Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On White

There's a new volume of The Journal of the London Institute of 'Pataphysics out (Number 8), an elegant small volume organized by topics in alphabetical order, dedicated to the "exploits and opinions" of the John White, a fine composer with a unique breadth of interests from the rigorously experimental (often using systems or constraints) to the intuitively through-composed and historically fantastical, compiled and authored by Dave Smith, with numerous other contributors, complete with an accompanying pair of cds in their own jacket (= Number 9.)

In my other role, as publisher at Material Press,  I've been very happy to recently add a substantial selection of Mr White's works to the catalog, including a large selection of his Piano Sonatas.

And, in case you haven't seen it already, here is Tim Parkinson's video interview with John White in the composer's home.

Friday, September 05, 2014

From An Alphabet.

A 22 year old ghost named John Cage has just invented a way of using a Cribbage board as a cheese grater. Marcel Duchamp finds the invention useful and creates a new, four dimensional version of The Large Glass entirely from aging bits of Swiss cheeses in a variety of colors. James Joyce wraps the whole thing in newspaper and posts it to Trieste, insisting that it would acquire a tasty patina in the sea air. Erik Satie is now wondering what has become of his Cribbage board, but Cage quickly distracts him with a new variation on the mesostic, suggested by an 11-year old ghost named Norman O. Brown. Brown calls it a polymorphousperverstic, as the letters of the generating word can occur at any position in a line or nowhere at all. Satie is delighted and quickly forgets his Cribbage board. Cage offers him a plate of freshly grated Tilsit.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Orphaned Scores

I've recently been involved with trying to bring back into print some scores for interesting — and, to my ears, significant — music that have gone out of print due to publishers' neglect or demise. (And often a mixture of the two, as the waves of mergers in music publishing have often meant that the multinational behemoths that are the new owners have literally no idea what is in their catalogs, especially in the tiny business niche that is sheet music for new and experimental concert music, and when called attention to what ought to be there (as witnessed by, say, contracts with composers or rights assignments with PROs), they have no idea where to find the sheet music.)  I won't go into details now, but I've had some modest successes and there seem to be promising developments in the works. Renewable Music, indeed.

But let me take this occasion, as a publishing composer, to give my composer colleagues some simple advice: Don't enter into a sheet music publishing contract unless it is clear and explicit what will happen if the publisher fails to keep a work in print, whether by sale or by rental, or fails to perform any promotional or rights management services stipulated in the contract, or should the firm be merged into another publisher or should the firm be shut down.  While the standard operating basis is that an assignment of publishing rights is permanent, this is not necessarily the case.  A composer and a publisher may enter into a contract with a restricted term and there is no reason why a composer should not be able to avoid having her or his work get orphaned by a publisher by requiring the publisher either perform to the terms of the contract or return the pre-publication or pre-editorial materials and all publishing rights to the composer, thus allowing the composer to publish the work directly or to reassign the rights to another publisher.  Yes, a publisher who keeps the work available and otherwise performs properly — even in the event of extreme downturns in the market for the work in question (and they will happen!) — should be assured of the continuing status of the contract (after all, each contracted work is an asset contributing to the present and future well-being of the publishing house) and, yes, when a contract is terminated the publisher's investment in editing and/or printed stock should be compensated by either the right to continuing selling for some period, or the right of the composer to purchase, that stock (a factor that may be less important in this age of publish-on-demand and electronic publishing.)

