Wednesday, April 09, 2014

David Feldman: Excavation

Computer imagery and music by David Victor Feldman, composed in Postscript with modest tweaking using GIMP and Audacity. With its ergodic character, I think this would make marvelous audio-visual wallpaper for a well-chosen space, perhaps one used primarily in transit.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Walking, Piping

Composer/improviser/poet/ photographer Kirill Shirokov shared this short video a few days ago. It first appeared casual, on the edge of artless, but very soon engaged me, no charmed me, with its radically minimal coherency (to steal a phrase from Antin) marked by visual rhythm and detail, acoustic development, and just the hint of a narrative to which we're just not party. Or maybe it's just three friends enjoying each other's company on a walk through the city.  It's from a performance earlier this week with pitch pipes on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street, Moscow with Kirill Shirokov, Sasha Elina, Voloko Gorlinksy. Video by Sasha Elina, who I now officially dub the Antonioni of the pitch pipe.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

M is for Material

In the early 90s, the composer and physicist Hauke Harder and I started a new music publishing project. I spontaneously came up with the name Material Press and Hauke just as spontaneously agreed to it, without any discussion. We both understood something about the name and its applicability to the kind of repertoire we were interested in as well the the plain fact that we would be in the business of providing material — sheet music, audio recordings, mostly — required for performing the music we'd have in the catalog.

Hauke, as an experimental physicist, had and has a rather concrete understanding of the word material.  And that's reflected in his own great affinity for the music of Alvin Lucier, which would become an important part of the Material Press catalog. Lucier is fond of the poet William Carlos Williams' programmatic slogan: "no ideas but in things."  I suppose that that's as close to our philosophy as you can get, although, the experience of much of the music that has challenged and changed (and continues to challenge and change) the way we hear music and the world around that music is often damn close to the world of ideas ("mountains are mountains again... only the feet are a little bit off the ground" as Cage famously quotes Suzuki.)   Hauke has really worked and thought his own way through this, and I believe that the composer Jo Kondo pointed Hauke towards the Shōbōgenzō of Dōgen, founder of the Soto School of Japanese Zen Buddhism, which famously observed that "painted cakes are real, too", which Hauke used for the title of a very beautiful, long piece for trombone, viola & piano using minimal means to bring out a maximum of detail.

Bhisma Xenotechnites (Douglas Leedy) recently pointed out to me that William's slogan has its origin in Thomas Aquinas's Peripatetic axiom ( "Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius in sensu".)  It's embarrassing that I had not known this before.  It does lend to the catholic qualities in Lucier's music a specific Thomian dimension, and although contemporary physics and mathematics work with phenomena (things, very basic things, among them), ideas, qualities, etc. which have come to be understood although they are not associated with any immediate sensory basis, and however idea-provoking music can be, music appears to me to continue to live its liveliest in a physical and sensational realm. In William's or Lucier's (or Harder's) case,  no ideas but in things, is a matter of attention and emphasis, a recognition of the modest physical dimensions of work that may often actually be much larger on the inside than on the outside, rather than a deep ontological point.

While I admire the clarity that a physical approach can bring, and try to follow the popular literature, especially when it comes to music-related topics, I only have a modest knowledge of physics. I use some math in my music — Gray Codes for example — but I use it very practically, for its clarity and efficiency in optimizing certain concrete musical situations.  A Beckett Gray Code, for example, helped me write a woodwind quintet in which I used every possible combination of the five instruments, thus maximizing variety and that changes in scoring patterns were maximally smooth, while assuring, at the same time that no player would run out of breath (or, in the case of the oboist, end up with a mouth and lungs full of CO2) by allowing them timely entrances and exits. In any case, I can't really understand the bit of maths I do understand and use in terms of Platonian ideals; an intuitionist or constructive basis seems more to point, at least in the terms of the reality of music as something that works itself out through its projection into real time. So material, here, is construed in very practical terms.

I suppose that there is also an ideological theme here, too, with this materialism. Trees and fireplace pokers and f sharp minor or three-quarter time: I recognize them as both ideas and concrete instances, each with its own potential for use. But, as far as I'm concerned, this materialism is dialectical  largely in the Groucho Marxist sense of the term, for example, in not wanting to be in a club that would have me as a member, or even just a form of automatic contrarianism: Have Windmill? Will Tilt, or When the world zigs, it's high time to zag or: Don't Trend on Me.  Cue Professor Wagstaff:


Monday, March 17, 2014

L is for Line

I don't teach composition often, but when I do I usually start with some exercises in counterpoint, and counterpoint, as far as I'm concerned, starts with the notion of line.  Origin, end, range or extremity, contour, balance, gravity, straight, broken, crooked, meandering, leaps and step, gaps and fills: the language we use when we speak of line is rich and metaphorical.  The precision of the (point,) line (, plane) in mathematics is useful, but only within limits when applied to music.  I usually make sure the student knows Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook, that marvelous Bauhaus primer beginning with a line taking a walk, distinguishing active,medial and passive lines, introducing complementarity of lines, structures, arrows etc. (someday I'll write a "G is for Garden" just about Klee's gardens!)  Line is also intimate with melody and contrapuntal lines aspire to the melodic: Christian Wolff's early insights about successions of events becoming melodic can be usefully placed alongside Ezra Pound's idiosyncratic theory of harmony — in which there is a function so that any two events, however alike or different in character — may define a line provided sufficient time passes between them. A good story told well also follows a line.  I like to recite the story of Jarl van Hoother and the Prankqueen from Finnegans Wake as a more-or-less classical folktale; it put my kids straight to sleep for years.  Finally, David Antin has a wonderful talk on line music counterpoint disjunction and the measure of mind (on this page, please listen to both parts of the recording!) with a fine example of a life as a line.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A sampling rate primer

This page has a very good introduction to digital audio quality issues, including the sampling theorem, distortion, oversampling and much else. This is an important current topic in the politics and business of recorded music and it's useful to be better informed.

Friday, March 14, 2014

K is for Karrows

The karrows plaie awaie mantle and all to the bare skin, and then trusse themselves in straw or leaves. They wait for passengers in the high-waie, invite them to game upon the greene and aske no more but companions to make them sport. For default of other stuffe they pawne their glibs, the nailes of their fingers and toes, their dimissaries which they leefe or redeeme at the courtesy of the winner. — Stanihurst

Yes, composing can be a form of gaming, even gambling, with risks taken (usually more to reputation than to pocketbook or limb, though ears are sometimes subject to physical challenges and a damaged reputation can have real effects on the pocketbook). And, yes, there is a mixture — often a finely calculated mixture at that — of choice/taste/habit, calculation/planning/cunning and chance/circumstance/accident that go into pieces. But, no, you don't need to know the composition of that mixture to hear the piece. (In fact, I think I'd be failing as a composer if that were the case.) If, however, some degree of play translates itself from composition to performance and audition, then this is an honest bonus.

J is for Jeremiad

A brief Jeremiad: Ron Silliman:  "Perhaps the most significant power move that the SoQ [School of Quietude] makes is to render itself the unmarked case in literature..."  Music, too, has its SoQ and the problem is not with the quietist music in itself but rather that its presence is so loud and resource-consuming that it excludes the possibility of  alternatives getting heard.  The marinalsopification of contemporary concert music is the worst example of this form of musical power politics at work with a kind of professionalization substituting for invention, creating, as the default setting for new music, a self-sustaining, well-behaved reproductive repertoire by the small caste who are then permitted to rotate the available orchestral commissions and residencies among themselves.  For example: Lou Harrison is surely turning over in his grave at the exclusion of experimentalists from the Cabrillo Festival with the infernal Catch-22 of an excuse that because they haven't had "enough" experience writing for orchestra (meaning, writing for orchestra within the constraints of a particular form of orchestral identity and practice) they aren't invited to write for orchestra and so are never able to get that experience so that they could actually be able to jump onto the hamster wheel of writing more boring approximations of professional music for more bored orchestras and shake it around and of its axis for a bit. End Jeremiad.

