Friday, December 29, 2006

26 Serpents Side-By-Side

Douglas Yeo, bass trombonist in the Boston Symphony and quite likely the leading North American serpent player plays Clifford Bevan's precis of the 1812 Overture, arranged for 26 serpents. Should someone happen to put a bit too much kirsch in your New Year's Eve fondue, I'm sure that this'll be just the right thing. In any case, this will be among the tunes with which I plan to formally end a year without recordings.

Now, all we need is someone to put the Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band's sweet and condensed arrangement of The Rite of Spring for their ensemble of three saxophones (tenor, tenor, baritone) and three trombones (all with various doublings and treblings) online. (For just a taste of the RRGTCB, their Buick LeSabre Dance can be heard here).

Thursday, December 28, 2006


Pliable has it right: "... give me one bar of Sibelius for one symphony of Shostakovich."

I'll go one further: If we had walked away from the 20th century with only the scores to the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies of Sibelius, we'd still be left with sufficient material to reconstruct everything essential that had been left behind.

(photo: Stravinsky at the grave of Sibelius, image stolen from PWS's blog, Tears of a Clownsilly).

A Year Without Recordings

2006 has been my year without recordings. I set out to avoid listening intentionally to recorded music. While there have been a few minor lapses -- some colleagues have sent me sound files, I listened to music played on the radio while waiting in the car two or three times, and I have put on cassettes for my four-year-old, and incidental music has been unavoidable -- in the past twelve months, I have never popped a music cd into a player, nor have I turned on the radio or television in order to hear some music.

What's the result of this experience? No great or earth-shattering revelations. A lot more time spent score-reading, both with or without an instrument under my fingers, which is a good thing for ear, mind, and soul. Also, I have the impression that I am a bit more sensitive to the localization of sound, and loudspeakers often sound somewhat disappointing now. (I went to my first pop concert in 2o-some years -- by Ben Harper, a hometown friend -- and his unaccompanied, unmiked singing (in a hall with a couple thousand people) was absolutely the best part of the concert: suddenly the sounds came from somewhere in particular!). And when I walk down the main shopping street in Frankfurt, a real haven for street musicians, I find myself gravitating always to those playing without amplification or recorded aggrandizement. I wish that I had gone to more concerts, but this has also been a year in which my health hasn't exactly cooperated, so music has largely had to be that which I have made myself, and there's nothing wrong with that.

But I can honestly say that I haven't missed a thing, and I suppose that that's the minor revelation that can be gathered from all this. While there is an important place in my musical life for music composed specifically for recorded media, I suspect that in the next year, I will still generally avoid recordings of music which can be heard otherwise. In much the same way that live performance has regained some of its magic in the past year -- if, paradoxically, that magic came from live performance becoming more ordinary -- when I return to recordings in the new year, I'd like it if the experience of listening to a recording would regain some its own magic.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


"Without modernism, nothing would get invented." - John Cage

"I'm a classical composer." - Alvin Lucier

Let x ∈ {serious, modern, classical, experimental, longhaired, scare the dog, etc.}.

There is some fashion among composers (and critics) to define their work negatively, i.e. as the music that is not x, or the music that follows x. (E.g. anti-modern, post-experimental, proto-scare-the-dog music).

Let y ∉ {serious, modern, classical, experimental, etc.}.

There is some fashion among composers (and critics) to define their work negatively, i.e. as the music that is not y, or the music that follows y. (Contra-pop, post-commercial, pseudo-entertainment music).

Further, there is some fashion among composers (and critics) to define their work as some union of an x & an y. (Post-serious anti-salon music).

Okay. Maybe I'm dense and just can't follow, for example, that Stravinsky will on one hand be the epitome of modernism in music and on the other the avatar of post-modernism in music. While perhaps as naive as the set theory above, this fool persists in the folly that there is still work to be done in a music which is comfortable with a label found in set x, unqualified by pre's, prae's, post's, ante's, anti's, non's, pluses, extra's, or ultra's, and unembellished by appeals to other genres. Discovering exactly what our work is strikes me as much more interesting an adventure than excusing the work for not being what it is not.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Small Prelude in G

(One of a set of 12 small preludes, composed in early 2006. See also the preludes in Ab, Eb, F, F# ).