And, as a composing publisher, let me remind my publishing colleagues that this is, indeed a niche business, with very modest stakes and amortization of investment only in either the very short or the very long haul and for most music, never at all, and that in the end we keep scores and other performance materials available because of a plain selfish reason: we want to keep our musical lives lively with the music which we believe in. Nevertheless, I will cheerfully contend that if a publisher goes into this understanding upfront the modest scale and potential of the market and organizes and economizes accordingly, perhaps in some complementary combination with other repertoires or services, this can be a viable business and, if you respect the composer and the music, there is no reason why this should not be reflected in the contract through terms which guarantee that the work will be able to stay available,  should your activity on behalf of the work stop or even if your firm expires.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

O is for Open

In the 1960s, perhaps a bit earlier, a lively conversation started about "opening up" musical form, or even more directly, about a formal genre marked by such an opening, an "open form." This might mean that the composer opens up the continuity of a work to the non-obvious sequences, or that additional choices are given to the performer with regard to the same, or perhaps listeners might engage the form of the work in ways other than the simply chronological.  Sometimes this would work out to something less than a real opening, just a denser but still finite network of possible paths through a work (and, in some cases (Stockhausen, Boulez), it turned out that those possible paths were much more constrained than advertised), other times the opening was so open that the specific identity of a work was called into question.  The discussion had high points (the comparison between Feldman's Intermission 6 and Stockhausen's Klavierstück XI was one of them) but just sort of faded. Maybe it would be useful now, particularly in view to the increased pressures on the traditional concert format and the possibilities of new and/or alternative performance and listening enviroments, to begin this conversation once again.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Taking More Time

I was just perusing the prose score to a work by Douglas Leedy, Ocean Park 2 (or, Entropical Paradise Lost) from 1969-70.  It's one of Leedy's environmental pieces  (he was a pioneer in the field,  before the label "ambient" took hold in the 70s, with his models Satie/Milhaud and spatial/environmental music traditions like those for wind bands or carillon) and uses an ensemble who have recordings which they play back on portable cassette players of or related to his own synthesized work Entropical Paradise (released as a 3-LP album in 1968 by Seraphim Records.) While it is notable as a useful solution to the problems of presenting recorded music in live recordings (the performers begin, seated, among the audience, and then exit the hall with their sounding cassette players in tow) the most striking aspect of the score to me was this:

"Ideal total duration: 6-7 minutes."

By contemporary music concert standards, 6-7 minutes has come to represent a very brief duration for a program item, making an incredibly modest demand on an audience.  We have come to expect pieces pushing 20 minutes or so, whether at Da Proms or Da Rmstadt or at some Laptopping or Circuitbreaking gig.  Indulging the better part of an hour is not rare. Have we, as audiences, really become so much more patient?  Or do composers, generally speaking, really have that much more to say and require so much more time to say it?   While I would like to say yes to both of these questions: yes, that there has been some social-psychological change in the past decades (yes, Marge, those years of yoga class have paid off!) which has led to a net increase in listeners' patience and, yes, composers have gotten both smarter and more productive of compelling music, I just can't discount some other concerns, for example, the practical one, that once over a threshold of, say, 10 minutes, the license fees for a concert performance go up significantly (or simply, more time played means more money for the composer) or that concert organizers prefer to minimalize the number of items on a concert.  I don't, a priori, have any opposition to a piece of long duration (in fact, many of my best friends...), but do find the ratios between material and duration as well as between audience patience and composerly indulgence to be important but frustratingly sensitive to assess in advance (yes, an ideal total duration is hard to find) and  I do find it unfortunate, for too many reasons, that it's probably much harder these days to put a three-minute solo piano piece (or a 6-7 minute piece for cassette playing ensemble) on a program than it is to take up a much larger fraction of an hour with pieces demanding significantly more resources.

Monday, July 28, 2014

In our era

The Rambler (Tim Rutherford-Johnson) has some interesting theses about these musical times, identifying them as "classical".  I agree with this, though I prefer to label this an age of repertoire (thinking that there were also pre-classical eras of repertoire as well, the "Galant", for example, was also a time in which a body of techniques and styles were widely shared and emphasized subtle variety more than radical or dramatic difference (contrasting with the spirit of a "Masterpiece Ethic" of later times.))  He concentrates on technology, specifically digital, as the immediate cause here, and that's right (especially to the extent that, for example, unless you're a real laptop wonk yourself, it's getting very hard to say that one particular laptopper is going to be reliably more interesting or innovative than another)*, but I think that there is also a concentration, if not reduction, of the space for ideas and inventions (as would be expected given the tremendous growth in these in the 50s through 70s: there are a lot of tough acts to follow) as well as what might be best called The Once Thing, which means, largely due to the imbalance between supply of freshly produced compositions and the available number of venues, that most new music gets played once, if at all, so a composer's best strategy is either to attempt to make each piece a radically different, life-changing, one-time-only, all-in masterpiece, gambling that the monster of imagination can shake things up in a fundamental way, or (and this is the less anxiety-producing path) to treat each piece as an incremental development in a string or pool of ideas, in other words, a style, repertoire, or yes, a brand. And yes, a brand is a attribute of work in a competitive market, and all that that means.