I is for Ictus

Generally speaking, ictus (plural icti) identifies the moment of a beat in music, corresponding to the moment of a stressed syllable within a metric foot in a poetic line.  The space between icti could be open or subdivided by additional attacks (or, in poetry, syllables) which, in the default setting, have a weaker stress, a default setting which can usefully be broken, i.e. syncopated.  (Accent marks were introduced in musical notation specifically for the purpose of indicating strong accents on weak beats or between icti.)  The "sweet" spot for tempi, at around 80 beats per minute, plus or minus about 50 percent, as I've mentioned here before, seems to mark our default setting for musical beats which can both be subdivided and between which we can proceed at a reliably steady tempo without subdividing.  (Indeed, at tempi below around 40 bpm, it is extremely difficult to sustain a regular tempo without maintaining a faster regular pulse.)  In classical Greek poetry (in which tune, metre, and text were not separate compositional entities) the foot was a durational unit, composed of short and long syllables, not of strongs and weaks (Greek had both stress accents and pitch accents or contours, but the metre was durational), leading to lines of flexible or additive durations due to the irregularity of the size of the feet, while most English spoken poetry is stressed yet follows a fairly regular beat between those stresses and most musicians, in contrast, think in terms of mixtures of stress and duration.  Musicians and poets will often scan a line of poetry differently, poets counting feet from the beginning of a line, while musicians will usually assign an anacrusis (a weak first syllable at the beginning of a line) to the previous foot at the end of the previous measure as a pick-up to the beat; the degree to which this is a meaningful difference or just a difference in notational conventions is a matter of controversy.

In his Music Primer, perhaps following a usage of his teacher Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison uses a broader definition of icti, identifying them simply as "attention-points, the separate 'attacks'".  He uses this to describe the composite rhythmic activity in an ensemble, if, for example, one voice has attackes on the first and third beats of a four beat measure and a second voice attacks after a dotted quarter rest, then an eighth note later and a quarter note after that, the composite rhythm is dotted quarter, eighth, eighth, dotted quarter: five instrumental attacks, but only four distinct icti, as the two voices coincide at beat three.   To some extent, this usage disposes of feet compositionally, though they will continue to be recognized in performance (in the way musicians count out the metre or a conductor beats it), as either a level below which any attacks are understood as subdivisions or above which metres are recognized as regular patterns of beats/feet.  I think Harrison — who can also be thought of as a minor Black Mountain poet as well as composer — may have also here been making a consequent response to innovations in poetry in which the foot became highly variable in length (see, in particular, Williams and Stein), taking the line clear across the page with it (see Olson, Duncan.)  The degree to which the ametrical developments in poetry paralleled the atonal in music is worth thinking about.

All of this points to a rhythmic/metrical environment which is rather free but there does seem to be a number of cognitive constraints at work at a primitive level, constraints that the late work of John Cage illustrate well. In the development of his work over decades Cage himself went, in his rhythmic practice, from a beat-based metrical practice to an ametrical practice without regular beats, with the frame of reference either space on the page or chronological time, using a stop watch as reference. (A large number of the early works are identified by rhythmic structures, which can be likened to the practice of identifying tonal works by keys.) These primitive constraints appear to me most vivid in the most extreme examples of Cage's time points when a sparse number of icti (in the Harrison sense) scattered into time brackets group or refuse to group depending upon their density/proximity, relative strengths in amplitude and, to some extent, their tonal or timbral similarities or differences.  Even though we're no longer counting regular beats, let alone assigning them to regular measures, that sweet tempo of around 80 bpm can still emerge to define groups of attacks as gathered relative to their most prominent members while distances of 40 bpm or greater between icti can continue to defeat a sense of regular tempo.  

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

H is for Hush!

In an interview with Thomas Moore, Robert Ashley says "I mean, we're using public address, basically, as a medium."  I think that there's exactly where Ashley's work becomes troubling for me.  Now, I'm not against troubling — indeed, the best social function of our work is often, as the saying goes, being able to give comfort to the troubled while troubling the comfortable — but I think there was a turn in Ashley's music when the use of the "public address" medium stopped being a critical topic (as in The Wolfman or Public Opinion Descends Upon the Demonstrators or in parts of That Morning Thing when private and public forms of address are so powerfully crossed with one another) and simply became his medium of choice.  Public address systems are a highly problematic phenomena in the world, with considerable conflation of the admirable function of amplification so that small sounds (voices, in particular) can be heard more widely with a dominating, monopolizing, and controlling function, so that particular amplified sounds, and the particular information carried by those sounds, violently dominates as an instrument of control by the actor or parties which control the amplification system, the one-way nature of which has the effect of excluding alternative voices with alternative information and tends to remove the possibility for dialog.  Getting loud is often a way of keeping others silent.  (This phenomenon is perhaps even more present in the developing world where an aggressive public use of microphone, amplifier, and loudspeaker, by political, religious, or commercial interests can be ubiquitous and, especially in public spaces, inescapable.)  I don't want to suggest that Ashley was entirely unaware of this, indeed, I think he had some strategies for subverting the medium, first through mixing parallel realizations of text and character templates, but more still through a cool rather than hot delivery (Bettgefluster — bed whispering — is the German radio broadcaster's term of art, here) and I think that some of the versions of Ashley's operas staged by others (there are videos on line if you're interested) have suffered from an in-your-face and over-the-top delivery style (Why do they shout into the microphone? Don't you use a mic just so that you won't need to shout?)  when Ashley's own brand of calm would have been at once more clear, inviting, and, yes, for better or worse, powerful.  

G is also for Gesture

The role of gesture in music receives a lot of attention, but very little concrete analysis. Hector Rodriguez's program Gestus rigorously analyzes movement in film images, separating gestures from the objects or actors in motion and identifies the gestural vocabulary present in an entire film, gathering together the most similar gestures, abstracted from their identities and contexts, in this case from Feuillade's serial Judex. What could an equivalent form of analysis for musical gesture be like? (A more detailed web site for Gestus is here.)