Last minute shopping. Encouraged by reading Charles Shere's post on ice cream, gelato, and chocolate, I made a last minute attempt to locate one bar of Munz Orange as a gift for someone precious. (Sadly, I can't eat them anymore myself). I tried every Chocolaterie in Frankfurt. No luck.
In Thomas Bernhard's novel Wittgenstein's Nephew, the first-person narrator and the title figure make a mad drive across a serious portion of Austria in search of the day's issue of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. It becomes clear that for the two, a town qualifies as civilized if and only if the current issue of the NZZ is available on the day of publication in the local newsstands.
I share their estimation of the NZZ, but would also add the availability of Munz Orangentafeln to their criteria. No other chocolate firm manages to work magic with whole orange slices the way Munz does, the texture is unforgettable to tooth and tongue, and the balance between the citrus and chocolate universes restores ones faith that the earth will continue to rotate on its axis and voyage around the sun.
Quality. Would you drive across lower Austria to hear a contrabass concerto by John Harbison? Would you search through every little candy store in town in the last shopping hours before christmas in order to hear Placido Domingo in an opera about an Emperor commissioning a patriotic hymn?

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Small Prelude in F#

(One of a set of 12 small preludes, composed in early 2006. See also the Prelude in Ab, Prelude in Eb, Prelude in F.)

Friday, December 22, 2006

The times, they are a changing

On January 1st, the state of New Hampshire (that's the one with the "Live Free or Die" license plates) will make peonage a class A misdemeanor. That's right, it will now be illegal there to hold someone in involuntary servitude to work off a debt.

It is expected that waves of musicians will now return to the Granite State to enjoy their debts without danger of losing their freedom.

The German Lesson

So this East Friesian goes into a music shop. He looks around for a good long time, and the impatient clerk asks the East Friesian if he needs any help. The East Friesian declares: "I'll take the red trumpet and the white accordion." "I beg your pardon?", responds the confused clerk. Again, the East Friesian declares: "I'll take the red trumpet and the white accordion." The clerk thinks about it for a moment and answers: "You can have the fire extinguisher, but the radiator has to stay."*

*This was the first joke I learned to tell in German. Many Germans tell jokes about East Friesians. The Ostfriesen are part of the Friesian ethnic and linguistic minority who have traditionally lived on the northern coasts and Islands of Germany and the Netherlands. The Friesian language is a pleasure to listen to, and if you speak both German and English, it is to a large part comprehensible. Telling jokes about minorities is not right, but this joke is so sweet, that repeating it cannot be entirely wrong, and there are enough West Friesians in my family tree that I can claim some exemption. And I promise, one day I shall, in fact, write a piece for one red trumpet and one white accordion.


Composer Dennis Báthory-Kitsz has taken his We Are All Mozart project to eBay. He's scheduling a year's worth of commissions, and eBay item #330064845503 is your opportunity to commission a new work. Still need a stocking stuffer?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What alternative tunings can do for you

In the course of recording a radio interview, I was asked why anyone would want to bother with tunings other than 12-tone equal temperament. I usually have a nice long answer to the question, but here's more or less what I said today in an attempt at a short answer:

Paying attention to tuning is useful in three regards for me as a composer and musician. The first is that instead of accepting the quality of an interval as given, a musician has access to a whole range of qualities, from smooth to beating slowly to beating roughly, and from clear to vague in identity. An interval can be tuned so that the component parts of the spectra of the individual tones coincide or deviate when combined, and the degree to which they deviate may be controlled. In working with tones with simple harmonic spectra, Just Intonation or a tuning with intervals close to Just will yield intervals which have a quality, to my ears, clarity, quite different from that heard when the tuning has intervals which are distant from Just. Conversely, when working with instruments which have spectra that are not composed of simple harmonic relationships, tunings which map those more complex relationships may better fit into and represent that timbre. The second reason is that alternative tunings may introduce tonal relationships that are simply not available in 12-tone equal temperament. From one tuning to another, sequences of intervals may end up in very different places. For example, in 15-tone equal temperament, the sum of three "tritones" is not an octave and a tritone as in 12, but rather an interval that one recognizes at once as a twelfth. That makes a modulation possible that is impossible in 12. Finally, the quality of a tuning may make tonal relationships more or less explicit or more or less ambiguous. In temperaments, rational intervals are often represented by a shared pitch. A minor seventh in 12-tone equal temperament might, in some cases represent a functionally dissonant - and resolution-inviting - seventh with a ratio of 16:9, or the consonant third of the minor v chord or the fifth of the bIII, 9:5, or, as in some North American vernacular musics, a consonant seventh , 7:4. When the small differences between these intervals are "tempered out", a certain ambiguity comes into play, but in a Just Intonation, these functional identitites are made explicit through distinctive intonation. I find that having flexible access to musical materials that can so easily invoke ambiguity or explicitness is not just an intellectual game but is, in practice, musically very useful.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Another reason to boycott that competition (and any others like it)

I previously posted a call to boycott a competition, based upon the relationship between the entry fees and the size of the cash prize. Here's another reason not to enter:

The competition rules present no criteria for selection of the winning entry.