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* Rutherford-Johnson also hints at something here, with his illustration of a shelf of recent long-format TV series, that needs to be taken even further.  Because it's the fragmentation of the TV business that has made these formal innovations (and they're real, at least from The Wire on, and can be terrific if the energy is sustained) and new and experimental musicians certain should recognize that some of our best work has come from not only fragmentation, but marginalization!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

N is for Non-Stop

We (musicians, composers in particular) tend to have a lot invested in the habit that a piece of music is taken in in a single stretch.  Okay, operas and ballets have their acts and intermissions and symphonies and suites have their movements, but the assumption is that the audience receives a whole work of music in as close to one near-continuous audition as possible.  (There are some parallel arguments about the unity of the content of the work taking place in that continuity, but that's for another time, another place.)  There is definitely value to be had in this and some exquisite and exquisitely long works (think La Monte Young or Morton Feldman) have their lengthy continuity deep in their compositional and auditional DNA, if often risking that boundary of gullibility between the musically sublime and a cultic ritual of exaggeration, but it not an absolute value. Pieces of brief duration, pieces that can be heard and processed well before joints start to ache or chair start to squeak or fits of coughing flock in and the concert hall air becomes stale, can be just as profound an experience, given the right balance of material and time.

But the durations of the biggest musical works are somewhat modest when compared with those required to read very long works of literature or episodic television dramas or some computer games.    I'm something of an obsessive reader (and re-reader) of big novels and some are so engaging that they begin to take over my waking life (and much of the dream life in-between), and although I try to give as much continuity as possible to the experience of reading, there are inevitable breaks (sleep, eat, personal necessity, kids, dog, spouse, work...) which, ultimately, don't seem like intrusions, just part of the larger continuity that, say, My Fortnight Reading Against The Day (or whatever) happens to form.  (Okay, this is just a guess on my part. I haven't actually tried  reading a book in such a way that all distractions could be eliminated and total continuity is assured (and, come to think of it, actually have no interest in trying such an experience, thinking of what it might entail: an isolation chamber, tied to a moderately comfortable chair, tube feeding, adult diapers, massive amounts of caffeine and/or Modafinil.)) Do we accept such breaks in the continuity of reading literature when we continue to assume that a piece of music has to be heard all at once to "really get it"?

I'll contend that the big novel, like the serious television serial of recent years, and perhaps the computer game, offers some formal opportunities for the large musical work, both in terms of flexibility and complexity but also the potential for extension, if we can simply take a more relaxed approach to continuity. (In part, this is why recorded music so rapidly overtook concert-going.  Also, those famous attempts at multi-day opera cycles (Wagner, Stockhausen, Braxton) have come to depend on their being able to be taken in pieces, often widely separated in time and wildly rearranged in continuity.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