Monday, March 10, 2014

G is for Generations

Last Friday night was a Forum Neue Musik concert at the Hessischer Rundfunk, played by the HR Symphony under Franck Ollu.  The playing was terrific, as usual, Ollu's conducting sharp and shaped, as expected, but the programming was both problematic and revealing.  The Forum Neue Musik has been, for decades, one of the most important live & broadcast concert series for new music in Germany, and over the years has featured landmark performances, including all of the major orchestral works of Morton Feldman and important orchestral and ensemble performances of works by a real diversity of composers: among the most notable, off the top of my head:  Scelsi, Ives, Cage, Stockhausen, Obuchov, de Alvear, Lucier, Sorenson, Zimmermann, Lachenmann, Bauckholt, Ayres. Schnebel, and Young. Unfortunately, it seems to me that it is presently going, programmatically, through a very weak phase these days. I suspect this is most likely due to the internal politics of having an orchestra attached to a micropolitically complex institution like a German public radio station: the curator for new music may want one thing, the music department head another, but the orchestra leadership wants still another (for example, to show off a guest artist in residence or feature particular orchestra members), and still other pressures come from the present station leadership, which is close to the market-oriented Christian Democratic party, and would like to treat all radio activities as individual profit centers, thus insisting on a bottom line which sees, for example, the station's library of old recordings as unrealized investments that compete directly with any new activities, like the commissioning, performance, recording, and broadcasting of new works.  The problem for Forum Neue Musik is that it is becoming much harder to justify the "new" in the title when a program like last Friday's, in which two works were around a half century old, a third work was a John Adams arrangement of Debussy — and late 19th century, "Wagnerian", Debussy at that — and the two "new" works were undoubtedly by contemporary composers, lively composers at that, but definitely senior figures.  The other programmatic weakness suggested a critical glance at American music, if not a latent anti-Americanism at work.  The theme was, very roughly, the minimal in music and there was a decided Europe-against-America agon in play, with two examples of European composers working in territory similar to and comporaneous with, if not predating, early American radical music with a minimal impulse (a 1963 piece by Pärt, Perpetuum Mobile and  Scelsi's 1959 Quattro Pezzu su una nota sola) posed against with Adam's showpiece orchestration of  Debussy's Five Songs of Baudelaire (entitled Le Livre de Baudelaire, as if Adams was playing out an orchestrator's rivalry with Boulez) and Steve Reich's The Four Sections (which is, and isn't, as the program notes hint, Reich's agon with Bartók, but also, in particularly with the string writing in the stubborn counterpoint of the first movement, with a body of mid-20th century American orchestral music that is largely unknown here (I'm not enthusiastic about The Four Sections, but I came 'round to admiring the Reich formal stubbornness here, sticking with a grating string texture until it became background noise and his use of the horns as a harmonic background later in the piece. (In the Adams, coincidentally, the horn writing was also the best part.)))  All of this was unnecessary and unfortunate, particularly because the strongest work on the program (and also, coincidentia oppositorum, the most modest in resources demanded) was the new commission on the program, De-Crescendo by Ernstalbrecht Stiebler, the soon-to-be octogenarian former new music curator at HR, a gracious man and musician who has never found much charge in opposing the musics on either side of the Atlantic to one another, but rather considerable charge in their co-resonance.  Stiebler achieved something here connected to his experience with minimal musics of all sorts that was profoundly about drawing out a continuity of sound from tightly circumscribed initial impulses, here an unassuming melodic-harmonic cell in a pair of oboes, intuitively using a mixture of local and ad hoc processes to generate the passing figurations which project that continuity.  The revealing aspect of the program was that the Scelsi Four Pieces on a Single Note, a piece which I have known for about 30 years, and loved in its first LP recording, can work in a recorded environment, in which a good sound designer can create just the right reverberation, but is so fragile in live performance, even in a forgiving hall like the HR Sendesalle, that it is just not a reliable concert piece.  With the room full of people, it was an extremely dry acoustic, and the schematic, measure-by-measure, quality of the orchestration was exposed. Instead of a continuity, it was broken and discrete. My sense was that the conductor and players were really doing everything they possibly could to make the piece work, but I think it may actually be an example of a piece for which the historical importance is certain but the actual quality is not.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Robert Ashley is gone

The story goes (and this is now the stuff of legend) that Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma applied for a loan to fund the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in Ann Arbor in exactly the same week Berry Gordy sought a loan to start the Motown studio, just down the road.  I have no idea about the accuracy of that story (though, if true, I'd love to know which studio paid back its loan first, if either ever did), but those two studios certainly shaped music in profound ways that continue to resonate and resonate way beyond their initial niches.  People who know Ashley through the work of the last forty years, dominated by his work with speech, and in particular his operas  (okay, let's say it: for all intents and purposes, Ashley was a father of rap), which often fall into gentle and sentimental moods, may have missed that it had built upon a body of radical music that represented the hardest edge of the avant-garde.  Ashley's Wolfman was the one piece of the 1960s repertoire that most reliably left audiences shocked, shaken, running (or some combination of the above) while other works like the In Memoriam series and Public Opinion Descends upon the Demonstrators,  took everything we knew about musical form and shook it to its roots.  I studied composition with one half of the Sonic Arts Union, Mumma and Alvin Lucier. I didn't study with either David Behrman or Robert Ashley, but their work was always a background presence, music made by some wise but distant musical uncles.  I heard many performances by Ashley over the years, but I had exactly three conversations with him. The first conversation was at Mills College; I was thinking of applying to grad school there and he was, formally, interviewing me but he was clearly already on his way out of Mills at that point of time and the interview was, well, absent any of the features one might expect of an interview.  Questions, for example.  Then, a few years later, as a pesky non-Mills grad student, I had come to his apartment in that odd wedged-shaped building in lower Manhattan to ask him some pesky questions about one of his pieces and, though he was busy with recording something at the moment, he had kindly allotted me a few minutes which generously turned into a hour.  He talked about his piece, to be sure, but he took the conversation (well, not much of a conversation; I don't think I got more than three sentences in and one of those began with "Hello" and another with "Thank you") in other directions, mostly up and down.  I've come to think of it as a composition lesson, maybe an essential one.  It took place in his elevator, going up and down 'til we were done, I don't know, maybe a dozen times, only actually entering his apartment once to grab some piece of paper meant to illustrate something, and then, when he had decided it was over, depositing me on the ground floor. (I have the impression that he always knew how to come to the point: there's that famous interview with John Cage by Roger Reynolds, but somehow Robert Ashley, who must have been right there all along, 'til then silently kibbitzing the conversation, sweeps in at precisely right moment with  exactly the right question (Yes, it's all theatre.))  The third conversation was very short, two years ago after he had performed a brief but brilliant rap for Alvin Lucier's 80th bash.  I reminded him of the conversation in the elevator. Ashley said "It's a wonderful elevator."

Monday, March 03, 2014

F is for Fiction

Rather than getting tied down in issues of accuracy and original ("composerly") intentions in performance, perhaps it would be both more convenient and more to the point to think of music in the composer -> notation -> performer line of transmission as a kind of story-telling, an honest fiction.  This may even be inevitable when one considers how much noise there is that line:  first, the actual state of notation, when one considers that there are works in the standard repertoire for which commonly-used sets of scores and parts may have several thousand errors (a thicket for which orchestral music librarians are continually pressed to trim back) above and beyond the continuous changes in editorial styles and standards practiced by editors, publishers, and performers, and that above and beyond the copying inaccuracies, oversights, and just plain mistakes of the composer her/himself,  puts the material identity of many works into question even before a single note is played, let alone heard, second, performer inaccuracy, due to lack of rehearsal, lack of goodwill (between whichever parties), or just the necessities of getting around a score that's awkward or tough to play, of which necessities, faking it, may well — and with surprising frequency — be a (yes) legitimate part of getting the piece played, and third, musical performance practice is full of stylistic languages, dialects, sociolects, and idiolects, some official, some outlaw, and that these themselves are unstable and will reliably be heard to change, in both subtle and gross ways, with place and time is a certainty, but how, when, where, and by whom is completely unpredictable. At its worst, this can be an unfortunate game of telephone, but at its best, all of this accumulated noise creates a chain with depth, connections, and elaboration that makes the storytelling more complex, sometimes stranger, and when we're lucky, sometimes even more compelling.  Think of the opening of Beethoven's Fifth, perhaps the most familiar thing in the world, but handed down to us in "standard" performance practice  that is wildly at variance from the notation. Now, it's absolutely possible to play the opening bars both in the notated tempo and reflecting the natural accents of the notated metre, and a few conductors have done this, but the Jinn of the received opening is and remains out of the bottle, and we're only going to hear the opening against that background presence.  So in an sense, we get to have the opening both ways, ambiguously suspended between two irreconcilable versions of that story we still comfortably call the Fifth Symphony. AS LONG AS WE'RE AT F, and we've mentioned faking it, let me stress that I don't buy the distinction some make between accurate and faithful performances.  This is a typical strategem in the new complexity scene when, in the face of performances that are objectively at variance with an accurate reading of the notation, there is insistance that fidelity to the "spirit" of the work trumps the letter.  Yes, there is all that uncertainty in the notation mentioned above, but that doesn't mean the notation we do have is to be played with fast and loose; in that case, just be upfront and identify the performance as an improvisation on the score, or a variation on it, or some sort of new composition altogether and distribute the compositional credits accordingly.  But, at base, I'm not a Platonist, and I just don't believe that there is an ideal form (whether in the composer's mind or in some world of ideal forms out there somewhere)  in which we have "faith" and then attempt to faithfully reproduce in our performances.  Instead, I think musical works are real physical events, constructed in time by real persons, with written notation just one step (and an optional one at that) in that constructive process. My experience has been that it's terribly important to have goodwill between the actors in this process, but I don't think the introduction of faith is either conducive to goodwill or, in the end, necessary at all, particularly when faithfulness is used as an excuse for doing violence to the score.  Far better to identify the work then performed as one's own than to describe it as a faithful but inaccurate reading of the score; by the same token, composers do not invite goodwill with performers when they explicitly encourage the supposedly faithful over the accurate. We're in the business of storytelling here, not lying. This is not an argument against notationally complex music, but rather an argument for a more honest, more musical, and more humane approach to notation: instead of excusing the inaccurate with "faithfulness" let's just be more comfortable with the fact that all notation is, in its own terms, incomplete or inaccurate or so-specific as to be very difficult when not, for most mortals, impossible, and that the approach to the accurate, combined with all the material circumstances of music-making, as well as local and individual habits and practices, is a lively one that in no way discounts the accurate as a musical value. AND THIS TOO, F IS FOR FAILURE:  Ben.Harper has a post wrestling with the terms experimental and failure. I won't go far into this, but I think Ben is missing Cage's eventual embrace — after a long period of initially rejecting and then wrestling with the term which paralleled his own introduction of elements of chance and indeterminacy (and, much later, contingency) into his work — of the experimental label as simply indicating an engagement with actions the outcomes of which are unforeseen. (The consequences of that embrace are not simple, but embraces frequently lead to complex outcomes, don't they?)   I don't think we make much progress when we insist on considering "experimental" in music in the terms of the experimental scientific method, as aesthetic discovery just doesn't map well onto scientific discovery, with the particular know of experiment/discovery/invention/failure/success wound up very differently (indeed, as a scientific experiment always produces information, is it actually very odd to even think in terms of an executed experiment failing; even when the thesis is not proved, the experiment productive of data. (On the other hand, we all know musical failures that leave nothing useful in their wake: indeed, in some scenes, it's practically the normal state of affairs!)  The failure topic is a large one in itself and I will leave it alone for now with the observation that every innovation in music, from fauxbourdon (yes. F is for fauxbourdon, too) to the Vibra-slapTM is a failure in terms of previous regimes of music-making (and the Vibra-slapTM may just well still be a failure AFAIC), just as Rugby was a failure to play Soccer properly, when, as the story goes, one William Webb Ellis picked up the ball with his hands and made a run for it.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Leedy on Singing Ancient Greek