The announcement prescribes only the instrumentation and duration. The aesthetic preferences of the judges, and the criteria through which the competition will be judged cannot be discerned from the rules. The is no doubt that the jury here will take their task seriously and make their decision in good faith, but they are real people, real musicians, with real preferences and expectations, and it is impossible for a composer from outside of their community to guess or second guess what those preferences and expectations may be.

Would you ever willingly enter a legal trial without guidance about your status and the rules or standards under which the trial will be conducted? Would you do the same for your music? (Read The Trial). Add to this the fact that a US$25 fee is still a significant amount of money to most people, musicians in particular, and making that investment without knowing if your work will get even the slightest bit of consideration is a considerable leap of faith. The organizers owe it to such potential applicants to be more specific about what they are looking for, so that a potential entrant can better assess the fit of his or her work to the competition.

While I'm certain the organizers of this competition had the best, most liberal, intentions in leaving things open, and asking for anonymized entries is an emblem of this openness, has anyone actually heard of such openness functioning in practice? In the end, composing is about making choices, and musically articulating those choices. Judging a composition will necessarily be a process of recognizing and evaluating both those choices and the ways in which they are articulated, and unless the judges are given some criteria themselves, there is no way of getting around the fact that they will judge with their own sensibilities.

(For the record: The author last entered a competion at the age of 17, sponsored by the local music teacher's association. There was no entry fee, and he won a first prize of $50. Since then, he has entered no musical competitions. He has never judged a competition, believing that that he lacks the temperament for the task (particularly the "gets along well with others part"), and has refused when asked. He is, himself, very competitive (poker, anyone?) and thinks that competitions in music can be fine, so long as no one takes the results too seriously. The intention of the critique here is not to end competitions but to build better ones.)

We're In Stereo

From Nature, via 3quarksdaily:

If you think only hounds can track a scent trail, think again: people can follow their noses too, a new study says. And they do so in a way very similar to dogs, suggesting we're not so bad at detecting smells — we're just out of practice.

Scientists have found that humans have far fewer genes that encode smell receptors than do other animals such as rats and dogs. This seemed to suggest that we're not as talented at discerning scents as other beasts, perhaps because we lost our sense of smell when we began to walk upright, and lifted our noses far away from the aroma-rich earth. A team of neuroscientists and engineers, led by Noam Sobel of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, decided to test this conventional wisdom.

The team first laid down a 10-metre-long trail of chocolate essential oil in a grass field (the scent was detectable but not strong or overpowering). Then they enlisted 32 Berkeley undergraduates, blindfolded them, blocked their ears and set them loose in the field to try to track the scent. Each student got three chances to track the scent in ten minutes; two-thirds of the subjects finished the task. And when four students practiced the task over three days, they got better at it.

Next, the team tested how the students were following the trails. They counted how many whiffs of air each student took while tracking the scent trail, and tested the effect of blocking one nostril at a time. The scientists found that humans act much like dogs do while tracking a scent, sniffing repeatedly to trace the smell's source. They didn't do so well with one blocked nostril, suggesting that the stereo effect of two nostrils helps people to locate odours in space.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Rzewski Scores

Composer Frederic Rzewski has placed a number of his scores online here. (A second site, here, does not appear to be working; Rzewski also has a note here (scroll down) on "copyleft"; I believe, however, that he intends the copyleft status to apply to his sheet music (which can be freely downloaded or printed out, or ordered from his manager, when properly attributed) but he has not released the performance rights into the public domain. I may be a broken record on this topic, but it is really the way to go for most composers).