(Not Just) Fun and Games

Stephen Soderberg has a typically thoughtful post, from his on-going series on "Music Theory Today", which uses the notion of music as a game.  The usual framework for thinking of music as a game is that it works with a finite set of rules yet their application can lead to a (potentially) infinite set of of outcomes (whether pieces, performances, or auditions.)  Innovation — unexpected new varieties of music — are understood as coming from unexpected, yet still strict, applications and combinations of these rules.  But that's not the only way to think about these innovations.  One way is to think in terms of rule-breaking.  (I can't help, in this case, but think about the (probably apocryphal) legend of the invention of Rugby Football, when a footballer suddenly picked up the ball with his hands and ran for it and, I supposed, all his teammates and competitors spontaneously agreed that this was okay.)  And a regime of rule-breaking would presumably run in fits and starts of testing the extents and limits of the known rules, sometimes by cunning, often by accident, and then periodically revising the rule book to better reflect the current state of play.  But this view is still based in the notion that there are, in fact, rules, and that their understanding and application is shared.  But what if we're really playing a kind of game like a Wittgensteinian language game, and we bop along on that notion of a shared rule book and shared interpretation of those rules, but every so often we get a kick from the reality of obvious dissonances between how different people are performing, in the form of ways of making music that simply don't follow the set of rules we've been operating under?   It's not just a more imaginative application of the rules we've agreed upon and neither is it a breaking of one or more rules, it's a message that the whole scheme of rules we think have defined music-making, have been fundamentally off.  Sometimes, this suggests a social gap of some sort is at play: I once heard a conversation between two famous experimental music composers that went on for twenty minutes or so before each of them realized that they were talking about different things (as it happens, one was talking about "Polish mead", the other about "Polish meats"; how they ever got to that pair of topics, I'll never know, and each of them was solidly puzzled about why they should be conversing about such things (to be fair, each was exhausted after some long days of travel, rehearsals and concerts), but they chatted happily enough along, simply enjoying each others' company until a third party intervened and asked what they were talking about, thus popping that little balloon of misunderstanding.)  But other times, I think this is due to the fact that our joint or individual operating "Theory of Music" really is only ever a provisional one and that there is a great deal of indeterminacy about the causal relations between theories of music and actual music making, that there are an indefinite number of ways of arriving at the same musical outcome (not to mention all the uncertainty around our weak definition of "same" wrt music) and that it is far from clear whether any one particular way is or even can be more correct than another, or even if it is actually possible for us to determine this. What all this means is that we have a lot of room to maneuver before, during, and after music making.  And if that doesn't give you some optimism about the future of music as an art with as-yet-unknown variety, I don't know what else does!

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Exercises and the Cadence

I've mentioned my fondness for Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style (1947), in which the same (pointless) story is told and retold in a large variety of writing styles, 99 to be precise — telegraphic, in Alexandrines, as reported speech, in metaphors etc. —, and the exciting thing, of course, is that it invites the reader to exercise her or himself stylistically, too. It strikes me that we musicians already had a variant on the idea in Alfredo Casella's The Evolution of Music Throughout the History of the Perfect Cadence (1924, but do see the posthumous edition, which updates the "evolution", even finding a perfect cadence in a Boulez score.) The variation here is that the same (pointless) story is the perfect cadence, but Casella did not compose his stylistic examples himself, instead finding them in historical musics, and by presenting them in historical order, he makes a narrative of the whole that Queneau's unorganized set of 99 does not.  John Cage was famously enthusiastic about the Casella volume (but do see the first edition, which does confirm with Cage's narrative of the exhaustion of the cadence.)

Casella the composer is a figure that we've had trouble with.  Although there are remarkable aspects of his work — a good portion of his music (mostly instrumental, and at its best often as exercises in historical, especially Baroque, styles) is quite wonderful, his own piano rolls and sound recordings present a very fine pianist, he was a leader in both promoting new and old music, for which he was perhaps the person most responsible for the revival of the works of Vivaldi... heck, he was even Arthur Fiedler's predecessor at the helm of the Boston Pops — he was also very much on the wrong side of world history, politically, and there are concrete aspects of his musical activity, for example founding the so-called "Corporation of the New Music" together with D'Annunzio and Malipiero, two very murky figures, that continue to be more than uncomfortable.