Ancient Greek musical practice has been a constant, and often almost obsessive, presence in western compositional thought and practice.  "Re-imaging"  the performance of Greek Drama has provided a spark igniting the invention of European Opera and reinvigorating it at intervals in forms only distantly related to their origins, from Monteverdi to Gluck to Berlioz and Wagner and to such disparate later figures as Richard Strauss, Carl Orff or Harry Partch.  On the other hand, modern poets look comfortably back to Homer and Hesiod or Sappho and Archilochus, but they look back to them as producers of words, usually neglecting the fact that those words were originally performed with tones and rhythms by singing voices.   There has been particularly intense work in the past two decades or so on Ancient Greek music, both its theory and practice.  We have a small corpus of surviving notated music, representing a range of repertoires and lively controversy has followed its interpretation.  The bulk of existing Ancient Greek music, however, is represented by epic, lyric, and dramatic texts without musical pitch notation.  This does not mean that the music has been lost altogether, however, as we know the metres of these texts and much of the rhythmic detail within these metres can be reconstructed from the patterns of long and short quantities inherent in the language.  Ancient Greek was also a language with pitch accents, and these may well have played a role in the composition of the melodies (although there is also considerable evidence that poets and dramatists also composed melodies that went against these pitch accents, with both pitch and rhythmic usage contrary to natural contours presumably used for the striking effect they would create.)    The composer and scholar Douglas Leedy (who goes by the name Bhisma Xenotechnites) has summarized his own work in re-imagining the practice in a monograph on Singing Ancient Greek, which has now been made available on the eScholarship page of the UC Berkeley Department of Classics, here.  

Monday, February 24, 2014

Pushing Sassafras Wood for Synthesizers

Here's a video portrait of Baltimore electronic instrument designer Peter Blasser.  In the early 70s, composer (and electronic instrument designer) Gordon Mumma, notoriously introduced the notion of an "electronic folk music" and while the term "folk" has its baggage, it's precisely the kind of baggage packed so that one is forced to keep thinking and rethinking the circumstances of how the music is made, with what means, by whom and within which communities and for what purposes. One of the liveliest scenes in New Music today involves extraordinary electronic and electroacoustic instruments and music being made by artists largely independent of institutional music support and (mostly) cheerfully disregarding any amateur/professional divisions that institutional music tends to reinforce, yet absolutely thriving whether as independents or in elective communities (let me emphasize that: not folk as in kinship and ethnos, but from a coming together due to an elective affinity), gathering for workshops, sharing materials, schematics and other know-how and esoterica on-line and off and generally finding ways to be inventive with all the jetsam and ligam of our economy, which get hacked and bent into forms completely unintended by their original manufacturers.  The "folk" label really becomes provocative when one considers that relationship to the broader world and how such an admixture of high and low technology comes into play, with Blasser, for example, as enthusiastic about tactility of the local hardwoods used in his keys and cases as in the circuitry housed behind them.  And, too, consider, when visiting his websites, how Blasser's handwork has gone hand-in-hand to imagining a whole world around his music from the ground up, with its own idiosyncratic parameters and theory and terminology (not unlike the Anaphorian music of Kraig Grady.)  At the same time, Blasser is directly engaging with the real world, founding a cottage industry in Baltimore and making broader connections (such as a line of code referencing the invasions of G.W. Bush.)  And the music made with these instruments? It's really impossible to make generic descriptions; given the variability and unpredictability of the instruments and the performance diversity of the individual players a vector space of possibilities is opened up that range from the elegant and virtuosic all the way down, which is precisely the kind of depth missing from less lively Kampungs, Oblasts and Boroughs of Newmusicland with their tendency to emphasize a certain sphere of music-making at the expense of everything else.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Round & Ringing

Here's a new pilish piece for percussion ensemble.  While intended for an out-of-doors concert, it may also be useful for teaching situations (math, music, environmental studies...)

Friday, February 14, 2014

E is for Espionage

For five years, from the Summer of 2000 to the Summer of 2005, I lived in Budapest, Hungary.  I was a trailing spouse, as my spouse had been assigned to teach at one of the international school there.  My passport was stamped by the Hungarian immigration office with the words BEARER MAY NOT WORK, an instruction which I proceeded to follow to the letter.  Not difficult. I had kids to raise, a household to run, an exotic language to learn, after all, and I did like to sit leisurely in cafes or a good Étkezde, the perfect ex-pat, eating Ruszwurm or Eszterhazy torte and reading the Herald Tribune.   However, as a new music person in a city with some interesting new music activity, I tried to make some contact to local composers and players. I sent off forty-some letters with cds of my music asking not to get played (for I realized quickly that the local resources were very tight), but just to visit, talk shop, and to learn more about Hungarian new music.  I got nothing, not a single response.  I was, in Budapest, musically invisible.  I had had performances of my puppet opera in Cape Cod, and a few things in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and even neighboring Bratislava, I played a lot of gamelan at the local Indonesian embassy and I wrote some pieces for school performance, including a set of songs for a Brecht play, in Budapest, but for Hungarian new music, I was just not there. Once, I did get an email invitation to chat from a musicologist who had seen my name and address on an internet forum, but within hours the invitation was rescinded as the author had decided to go to Lake Balaton for the foreseeable future.  I found all of this curious, but was not bitter about it because I appreciated time to work on my music without external pressure and my family did have a wonderful time there, living well in a crazy apartment in the Buda hills with a direct view, on a clear day, to Bartok's house on the side of the next mountain over. Only later was I able to put together a plausible explanation for all of this:  the Cold War was not far behind and I was an ex-pat Yankee in town without any visible means of support or clear affiliations, and yes, I sat in cafes and read the Herald Tribune, waiting for that rendezvous or ready to make a drop-off at a moment's notice. The Hungarian new music scene, on the other hand, had been hurt, materially-speaking, by the change of systems: before, a recognized composer got a good teaching job and regular commissions, was published and recorded by the state music publishing companies and enjoyed a social status on par with other professionals and intellectuals.  All of that had become shaky and the resources available for concertizing, commissioning, teaching, publishing and travel had all been strongly reduced while new entrepreneurial and political classes were developing which left artists and intellectuals far behind in wealth and social prestige. Although I didn't constitute any competition for these scarce resources, I must have appeared to be both part of the new order and oddly unreadable. Later I would read Harry Mathews's marvelous (non-?) fiction memoir, about being an Ami ex-pat in Europe assumed, by some, to have obviously been a spy, My Life in CIA,  and realized that had I decided, as Mathews had (or had not), to have let the (fictional) appearance of being a spy play itself out by never explicitly denying being a spy, driving a faster car, wearing a good trench coat, hanging out inconspicuously in conspicuous places, suddenly dropping anonymized packages in odd containers, etc., I might well have been able to leverage the novelty of it all into a much more interesting career in Hungarian new music.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