Books on Composition (old item revisited)

Alex Ross has put up a swell quote from Charles Seeger's Dissonant Counterpoint. Seeger's essay has been an inspiration throughout my life as a composer and was one of the items on a list of books on composition, first posted here on February 12th:

These are a few of the books more-or-less directly about composition to which I have returned frequently over the years:

Cowell, Henry, New Musical Resources
De la Motte, Diether, Kontrapunkt (This, unfortunately, has not yet been translated into English).
Erickson, Robert, The Structure of Music, A Listener's Guide
(Erickson's later book, Sound Structure in Music, mostly about timbre, is also interesting, but for whatever reasons, I have never returned to it)
Harrison, Lou, Lou Harrison's Music Primer
Kühn, Clemens, Formenlehre der Musik (needs to be translated)
Morley, Thomas, A Plaine and Easy Introduction to Practical Music
Mozart, W.A., Attwood-Studien (The harmony and counterpoint notebooks of Mozart's student Thomas Attwood)
Seeger, Charles, Harmony (Sadly, very difficult to find!)
Seeger, Charles, Dissonant Counterpoint (article)

These come from the visual arts, and say nothing explicit about musical composition, let alone tuning, but they are so rich in ideas that I can't imagine not having them near my desk:

Klee, Paul, Pedagogical Sketchbook
Weschler, Lawrence, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One
Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin

I'm not alone among composers in having found this valuable:

Thompson, D'arcy, On Growth and Form

These are more recent additions to my library, so have not yet faced
the test of time, but are certainly worth a look:

Andriessen/Schönberger, The Apollonian Clockwork: On Stravinsky
Ashley, Robert (ed.), Music with Roots in the Aether
Lucier, Alvin, Reflections/Reflektionen
Tenzer, Michael, Gamelan Gong Kebyar: The Art of Twentieth Century Balinese Music (a very important book on ensemble composition).
Wolff, Christian, Cues/Hinweise

I continue to be impressed by John Cage's contribution to the Hoover/Cage Virgil Thomson; Cage was a gifted writer about practical musical technique.

One of my students recommends this so strongly that I include it here despite my own reservations:

Mathieu, W.A., The Harmonic Experience

We still need a contemporary volume to replace Helmholz's The Sensations of Tone. William Sethares' Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale is an important book. Richard Parncutt's Harmony: A Psychoacoustical Approach is one of the more interesting pieces of scholarship in the field. It's out of print, but the publisher has admirably allowed for free downloads, via:

Addendum, December 2006:

Here are two books that I have recently found to be very useful:

Shere, Charles: Thinking Sound Music: The Life and Work of Robert Erickson
Scherchen, Hermann: Lehrbuch des Dirigierens

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Boycott this competition!

Scott Spiegelberg has posted an annoucement for a composition competition conducted by the Music07 Festival and the eighth blackbird ensemble in Cincinnati. The entry fee for the competition is $25 and a single prize of $500 and a performance by eighth blackbird will be awarded, although there is the usual caveat: the competition reserves the right to not award any prizes.

Even a lowly composer with a California public school education can follow the money here. While I recognize that organizing and publicizing a competition has costs, and a professional rehearsal and performance have costs, and sometimes a mechanism is necessary to insure that the entries are both serious and of a manageable number, all of those costs can be held in check and other mechanisms can be devised to manage the pool of competitors without having to ask the competitors themselves to ante up. If the competition is well-advertised (which is cheap these days with web communications) and the applicant pool is similar to those found in other competitions, the organizers can easily expect 50 to 100 entries, thus ensuring that the competition will finance itself, if not make a profit, via the entry fees. That is obscene.

Competitions like this should be services to the community of musicians, with the prize, performance, and possible PR to the winning composer, the ensemble, and the organizing festival an added net benefit for all. This should be funded by a source external to these three interests. Instead, one of the parties, and that in the weakest position with regard to supply and demand for their work, is being asked to cover this net even though the relationship between aggregate cost to the composers entering the contest and the maximum possible rewards declines rapidly with the number of composers entering.

The fact that such a competition will probably get a sufficient number of entries to make the scam work is either further evidence of the desperate imbalances in the new music food chain, or, even worse, further confirmation that P.T. Barnum's wisdom still holds. Still thinking about entering? I hope not, and I hope that you'll spread the word.