Monday, June 30, 2014

About Time

About time.
Opening time.
The beginning of time.
Where does time come from?
Where has the time gone?
A long time.
A short time.
No time.
Zero time.
Time and a half.
Overtime.
All-time.
In the meantime.
A sense of time.
Telling time.
The test of time.
Time will tell.
Set the time.
Clocktime.
At the tone, the time will be.
Time zones.
Time's arrow.
High time.
A fine time.
The use of time.
Time and money.
Time is money.
Being and time.
Being on time.
Enough time.
Quality time.
Spending time.
Playtime.
Me time.
We time.
Father Time.
Taking time.
Tea time.
Stolen time.
Lost time.
Waste time.
Find time.
Make up time.
Time is of the essence.
All the time in the world.
Trying times.
The Texture of Time.
A rough time.
The best of times, the worst of times.
The test of time.
Doing time.
Serving time.
Treading time.
Nap time.
Reading time.
Playing for time.
Time and motion.
Ragtime.
Stoptime.
Old time.
Recent times.
Half time.
Time and Tide.
Time for good behavior.
Time served.
Time travel.
Time creeps along.
Time flows.
Time flies.
The time ahead.
The time until.
Call time.
Time off.
Time out.
Time in.
Time running out.
Time on our hands.
Time to run.
Filling time.
Treading time.
Good timing.
Bad timing.
Timing is everything.
Time on our side.
Closing time.
Endtime.

Friday, June 20, 2014

There's always a first time...

From today's Irish Times:   Lucier will perform I Am Sitting in a Room in Dundalk Gaol on Friday. It will be the first time he has performed the work in a prison... (source)

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Lesson in Film Music from Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman, in one of those true stories that has become the stuff of legend and notoriety, composed music for the film Something Wild (1961) that was rejected by the director Jack Garfein and replaced by a new score commissioned from Aaron Copland. Feldman's score was said to have been rejected because of the use of a very gentle celesta in the (very disturbing) rape scene which is central to the film's plot.  Chris Villar's Morton Feldman pages (the most important source for Feldmaniana online) now has a video of the scene in question with the Copland score as used in the released and, for comparison, a mock-up, with the Feldman score in its place.  (See this page, and scroll down to Something Wild.) The result is a real lesson for anyone interested in the potential of background music to affect the entire experience.  Copland's music is rather innocuous, though oddly off-balanced as scoring given the registral limitations of the sound recording technique then available and it is —probably intentionally — most effective when it cuts out altogether, letting the silence with only intermittent environmental sounds on-screen take over.  The Feldman, on the other hand, continues throughout and has an overpowering psychological effect; personally, I found this version almost impossible to watch because of this unrelenting, if gentle, continuity.  It really holds the viewers focus on the victim, with whom the music is associated. (The mock-up eliminates the background noises and Foley work and, although it's not possible to know if they would have been included had Feldman's music been used, their absence makes the Feldman a much more vivid component of the drama, while doing nothing in the way of Mickey Mouse accompaniment of the imagery or motion.) Strongly recommended.

Documenting Amacher

Here is a short documentary video portrait by Elisabeth Schimana and Lena Tikhonova of the late composer Maryanne Amacher.  Over the end credits, there is a moment in which two of her assistants admit that they don't quite understand her work, a feeling I share.  I always had the sense of something substantial going on — and sometimes even dangerous, whether bathing petri dishes with cultures labeled as "musicians of the future" in incredibly amplified sounds or exploring the possibilities of a "post-cochlear" mode of listening (possibinvolving direct transmission to the brain) —; her appeals to hard science were both studied and off-kilter enough to evoke musical liveliness, her environmental-acoustic consciousness was admirable, and her demand for quality in performance was real evidence of her seriousness (if often frustrating to those trying to help her present her work.)  But that doesn't mean that I came anywhere close to understanding Amacher's music.  I was, alternately, deeply impressed and intensely disappointed by it, too often wanting it to be even more radical than it was. In Krems, Austria, in a wonderful space of an old monastery church, I watched and listened to her work over a week's time she demanded and received the best equipment available, including the largest transportable mixing board available in all Austria, spent an extreme amount of time (including time generously given over to her by Jim Tenney and La Monte Young (!)) making sure every channel, cable, amp and loudspeaker was in perfect condition and then gave a performance which was basically playback from a stereo cassette tape and  a couple of long tones added from a keyboard of some sort.  It was loud, her physical presence at that huge mixer was theatrically compelling, but the sounds were just dull, nothing like much of what had been heard during the week before. But then again, maybe all of that fascinating week before was part of the piece, part of a performance, both theatrical and musical, but also the intense discussions in the church and late nights out in the restaurant, over soy milk and vodka, in which the contents that fell between the public entrance and exit time at the end of the week were just a detail, a musical project much larger than the concert which concluded it.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