D is for Detail

I use the word "detail" a lot when talking about pieces of music.  It's not a term a get from my Cagean heritage, as detail implies some hierarchy among materials which was not an enthusiasm of  Cage's. I think I started using the word after hearing Morton Feldman use it, but it also could have been following Milton Babbitt who used it in describing Schenker's analytic technique as one which can compellingly describe how details both define and come from their context, belonging to particular continuities or simultaneities. Of course, a word like detail is somewhat fuzzy in the abstract, it has to be identified in its concrete context.  I think of a detail as something smaller than the breadbox of a feature  — compare, for reference, the distinctions we would make between the features and details of a striking face; that nose or that mop of hair is a feature, that freckle or crease a detail —, and although a detail may well puzzle or even be a nagging detail,  a detail is part and parcel of a work, intimate to it, in a way that an ornament may have the luxury not to be.  You can add or remove an ornament, and it may well increase value, but it will unlikely alter the identity of a work, but change a detail...?  You might be removing the keystone in the arch or the yeast in the bread.  A detail need not be some small but remarkable collection of notes at the surface of tonal music, it could be a small breath taken here, at this moment in particular and not another, or it could be a composer's insistence, in the score's notation, that the players of a string quartet be seated just a bit farther apart than usual.  I had friends in high school who were — and some very much still are, as we're talking a Southern Californian high school — serious about their cars. They were devoted to keeping them "cherry", a condition that went beyond merely looking shiny and new. Some of them were real virtuosi at car care, both mechanics and looks, both inside and out.  It was never enough to tune, clean and polish those cars, they had to be detailed, an attention to the smallest element that made the whole much more than a some of the parts.

* This was a response to an anecdote about Schoenberg's supposed exasperation at his favorite moments disappearing in the Schenker analysis of the Eroica.  Babbitt quite nicely put it: "Well, would those be your favorite places in Scheherezade? Would they be your favorite places if they popped up in the middle of The Merry Widow? They're your favorite places in a great big piece called the Eroica Symphony. They're your favorite places, we hope, because they're part of the continuity and part of the context, and who provides a better characterization of the continuity and context than does Schenker?"  (Babbitt, Words about Music, p. 140.)   

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What is electronic music, anyways?

I just heard that Peter Elsea, who ran the Electronic Music Studios at UC Santa Cruz from 1980 through 2013, has published the ultimate version of his studio composition handbook, The Art and Technique of Electroacoustic Music.  I haven't gotten a copy yet, but from its contents it appears to be a solid introduction to its subject from an authority and a gifted teacher who has maintained a studio which continues to represent the historical evolution of its techniques from live electronic music to the manipulation of physical audio recordings through analog synthesis, the design of dedicated hardware, hybrid analog-digital systems, all the way through to computer-based digital synthesis.

The publication of Elsea's book is a good opportunity to note how divergent the academic field of electronic or electroacoustic music has become.  There are several large university music departments or conservatories in which the study of "electronic music" is geared entirely to the production of midi-based mock-ups of written scores.  This can be useful, but it's far from a comprehensive approach to the topic, and it tends, in my experience, to be limited to gaining practical experience with a particular set of hard- and software.  For other departments, "electronic music" is, or has become, synonymous with computer music. (I recently encountered the introductory textbook used in such a department, in which the first chapter begins with the arguable assertion: "Electronic music is usually made using a computer, by synthesizing or processing digital audio signal.")  And there are still a handful of places where music is made from elementary electronic tools, like microphones, amplifiers and loudpeakers, maybe an oscillator or two and even the good old soldering iron comes into play for for some old-fashioned  hardware hacking or hands-on circuit bending in the lively on-going extensions of the David-Tudor-Table-Full-of-Tools tradition.  One of the curious results of this is that students can walk out of introductory Electronic Music classes from different schools and have practically no overlap in what they've studied. (Note that I don't believe this to necessarily be a bad thing!)  Against this background, Elsea's Santa Cruz Studio has been a rather unique example of a studio representing the breadth of the field, and his students over the years have gone on to careers in sound design and film sound editing, popular music recording and production, contemporary analog and digital electronic music, and even some oddball experimental music along the way.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

C is for Concerts

Composer David Cope has posted a video listing — formatted like a rolling Star Wars introduction text — "100 things (he) hate(s) about concerts."   Most items on the list have to do with concert ritual and etiquette, many have to do with the social environment, particularly the hygiene of ones neighbors and the auditorium, but also the inevitable social interactions, and even an isolated few genuinely musical issues.  Well, yes, we can agree to hate most of these.  But honestly, what does that get us and, more importantly, what's the better alternative? Even though I'm something of a recluse, an over-the-border-line misanthrope and maybe even something of an agoraphobe at that, and though I enjoy making my own music at home for my own satisfaction perhaps more than anything else, it's obvious to me there is something unique and valuable — for which the complementary activity and artifacts of recordings, mediated by technical limitations, editing, mixing, sound-designing, and fed through amps and equalizers and boosters into every variety of loudspeaker into every kind of room other than the one we once could have been, or auto, or headphone may be documentary evidence or artwork on their own terms are also no alternative — about sounds produced by live and physically-present voices and instruments in unique locations in real and interesting spaces and sharing the experience in real time with other people who have chosen to come there and then to share an event, not least in their coming together to share the potential risk that something will go wrong, even very wrong, or the opportunity that something unplanned and unexpected will go right, uniquely right, and then be lost to all but fragile memory as the last wavefronts of air-pushed-by-sound dissipate into the wider world around.   The problems of the embarrassing body noises from one's neighbor, not enough light to read the program, chewing gum attached to unfortunate locations, or the squeaky and uncomfortable chair are real enough, but they are social and practical, not immediately musical, and giving up on solving them is more a symptom of a deeper social problematic than a musical one.  The musician who can't manage to match the oboe's A, is indeed a musical problem, but it's not inherent in the concert as institution or event, and it is correctable. Yes, the concert, in its physical and social form and content, is very much a work in progress, and it invites, no, demands innovation and change, as, indeed it always has changed, but it is a special and worthwhile project and, for better or worse, there are complements but no musically honest substitutes.