Leedy: The Leaves Be Green

Here's another reminder that the roots of the music that is widely called "minimal" are broader than the received history. Before the term minimalism came into play, terms like "static" or "repetitive" were more commonly in use, and especially among a loose cadre of west coast musicians, including students at Berkeley and in San Francisco (in particular, those who studied with Robert Erickson, William Denney, and Darius Milhaud). Douglas Leedy was a classmate of Riley and Young at UC Berkeley, but did not have their background in Jazz. A hornist, singer, and keyboard player, his interests turned more towards early western music and, later, to South Indian classical music. An accomplished classicist, he has also made a deep exploration of ancient Greek and Latin literature and the music much of it once carried. Leedy's The Leaves Be Green (1975) is a particularly rich example of this other minimal tradition, connecting to the virtuoso early English keyboard music, as well as through extended pedal points, repetition, and subtle microrhythmic variations to South Indian music and to the music of his contemporaries. The pure major thirds of meantone tuning are also an essential feature of this music.

A PDF file of the entire score is available here. (Largish file)

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Charles Seeger, 120

Just noticed that Charles Seeger, composer, musicologist, ethnomusicologist, and general thinker-of-big-thoughts-about-music would have celebrated his 120th birthday on the 14th. Seeger's writings on music made a great impression on me as a student, especially on those sleepness nights spent pondering the question "what is music?" Perhaps the most encouraging quality of Seeger's work on this question was its provisional quality or incompleteness, with an refreshingly honest mix of authority and failure in the face of a difficult question. Anyone writing about music is touched by "Seeger's dilemma": that thinking and discoursing in the "language mode of communication" about the "music mode of communication" dominates, directs and, above all, limits research about music.

American music is also in debt to Seeger for his encouragement of the younger composer Henry Cowell, as well as the musical gifts of his more famous progeny. (The jury is out on Seeger's role in the career of his second wife, the remarkable composer Ruth Crawford). Seeger was also a founder or co-founder of several academic societies, including the American Musicological Junta Cartel Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology, perhaps in a restless search for the proper community in which to share his work.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Getting ideas

This morning, bicycling home after dropping my daughter off at Kindergarten, I noticed a couple things. First, there were the white trucks. On the way, I passed by four unmarked, white, lorries. Commercial vehicles around here usually carry some advertisement, or at least a logo. These were blank. All were parked near crossroads, and none of them seemed to have a driver or passenger in them. Then there was the siren. I pulled to the right curb as usual, but the siren was unfamiliar, and the red emergency van blasting the siren belonged to the State of Hessen Catastrophe Protection Service. I'd never heard of that particular bureaucracy before. Finally, there were the flocks of geese headed north. Five or six huge flocks, in formation, moving in the wrong direction, and awfully late into the year.

Okay. That particular collection of factoids was probably adequate and sufficient material to sustain about two hundred pages of fiction, or, in the right frame of mind, at least a good morning's worth of paranoia. It usually takes a configuration somewhat like that for me to get committed to writing a new piece of music. It could be a couple of notes, memory of a lost shoelace, and the shape of a sweetpotato. Or it could be a tempo, a broken timepiece, and the sense of uncertainty-about-when-to-panic when my son is too late coming home from school.

Mostly, my ideas are musical (the extramusical ideas are usually private and so worked-over as not to be recoverable by anyone) and take the form of what would happen if a bit of familiar music went a slightly different way. I enjoyed the adventure (and even the touch of paranoia) of the actual route I took home this morning, but I only really started composing when I started contemplating the alternative routes not taken. The photographer Ansel Adams said something about waiting to click the camera until he saw something that was literally not there, and there's something like that to composing. You take all that you hear and all that you know about how music works and then wait for the moment when the music does something altogether new.

Vriezen scores

Composer Samuel Vriezen has joined the brave and the wise and has started putting his scores online. At the moment, a long systematic chord progression piece called Within Fourths/Within Fifths and a string quartet can be found here. More scores are promised, so keep checking it out.

About those Landmarks

Question: How do you choose pieces for your "Landmarks" list?

The list of musical landmarks that's been compiled here was begun without any formally articulated criteria, other than the importance of the individual works to my own musical life. As time's gone by, the outlines of the criteria have become more clear to me, if perhaps murky to all of you. At the very least, it should be clear that the list is unranked, and the order, while sometime suggestive of connections or associations, is capricious, when not accidental. (That said, contrast between successive works may play a role). But some problems with the list have emerged. For example, there are some works of non-western music -- the Solonese Gambir Sawit or the Navajo Blessing Way -- that are extremely important to me, but including them in this list seems to risk some tokenism. If I were to include Etenraku, which is the best-known piece in the Gagaku (Japanese Court Music) repertoire, which I find to have one of the most gorgeous melodies ever conceived, it would be a bit dishonest, because other than it's familiarity, I can scarcely make a claim about a landmark status for the piece within its own repertoire.

