because of Shere's vivid account of growing up between Berkeley and a rough farm further North, an improbable start to a creative life which draws so much from modernism, from Stein to Duchamp to Cage.

I'm currently reading a very recent book by Albert Breier, Walter Zimmermann: Nomade in den Zeiten (Wolke Verlag, 2014),  which is a much more philosophical work, accompanying the transfer of Zimmermann's archives to the Berlin Academy of the Arts, and is organized by theme: Puzzle, Figure, Word, Childhood, History, Paradox, The Nomad.  The biographical and the musical-technical have a serious presence here, but it is somewhat secondary to the intellectual project (which is not so unusual in recent German musicology (indeed, not so unusual in recent German music, which is so often "about something".)) In any case, it's a substantial book and deserves a more in-depth report.