Monday, February 10, 2014

B is for British

I started to write a item with this title, in response to a request.  It ended up longer than it ought to have been and, in the end, was less about British music than about my inability to understand, strike that, follow much of it.  Setting aside, for a moment, the reservation I have about a common passport among composers as a meaningful musical marker,  I have reliably found the energy and invention among the [experimental*] and [complexity*] scenes in Great Britain often to be remarkable, and reliably more interesting than the more establishment mainstream.** I have also long puzzled why these two factions are so often factious, when they really ought to be complementary allies in matters of musical politics and resource allocation (but then again, who should be surprised by factiousness among musicians, passionate and materially impoverished profession that it is?), but then again, two composers I admire very much, Christopher Fox and Richard Ayres (the former also one of the better writers on new music and the latter the most astonishingly inventive orchestrator of our era, particularly his uncanny sense of orchestration as essentially a continuity rather than a simultaneity element) seem to me to be resolving any such divide in their own work quite nicely, thanks. My own natural sympathies are with the experimental scene, that described in Nyman's book (I bought a copy the year it was published), but also work that has been done since in its tradition (yes, the idea of an experimental tradition is something of a non-sequitur, but it's a non-sequitur that's been musically productive for a damn long time) as well as work that didn't get caught in Nyman's net at the time, particularly that of independents like Annea Lockwood, but my admiration for many of the [complexers] is an honest one.  (As I've pointed out here before, experimentalists are also wildly interested in complexity.***)   In 1990, my summer of commuting between the Darmstadt courses and teaching English to brokers and bankers, I watched Brian Ferneyhough**** and Richard Barrett give their chalk talks; Ferneyhough's description of successive transformations of a rhythm or of couple of measures was a spooky echo of Lou Harrison describing his transformations of phrases with permutated measures, and Barrett's proportional description of his string quartet similarly recalled John Cage analyzing his String Quartet in Four Parts to me in a Houston hotel room. So while I was prepared, technically, to get into the music I found myself somewhat shut out because the actual materials used, in their acoustic character, internal relationships and external associations, were often completely opaque.  (Coming from a long deep study of alternative tunings, I was also frustrated by the haphazard — in terms of sensory consonance and dissonance — approach to microtones: merely using a highly variegated pitch vocabulary doesn't necessarily lead to a proportionate extension of pitch relationships.)  I was also troubled by the distinction made between accurate and "faithful" interpretations of the notation.  But mostly, it was a very strange, if not foreign, way of putting tones after one another and together. I couldn't follow, but I'm still trying because I'm still fascinated.

* contentious terms resting in hard brackets: [ ].
** no, I can't take the 20-minute Proms piece seriously.  And yes, Thomas Adès strikes me as a Wolfgang Rihm-ish figure, an amiable, musical guy, who is extremely fluent at a kind of approximation or simulacrum of serious modern music, but not music I can personally go into any depth with.
*** see, for example, this essay (scroll down a bit) by David Feldman on some of Tom Johnson's music.
**** Anyone else tried reading the new Lois Fitch monograph on Ferneyhough with an e-reader?  Above and beyond the surprising amount of text dropped or otherwise corrupted, it's disappointing because much of the action in the music under discussion, even when that music celebrates its own less-than-clear character comes about from a small body of techniques that could be described much more clearly.  I would think that a very useful little book could be written setting aside all of the broader cultural themes which have engaged the composer and just describing a number of F's techniques and considering their potentials, alone and in combination, in real musical contexts. And yes, please, let's get rid of this "irrational time signature" business!

Friday, January 31, 2014

Enough names to go around?

I've admired the work of the Amsterdam-based new music ensemble, Trio Scordatura, which has specialized in music with alternative tunings since 2006.  Now, I've just read a review at the New Music Box of a Texan violin and viola twosome, Duo Scordatura.  Before I clicked on the review, I expected to find that some 2/3 of the Amsterdam trio had done a recording absent either a voice, viola or keyboard instrument.  Given the lack of overlap in repertoire and physical distances between the groups, I don't expect that the two groups are much likely to be competing for exactly the same market segments for concerts, but recordings and online items do circulate widely and live long and there ought to be enough interesting and useful names to go around, so start-up groups ought to do a little due diligence to avoid such similarities. When the market stakes are higher, this name business can get cutthroat (like the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain / United Kingdom Ukelele Orchestra fracas) but I think the New Music World is both small enough and kind enough that we could get along with some more respect for others' names. Kraig Grady, for example, has worked as an ambassador for the music of the (possibly imaginary) island state of Anaphoria for decades now, with postings in both the US and in Australia, in numerous solo and ensemble configurations, often with film or shadow theatre;  however, another new music group established itself in Chicago in 2008 with a potentially confusing name, the Ensemble Anaphora.  Not quite the same word (the first is a medical term, the second literary/linguistic, but I suspect both are rooted in the Greek anapherein, to bring back or to carry) but close enough to potentially confuse (I hit upon the later Chicagoan website while trying to remember the other's URL.)   Interesting and exciting work comes from both Anaphoria and Anaphora, and it'd be nice for each to have a more distinctive name.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Hocket in the Works, in Aptos

If you happen to be near Santa Cruz, California on Saturday the 1st, The Santa Cruz New Music Works will be playing a mixed bill at Cabrillo College in Aptos including the first performance of my little Double Hocket for three treble and two bass instruments.  I first heard a concert by NMW in late 1979, and it's a typical sign of the lively cultural life of that community that The Works are still going strong, under the direction of their impressario, Philip Collins, more than three decades later.  I was fortunate to take part in an exquisite corpse cooperative composing project for Lou Harrison's 75th birthday, so this is my second happy collaboration with Collins and Co.. This program will also include the premier of Tryst by a good friend and fine composer, Steed Cowart.  I've seen the score to Tryst and it looks like a whole lot of hocketting will be going down in Aptos this weekend.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Taking Inventory

Here's a page of a piece — or maybe not yet a piece — I made last year:

(Click the image to enlarge.)  This is the first of a series of similar pieces. It's nothing more than a list of the pitches, measure-by-measure, in ascending order, found in a famous piece of "learned" music.  I did it first as an analysis, but found that that I liked playing it as well (not a particularly innovative idea: The Scratch Orchestra's Draft Constitution suggested playing from Schenker graphic analyses, after all!)  It works well on a keyboard, but is perhaps more engaging as a solo cello piece, either way with the something of the character of an unmeasured prelude.  As a piece of music, it erases the rhythmic and polyphonic aspects of the source composition, but something of the harmonic flavor remains and the ametrical but steady rhythm has  a character of its own, somewhere between cogitating and meditative.  It is not as "interesting" as the source, and certainly not as efficient, but it tells something about the source material that may have been otherwise overlooked (overheard?)

But I'm not altogether sure that it's a finished piece.  Things like this need time to determine whether more or less composing — here, manipulation, in the form of addition or subtractions of elements or instructions — is in order.  (Thinking here, as usual, of Jasper Johns's recipe:  Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.)

The idea of taking inventory of one or more classes of objects or features in a work is a standard analytical exercise and here provides some fuel for the fire of how much quantitative elements contribute to the qualitative experience of a musical work.  There is a body of contemporary poetry which plunders the inventories of existing works.  The composer and poet (and all-round free radical thinker) Samuel Vriezen pointed me in the direction of the astonishingly virtuosic anagrammatical Sonnets, or "Sonnagrams", of K. Silem Mohammad, formally strict English Sonnets, each of which is based on a Shakespeare Sonnet, each with 14 end-rhymed iambic pentameter lines using only the letters found in the corresponding Shakespeare poem, with any leftover letters used in the title of each Sonnet.  As I understand it, this is an ongoing project, with the ambition to compose a full set.  What I have read impressed me no end; they are at turns deeply moving, funny, troubling, daring.  How can you not love a poem that begins:

Go softly to the Disneyland Hotel,
Its simulacral threshold grown sublime:
The bedrooms all emit that new car smell,
Like nothing else in bourgie Anaheim.