What's next on the list? How many pieces will it include?

I always have a notion about the next two or three pieces on the list. At the moment, the Mozart Quintet in g minor, Ashley's Wolfman, Tenney's Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow and an amazing orchestra piece by Carola Bauckholt are bopping about my brain, but I tend to bop a lot of pieces right out of my head and surprise myself with something from left field. It's either a bit like playing chess without knowing the rules or playing hold'em poker without ever looking at your own cards...

The list, in principle, is open ended (I'm optimistic). This blog (and this blogger), isn't (then again, who's optimistic?). Did I answer your question?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

If I ran the orchestra (3)

Note to parents:

I went to my son's winter orchestra concert this evening. Once again, a massive over-supply of flutes, too many trumpets, only one viola, one bassoon, one oboe, only two horns. While this ensemble had some character of its own, and it doesn't matter too much with holiday music, when it comes to standard repertoire, some of those flutes and trumpets are going to be left on the bench. Do your kids a favor, encourage them to consider playing oboe or horn or viola or bassoon.

If I ran the orchestra (2)

From a wish list:

(1) Basset clarinets (or more properly, clarinets with basset extensions to written c (as opposed to basset horns, a different instrument, narrow bore alto clarinets in F with the same written c extension)) are useful. The Mozart Clarinet Concerto was probably written for such an instrument. Should be more of them.

(2) Ophicleides. The rattle made by these brass-winds is more terrifying than a tuba will ever achieve. Essential to the Symphonie Fantastique. (Check out the Norrington recording).

(3) Natural horns. Essential. With the proper handhorn technique, an entire repertoire, from Beethoven's Sonata in F to the Brahms Trio is taken to another timbral universe.

(4) Trumpets in (low) F. The move of orchestral players towards the higher-keyed trumpets (Bb and C, 4' keys, territory previously associated more with the cornet) is another timbral loss. The darkness of the F trumpet is particularly important in Mahler.

(5) Bassoon consorts. A few makers here and there are making smaller-sized instruments, at soprano/alto/tenor pitches, chiefly for children (or others with small hands), but opening up the possibility of full consorts of modern bassoons.

Addendum: Gordon Mumma wrote to add the following:

In your orchestra series, you justly
complement several neglected instruments.
Re the natural horn, it should be extended
earlier than Ludwig's Op. 17. It should be
heard it in J.S.B's Brandenburgs, and later
than the Brahms Trio into Ben Britten's
Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings.
Even my old HORNPIPE requires it, etc.

If I ran the orchestra (1)

After a small holiday (jaw, dentist, no picnic, no lightning), I've started practicing cornetto again. It's a fantastic instrument, if very difficult to control, but when matched with the right repertoire - especially long lines with lots of stepwise motion - it is unmatched among instruments in its vocal character.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Landmarks (21)

Walter Zimmermann: Lokale Musik (1977-81). A collection of pieces (from solos and chamber music through large orchestra), a project about the "manifold relationships between landscape and music", a private (autobiographical and psychological) and public (historical and social) working out (the German is better: Ausarbeitung) of those relationships in a particular -- and particularly complex -- landscape, that of Zimmermann's native Franconia. The source musical materials are traditional Franconian dances -- Walzer, Zwiefache, Schottisch, Mazurka, Rheinländer, Galopp, etc. -- collected by the composer in the course of fieldwork in rural Franconia. This is a musical corpus that was largely collected and notated in the 19th century, and has been played by instrumentalists for generations from notation, and as such is a repertoire in which the tension between a "cultivated" and an oral/folk music tradition is ever-present. The long-cultivated fields and over-managed forests of rural Germany carry precisely the same tension, and more recent history of Germany, in particular of Nuremberg and Franconia, under National Socialism, during the war, and through the decidely mixed working-out of history in the post-war environment (Zimmermann was born in 1949), casts an added shadow. Zimmermann's project is to listen beyond and behind these shadows, to recover the landscape through the prism of this music. His techniques are astonishly simple: removing tonally- and metrically-significant pitches from melodies, or having a pair instruments play tones whose difference tones articulate the traditional dance tunes , thus playing a melody by not playing the melody. His techniques are similar to those Cage used at about the same time to create new music by erasing parts of older music, in particular the syntax-driving cadential features (Cage used Revolutionary-era American music).