A Night at the Opera

...Falstaff, which I like more and more and not just because I'm well into my own falstaffian age and figure. Verdi just does astonishing things with continuity (particularly of harmony and orchestration (if you want to explore how weird and wonderful Verdi's harmonic practice is here, let me recommend Ernő Lendvai's deep and eccentric Verdi and Wagner (Bartok and the 19th Century), Volume 1, which is almost entirely about Falstaff (I don't know if there was ever a Volume 2, btw, but Volume 1 has a prominent place on my short shelf of harmony books restoring the so-called half diminished seventh to its proper role in harmonic practice, from Bach and Mozart, through Wagner and Verdi, and onward) and, as for orchestration, let me point two things out: the use of the guitar and natural horn and the use of Nanetta's soprano as a component in an essentially instrumental texture), almost nothing is ever rhythmically where you'd expect it, and the way Verdi moves by misdirection through all of the comic turns, from the sentimental to the droll and from  to farce is just dazzling.  But not easy at all to stage! The farce of the first prank on Falstaff — stuffing him in a trunk while everyone else is playing hide and seek and then dunking the trunk in the moat — needs to be staged with the antic lightness and precision of the Marx Brothers  (the female quartet in the 1st act requires a similar virtuosity) and there are some extraordinary transitions which require extreme sensitivity, most particularly after Fenton's aria, the only real aria in the opera, the last line of which is completed by Nanetta, an echo of their first appearance, but drolly does not go into either a second duet or the soprano aria that might so sentimentally and conventionally follow, for this is comedy and comedy has to move on rather than get stuck in convention.   It's a very difficult piece to play/sing, but it was conducted with exactly the right balance of precision and spontaneity, no score on the stand, by Carlo Franci, soon to be 87 years old, long the house Verdi specialist here at the Frankfurt Opera.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

One of these things is not like the other

Joshua Kosman quotes Richard Taruskin, in an outtake that didn't make his portrait of the musicologist:

"Think of all the composers who, during the Cold War, wrote serial music who otherwise wouldn't have. Sometimes they say so — in fact, it became a cliché for a while. 'I felt such a pressure to write serial music and I never even liked the stuff!' And on the other side, think of someone like Khrennikov. They know they have to write music that is tuneful and accessible and conveys the right message. These are social pressures, and we are more inclined now to recognize them as such."

Well, yeah, composers don't write their music in complete social isolation (at least those who want their music played and heard by others), and there can be local pressures to work in some directions and not in others.  But the composition and performance of music using serial or 12-tone or some other new or experimental technique happened, historically — and continues to happen —, in aspirational or affinitive communities, the result of personal choices, not state dictates. Moreover, there is scarcely evidence that these musics were anything other than highly localized in their impact, let alone hegemonous.

(Take a long breath and let's self-citate Renewable Music Anno 2007, now: "Tragic but true: when the smoke had cleared, the new music wars had been won not by towners up or down or coasters east or left, but by a rear guard of trained symphonic band composers from big state universities in the middle of the country. The surviving rebels were exiled, retrained, or forced into dayjobs in data processing and direct telephone sales.")

And while these communities had — and have — their pecking orders and points and rituals of prestige* and dismay, some drawn from well-reasoned and deeply felt aesthetics, others plain silly, there were always options to go elsewhere, either to other communities with alternative preferences and practices or to use the best properties of the liberal market to make an end run around existing alliances and enterprises and venture production on your own terms, and not necessarily to compete in zero-sum terms, but simply to open up niches within which one might work productively and publicly. I'm not naive here: this option was not easy, was rarely successful when tried, thus so much more remarkable when it worked but this option was simply not possible in a functioning Khrenikovian system and the comparison is odious.