? With Muhammed's examples of an old familiar sonnet scrambled into a new and much stranger, if contemporary, sonnet, it is awfully tempting to scramble my prelude and turn it back into a fugue of some sort.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Temporary Notes (17)

So there's this new watch — well, it's really a very slow metronome — that buzzes every five minutes, just a reminder that a certain span of time has passed, the particular duration chosen for a certain quality: "vibrating any more often than every five minutes, they found was annoying; any longer than 10 and it became hard to remember when the last interval started."  In other words, the interval needn't have been precisely five minutes, indeed, unless we filled up that duration singing to ourselves a song that exactly fit that length or carrying out some task with some number of mechanically precise repetitions, most of us really wouldn't reliably know whether the duration was five minutes exactly or somewhat longer.  Robert Erickson named a piece "Taffy Time" with the notion of capturing something elastic about the sensation of acoustic events marking the passing of time; my own experience has been that a lot of musical value can be conveyed by time intervals that escape precision.  Neuroscientists have been able to identify a number of internal clocks which we carry around with us, regulating operation of the body and determining how we take information in and process it. These clocks tick within fairly stable frequency ranges, but can be usefully dynamic within these ranges, the heartbeat and rate of breathing slows down and speeds up whether we're at rest or working, musical consonances resolve themselves more quickly in the brain than dissonances, etc.. This is not just theory, it's enormously practical, the stuff of big business even: it sets the rate that frames flicker by in films  (and also explains why we can follow "movement" on a video screen, but dogs get confused) or the sampling rates for recorded sound. For musicians, the clocks that seem to matter most are one that ticks around 200 mHz, at which, when two sounds occur within that span, we can't reliably sort out which came first, and then around 10 or 12 Hz, the rate at which we can, with some degree of certitude, tell whether successive pulses are evenly spaced or not, then the sweet spot of around 80 beats per minute, within which we tend to subdivide and take in whole groups of rhythmic activity — metric feet (which relate to both song and dance, activities closely tied to basic body mechanisms), drum rudiments, words in Morse code or touch typing all fall into this range — and above or below which most tempo phenomena occur (and, usefully, when one reaches the half or the double of a tempo in this region, subdividing or grouping can kick in, as in the Javanese Irama system, in which dynamic tempi settle at stable densities over multiple levels of doubling or halving) and among which we tend to group into handfuls of pulses, for example into metres, which may or may not be reinforced by dynamic stresses or subtle distortions (both regular and irregular) in the lengths of successive beats. This new metronomic watch, however, is explorating a clock that, in musical terms, is ticking at the level of form rather than local rhythm.  Five minutes would be on the long side  for a pop song, better for a slow than a fast dance, it could be a whole piece of concert music, or a movement or section of a larger work.  In any case, it is certainly at the edge of an ambiguous formal length: I find that for a huge swathe of the repertoire, three minutes is short, eight or more is a substantial movement, so five minutes falls somewhere in-between. Beyond this, the twenty-minute single movement strikes me as rather often ambiguous or anonymous again, depending upon whether we start to subdivide it, and some time length beyond that, in a region Feldman and Ashley both identified as "scale", form starts to do something altogether.

A is for Antiquity

When I was very small, my mother took me to see the touring exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls when they came to Claremont. For weeks beforehand, I had been prepped by both parents about how exciting and important they were.  When we finally saw the exhibition, however, I was disappointed because no dead squirrels were on display.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Professor Pythagoras Would Be Jealous

Professor Pythagoras Would Be Jealous

for Alvin Lucier's 81st

for electric guitar and six sine waves

The instruments should be individually amplified, with their own loudspeakers, not mixed electronically. The volume should be modest.

The electric guitar is tuned D - G - c - f - bb - eb', in beatless fourths.

The six sine waves are tuned to the same frequencies as the guitar.

Over the course of 10 minutes the lowest sine wave holds the tone D continuously and the five other tones descend steadily to a beatless unison with the low D.  The initial tuning in fourths and final unison may be sustained for up to one minute each, briefly fading in at the beginning and more slowly fading out at the end.

At the same time, the guitarist plays a steady six-string ascending arpeggio with the right hand while attempting, with the left hand on the tuning gears, to match the tuning of the guitar as closely as possible to the current tuning of the sine waves.

D. J. Wolf
May 2012

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Einstein on the Beach and the Relations of Production

I caught the last half or so of the live web broadcast from Paris of the revived Einstein on the Beach.  The theatrical pacing is still unlike anything else, the dancing this evening was especially clear and sharp-edged and the music still carries its particular charge, although now no longer its rough ensemble charm, but thankfully with restored tone colors closer to the original analog electric organs rather than the slick synth sounds that had turned up in revivals during the early CD era.  Everyone who knows Einstein probably has their own vivid recall of first hearing it (and those lucky enough to have seen a production even more so); for me it was an extended broadcast on Carl Stone's KPFK program, in headphones in a big recliner in the family den, and I immediately started saving to buy the box set of LPs.  (That set would later get played in entirety on Hallowe'en in 1981 over the biggest set of amp and speakers found in my Santa Cruz dormitory hall, creating an evening in which chemical enhancements were entirely unnecessary for an elevated sensory experience.)

But enough nostalgia for a moment:  I don't think it's been remarked upon often enough that Einstein (with, a little later, Robert Ashley's opera for television Perfect Lives) represented the most important challenge to opera in terms of its use of labor and means of production.  When Wilson and Glass rented the Met and Glass plopped his amplified keyboard, wind and solo vocal ensemble (with strategic use of violin obbligato and chorus)  into the pit, this constituted a fundamentally different way of filling a large hall for an evening with a complex and compelling mass of sound from business as usual in the opera house, which usually means the production of music via the last mass manual labor practice surviving from the steam age.  Now, to be certain, I find that there is a real and unique value to a good that requires the live participations of several hundred people with highly specialized skills working in close coordination yet able — sometimes spontaneously — to respond to sudden changes (there is no production line on the planet, not for cars, not for cell phones, not for bathing caps, that has the level of sensitivity and flexibility towards impromptu changes that a good opera company has when forced to respond to, for example, an inexplicably absent sword carrier in a crowd scene, a curtain falling when it should be raised or a missed vocal cue by a momentarily distracted soubrette (to be fair, of course, not all opera companies are that reliably good!)) and, more importantly, the sound of a large orchestra with or without unamplified voices in a good hall is a value in itself.  But, it is an honest question, in terms of both economics and aesthetics, to ask if this is a use of labor and resources that can be often afforded for new music for the theatre.  Let's stipulate that the amplified and mixed Einstein ensemble was cost-effective, but let's also be clear about precisely about the ways in which it is effective.  An amplified-and-mixed chamber group does not, and will not, have the same presence in any hall that the big orchestra has, but neither should it try to, as it has qualities of its own.  The strength, in this regard, of Einstein, as far as I'm concerned was that Glass used the ensemble's sound as an acoustic thing in itself, not as an orchestral surrogate, and although much of the music had, at the levels of notes alone, its infamous simplicity, at the real sonic surface there were all sorts of other things going on, in terms of beats and resultant tones and surprising patterns of melodic reinforcements and unexpected spatial resonances, a liveliness and complexity both different to and impossible in the traditional orchestral organization. Moreover, temporal and tonal control was in real time (Glass would nod his head to indicate moves forward from repetitions, and similarly the live sound mix would be adjusted to spontaneous changes in the composite sound.)  Glass's later operatic works use more traditional instrumental resources (pit, big band, man with stick), so there is a lot more remaining to be done in this direction.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Writing for String Quartet

After many years, I have learned, when writing for string quartet, that it can be useful to write some music for a violin, another violin, a viola, and also for a cello. It may also be useful if the music for these four instruments can be played at the same time and it's also potentially useful if all four instruments can be played in some proximity to one another. Of course, these are all variables and it's worth bearing in mind that the string quartet we have -- which is not necessarily the string quartet we might dream about -- comes out of a habit, in tonal music, of featuring three-note chords, with at least one of the tones doubled, perhaps at an octave or multiple thereof, and the occasional chord with more or less than three notes, and in general, a spacing among the tones with larger intervals at the bottom and smaller ones at the top; this last feature is reflected in the tuning proportions among the instruments, of 1:2:3:3. For violinists and violas, diatonic tones and their chromatic neighbors share a finger, while cellists can give a finger to each semitone. All string players are trained to play passage work — often the dark matter that fills up most of a piece of music —  based on these assignments of fingers. It may be useful to keep a fiddle around to see how your music fits the hand; it may be more useful to keep a fiddler around to show you.  Finally, there are lots of tricks these instruments can do, alone or together, involving strings, bodies, fingers, bows, mutes, harmonics, and so forth and in all their combinations, but your mileage may vary and, don't forget, the balance among egos in a quartet is a delicate thing and each individual may well require regular stroking, whether through the notes you write her or him, or other, non-musical, forms of affection.  

Sunday, January 05, 2014


The films of Georges Méliès have, justifiably, received much attention in recent years. They remain remarkable for their imagery — Méliès was a master of stage magic — yet are essentially spectacles with just enough story to sustain 3 to 14 minutes of attention.  The early filmmaker who continues to fascinate me most, however, is Louis Feuillade, who explored the potential of film for narrative in a time before the rules of the medium were established and in ways which still have creative potential.  It is estimated that he made over 800 films in his 20 years of activity, in all genres, from trick films and comedies to mythical adventures, biblical dramas and salon melodramas, but his genre of vituosity was suspense serial and, although the greater part of his work has not survived, there are four serials that are among the most engaging works I know:  Fantômas (1913-14), Les Vampires (1915)

Judex (1916), and Tih-Minh (1918)(Edward Gorey, who enthusiastically recommended Feuillade to me, thought that the serial Barrabas (1919) was the "greatest movie ever made"; unfortunately, I've never been able to see either it, the second series of Judex or 1922's Parisette.)  It is understood that Feuillade came from a conservative, Catholic background and had a military career, which offers no explanation at all as to why he would suddenly start in filmaking around 1905 and proceed with such explosive productivity to make works with proto-surreal imagery and strage plots that persistantly resist the conventions of bourgeois morality like his suspense serials, in which the villains rapidly become your heros.  The criminal gang of Les Vampires or the outside-the-law heroes of Fantômas or Judex certainly inspire the audience's allegiance more firmly than their opponents in the establishment.  There is an anarchic tendency here that famously got Les Vampires banned for a time, but also is a powerful source for every masked film hero to come.

IMDB offers up this plot summary for Tih-Tinh:  
"Jacques d'Athys, a French adventurer, returns to his home in Nice after an expedition to Indochina where he has picked up a Eurasian fiancée and a book that, unbeknownst to him, contains a coded message revealing the whereabouts of both secret treasures and sensitive government intelligence. This makes him the target of foreign spies, including a Marquise of mysterious Latin origin, a Hindu hypnotist and an evil German doctor, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book."

Yes, it sounds silly, with all the elements of a boy's adventure tale, too, but I'm not altogether certain that I'd have let my son watch this when he was 12!  There is a ernstness, indeed a foreboding darkness, in these films that is unique and makes the fanciful elements essential details instead of just entertaining surface features.  Feuillade achieves this through three elements:  brilliant actors (Musidora, who played Irma Vep in Les Vampires and Marie Verdier in Judex, was an incredibly disciplined physical actor and remains one of the most erotic presences ever on screen,
and René Navarre, who played the title role in  Fantômas was simply one of the greatest, most confoundingly expressive, actors ever, both of them acting before the rules of the game for film acting were set), brilliant images (to be fair, part of my appreciation for this simply comes from the fascination of looking closely at a world well before my own, with streets near-empty of auto traffic and pre-electric interior walls covered in near-hallucinatory wallpaper patters;  Feuillade did not go for the spectacles of Méliès, but could just as reliably and much more efficiently come up with an image that you will never forget) , and through his use of time, contrasting very occasional short cuts (did you see that?) with a leisurely use of the large-scale serial format, in which a story, no, a world, is allowed to open up over several hours, sometimes six to eight hours at that, time, spread for the viewer over several weeks time of regular cinema visits.   Feuillade really invented film as a narrative medium and he left potential areas for exploration that are still rich, but outside the typical 90 to 120 minute theatrical format. Let me say something outrageous, but true: there is a drect line from the Les Vampires to The Wire and Judex to Breaking Bad.

Friday, January 03, 2014

For 2014 (and every year after)

No resolutions for the new year, but a wish: to hear more that disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

This page (comma) Renewable Music (comma)

This page, Renewable Music, has now been around for nine years and some 1760 items.  It began in Budapest, soon moving with me to Frankfurt, with occasional postings from places more exotic: Crete, Kathmandu, California, Mississippi among them.   Though the original idea was to be a group blog, said group didn't materialize and instead, it's been the notes and marginalia of one Californian expatriot composer, a public assembly of writings incidental to a composing life, including many of the small messages I typically write myself during the work on a piece of music.  While straying sometimes into literature, food, the movies or politics (or musical politics in particular), it's been mostly about music, new and experimental mostly, although over the course of these years, those terms have come to carry weight I'd rather not haul around and I've come to the conclusion that The Radical Music is the most apt descriptor — radical, as in "getting to the roots; relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough" (the obligatory manifesto is here) —, into which many tributaries stream, among them the minimal (the best definition of which remains, btw, "the elimination of distractions".)  Most of the items posted here are autonomous, but there have been a couple of serial projects, including an Alphabet (e.g. U is for Umbrella),  and one thirty-day month of a Diary (made urgent, I thought, by Occupy, and modeled formally, unashamedly, on Cage's Diary: How to Improve the World (You'll Only Make Matters Worse), beginning here (and whether the world is any worse for it, who knows?)) and other series on topics including rhythm and confessions to sonic pleasures (including fluttering kites, bowed metal, bowing on or near bridges, passing trains, distant horns, drones, and moving water) and many more cryptic items like a quartet of items in homage to Lévi-Strauss's Mythologiques I–IV (starting here).  A list of pieces which have been critically important to me, my personal Landmarks, is listed in the sidebar.  (In principle, the list is open-ended, without restrictions, but in practice, I've resisting going much beyond fifty (on the principle that you make acquaintance with a lot of music but that can't really or responsibly know more than about fifty pieces at a time; I have also avoided duplicating composers in the list, but three names in particular (Berlioz, Ives, Cage) have made that particularly hard.  I have tried not to fall to often into ordinary prose, which may sometime read as indulgent, when not actually lapses of taste, as in some limericks about the aging of Elliott Carter.  Yes, Renewable Music has often been about my constant rediscovery of passion for language, if only through the medium of my own awkward idiolect.*  There have been infrequent postings of single images from my own scores (some written specifically for this blog, to illustrate some thing or another then thought urgent), and links to other, whole pieces (like this set of 100,000,000,000,000 Pieces for Clarinet), but also two series of pieces: a set of twelve small preludes, on each of 12 tonics, based on the premised that a prelude was a cadence elevated to an epiphany (here's the one on Eb), and then, in October 2007, the project of composing one whole piece a day for a month and publishing each score daily, at the least, an exercise in time management.

Let me, note, finally, three projects sponsored here, of albums of sheet music for solo piano (A Winter Album), for melodica(s) (Melodica!), and for solo recorder to grounds from The Division Flute (The New Division.)  A lot of great music by interesting composers, much of which has established a lively presence as music for home, study, and concert.

* The other day, I thought that I ought to know more about English new music.  I listen to lots of it via Internet broadcasts, but I can't honestly say that I know what's going on it, particularly with regard to continuity: I just don't follow.  So I listened to a number of online lectures and interviews by or with famous English composers (from P.M. Davies and Birtwhistle to Ferneyhough and Finnissy to Barrett and several others.)  All the time, I had this nagging sense that it was not just that I don't talk about music in the same way these people do and that this seemed to signal that I didn't, in some fundamental sense, think or make music in ways that really overlapped with any of these musicians, but that the sense of separation by a common language was much deeper than I had ever suspected. I've been wondering ever since if this was something I should be concerned with. My provision answer is no, but only provisionally so.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

From a Notebook, 1 January

A small piece for solo piccolo on the perceptual threshold of a recognizable regular tempo, with at least three areas of notational ambiguity — grace notes, lipped glissandi, and varied levels of vibrato (speed? width?) — for the player to consider.

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.