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* One footnote about the issue of prestige.  Something that gets fundamentally misunderstood within the mainstream is the fact that it is the complex and experimental music which fills up the scholarly and critical apparatus which surrounds historical music-making.  (And yes, an article in PNM or JMT or JCM or Leonardo had a certain cache in part of musical academe, while Source and Sounding carried their own cache elsewhere (And no, those caches seldom found intersection.).)  But this always was — from the Ars Nova on — and still is the case, because this is the music that engages music history in a novel, thoughtful, and lively way. This is the music-making that offers something to think and talk and write about.  Quietism, in music as in literature is largely absent (quiet, silent) from historical and critical accounts, because whatever real and immediate pleasures it may offer, however accomplished it may be in its recombinatorial play with the familiar,  it adds nothing new to the larger conversation. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Hymns & Fuguing Tunes

I haven't made much choral music, although I'm quite attached to a lot of historical choral repertoire and music for multiple voices without instrumental accompaniment is both so basic and still rich in possibilities. One of the reasons for me not to make much choral music is that finding texts suitable to doing the things I'd imagine doing with words to words has been hard.  Another reason is that many vocal ensembles are attached to sacred music making and the whole institutional and ideological world that supports that: not my particular balliwick, indeed I'd feel disrespectful and even fraudulent entering into that territory.

Joel Sach's biography of Henry Cowell (Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music) has had me thinking about the early American sacred hymnody tradition's most distinctive form, the "Hymn and Fuguing Tune". Cowell adapted the form to a large number of instrumental works (thereby bypassing any immediate textual problems) as a two unit form, a melody with homorhythmic accompaniment hymn followed by an imitative contrapuntal fuguing tune.  Cowell usefully found in the mixed modal/tonal tunes, distinctive (and by European common practice terms, heterodox (meaning, often enough, "wrong")) harmonization styles and its highly informal counterpoint, points of connection and departure to and from his own idiom.  (Neely Bruce has a fine article on the Sacred Harp as Experimental Music, focusing on these tonal features, but with useful information about performance practice as well.)  I've responded to the Cowell initiative myself with a couple of occasional instrumental pieces, especially welcoming the opportunity to connect between consonant and highly dissonant tonal environments which the form seems to welcome in a unique way.

However, I think there is something more basic, specifically a pair of formal primitives, that is at the root of Cowell's attraction to the Hymn & Fuguing Tune and that it that it contrasts, in a straightforward way, two fundamentally different ways of elaborating or thickening a tune, that is to thicken it vertically | | | | | | | | in the hymn and diagonally / / / / / / / /  in the fuguing tune.  Indeed, if we look to actual performance practice of shape note singing, we find a third way as well, in the "lining out" the in-filled ornamentation and melissmisation often heard in the introductory solo that can preceed the choral singing, thus a horizontal elaboration — — — —.

Cowell abstracted an instrumental genre from a vocal one, and expanded upon its tonal (and not-so-tonal) properties and implications.  It strikes me that these formal impulses are every bit as useful for new music and I could imagine new instrumental or vocal works (using any text or none) that reconsider the form in which horizontal (melodically elaborated), vertical (harmonized) and diagonal (imitative) textures each receive their due but at some distance from their traditional tonal contexts.   Indeed the material for elaboration need not be a tune at all, but maybe just "plain" speech or whatever other noises one happens to have available.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Said it before, will say it again

One of the reasons, really very basic reasons, that music works, when it works, is that we have a weak notion of same and different in music.   Music is coherent due to forms of repetition, but compelling due to variety, and that play between repetition and variety is not only the very center of a composer's — and a performer's — work, but also the most important cognitive dynamic in listening to music. But no repetition in music can ever be exact, all "sames" in music being different — the very shift of some bit or stretch of music (our "material")  in time changes everything: memory is loaded, phases are shifted and locked, context is everything BUT THEN all differences are measured by grasping for similitudes even though memory is fragile and uncertain, we experience time both smoothly and in chunks, and often enough, context is not enough, if not nothing at all.  But out of this uncertainty, there are only opportunities for making more music!

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Every Room in the House on the Seventh of May

For portable instruments or voices playing or singing in houses or apartments with more than one room. Chose a reference tone in a comfortable register that can be sustained for the length of a long breath. Moving leisurely, play or sing that tone in each room of your house, attacking the tone firmly, sustaining it, trying to avoid variations in pitch, amplitude or timbre and then releasing it with a gentle diminuendo, perhaps with a slight fall in pitch as well, with pauses between tones as you move from room to room.  If you must cross through a room more than once in order to enter rooms not yet played in, then the reference tone should be repeated, but with at least one significant variation in either pitch, amplitude or timbre.  Each new room visited is then accompanied by a return to the reference tone. If more than one player or singer perform in the same house or apartment, then the tones chose should be chosen independently and their paths through the apartment should not be coordinated with one another. A complete performance of this work is the sum of all the individual performances occurring within the 47 hour global span of the the Seventh of May.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Questioning the Goodness of Fitting the Page

Composerly self-criticism, Nr. 353b:  I've noticed that I've been falling into the habit of making scores which fit on whole pages, and within pages filling up — neither exceeding nor coming up short of — whole lines. This has been happening in both (more-or-less) conventionally notated scores and in prose score.  (I suppose that the single page as a unit of compositional attention first really came into consciousness with Earle Brown's early graphic scores, but continued to charge many other composers, from Feldman's pre-ruled staves to Crumb's iconic pages to some of the complexists, working line-by-line.) It does look good to see music laid-out well, and some music might just happen to come to a happy coincidence in which musical density and duration and the consumption notated page-space correspond so neatly (a recently piece I made for a friend's 80th birthday fit 80 measures over 8 rows of 10 single-staved measures on a large (A3, landscape) page), but matters like visible phrases and convenient places for breathing and page turns are more important in practical terms and it's probably a bad sign when this is consistently the case.  This critique does not exclude the use of the physical dimensions of a piece of paper as an arbitrary constraint through which invention is forced into action, nor does it exclude the secondary aesthetic pleasure of a well-laid-out score, it's just an observation that if things are consistently one way, then there are probably opportunities lost in doing things differently.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Reinhard Oehlschlägel (1936-2014)

Very sad to note the passing today of the music journalist Reinhard Oehlschlägel.  Long-time editor for new music at Deutschlandfunk and founder, publisher, and editor, with his partner, Gisela Gronemeyer, of MusikTexte, a quarterly journal now in its 31st year and on its 140th issue and still published from their rambling apartment in Cologne in stubborn and cheerful independence. Trained as music educator and then a journeyman journalist on the Feuilleton pages of the FAZ in the lively years of Frankfurt's Adornovian 1960s, Reinhard was one of the leaders of the rebellion at Darmstadt in the early 70s, and was a longtime friend of American experimental music in Germany.  (He commissioned my wife Christina and I to translate N.O. Brown's lecture on John Cage, a project which involved translating large swathes of Finnegans Wake, and which paid a month's rent in our first, 22-square-meter apartment.) He was a joy to talk with, argue with (we would go on for hours about the paradoxes of the institutional avant garde), and a presence who will be missed.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Unfinished pieces (1)

Some pieces just don't seem to get finished. For example,  I've been working on a piece with the title SAWING A GRAND PIANO IN HALF.  Two problems have arisen in trying to finish this piece.  The first is a purely compositional — indeed, a formal — question:  Should the sawing be done beginning with the treble side or with the bass side?   The second question is one of stage magic mechanics:  Once sawn in half, severing all wires, how does the piano appear to be instantly reassembled and playable without the use of smoke, mirrors or a second piano?  

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.

Bhishma 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.

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* 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.

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* 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!