Lokale Music is a landmark, not only as a remarkable body of music, but as a model of a composing as a project that connects the musical to the historical, ethnological, social and psychological, and one in which these connections are never musically trivial.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Lucuna, Filled

Trevor Murphy was kind enough to include a link to this blog, noting a conspicuous absence of beer. Consider this now corrected, with a label from the Schierlinger Rye Beer produced by the house of Thurn und Taxis. While rye was once considered the optimal grain for beer, it was at one time restricted in order to reserve enough grain for bread-making and it is now extremely rare. I don't drink much beer these days, but if I did, this would certainly be my choice.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Goodnight Stories

My daughter, who'll be five in February, is very serious about having stories read or told to her. She pays close attention to every detail and takes great joy in discovering the slightest variation in a tale retold. Sometimes, it's next-to-impossible to find an end to storytime, and pleas of "just one more story" can enter an endless loop, delaying her sleep and a few child-free evening hours for the parents.

My responsibility in our bilingual household is for the English storytelling (or rather that approximation of English I make) and have tried to keep a broad repertoire. This includes all the trustworthy old songs and rhymes and stories, but lots of invention on my part and some off-beaten paths as well. Bits of Blake and Nash, Lewis Carroll and Gorey, to be sure. And lately, her favorite has also been one I committed to memory years ago, the tale of Jarl van Hoother and the prankqueen from Finnegans Wake. This little story (pages 21-23 of the Viking Centennial Edition) is a portmanteau of many fairy tales, beginning with a typical once-upon-a-time formula (It was of a night, late, lang time agone...), continues with the hero going through a typical set of three trials, and ends with everyone living happily ever after (The prankqueen was to hold her dummyship and the jimminies was to keep the peacewave and van Hoother was to git the wind up) and a heavy moral to boot (Thus the hearsomeness of the burger felicitates the whole of the polis).

While a selection from Finnegans Wake may seem like odd and overly-ambitious (if not pretentious) bedtime reading for a small child, a passage like this is actually perfect for a child. She recognizes the structure and all of the formulas or conventions of the fairy tale form, and and the same time, the strangeness and rough musicality of the actual words is an adventure and entertainment in which she takes great delight, and it's not more preposterous nonsense than much of the other literature she's already encountered or made up on her own.

It's also a great opportunity for Daddy to show off, and the climax of the tale, when Joyce's diction has modulated into stammering, short syllables and suddenly a paranthesis interrupts all with the thunderclap of a 100-letter word (Perkodhuskurunbarggruauyagokgorlayorgromgremmitghundhurthrumathunaradidillifaititillibumullunukkunun!), - the recitation of which is probably the closest I come to virtuoso performance nowadays - is always met with laughter and a smile that'll be kept forever.

(Originally intended to make a point here about the advantage of simultaneously acquiring traditional and experimental literature or music or cooking or what-have-you, but that's obvious enough, isn't it?)

Friday, December 08, 2006

Looking back at the future

Dirigibles: the civilized alternative to airplanes and emblems of a modernity gone another way. (Image: air mail postage stamps, Tuva, 1936)

Note on margin of a music sketch: Refuse to accept arguments about the end of modernism/post-modernism/classical music/art music/the avant-garde etc.. All options remain open. Still plenty of good music to be writ. And yes, Emma, you can have archaic, and eat it, too.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Was it Chopin, in the Salon, with a Candelabra?

There's a story, and it doesn't really matter here whether it's true or not, that Laurie Anderson, while TA-ing an Art History Course, would come unprepared for her lectures and simply make things up, telling outrageously interesting but untrue stories about the paintings, as she would flip from slide to slide.

Another story: A well-known composer-conductor had once taken the job of music director for a regional US orchestra. After having avoided it for a number of years, the Orchestra's Board Chairman informed him that he could not once again skip conducting the annual Messiah Christmastime sing-along. The sing-along was an important PR event and the patrons were expecting to see the music director. So, he showed up for the rehearsal, began professionally but perfunctly, everything in order until he came to the Pastorale Symphony. A few bars in, he stopped the orchestra, and said, "That's not what Handel wanted..." "Maestro?", he called to a small man in the back of the second violin section, "Did you bring your mandolin?". The rehearsal began again, the melody now augmented "as Handel wanted" with a tremolo mandolin.

Another one: I had one professor in college, a composer, who was a fabulous teacher. He was an engaging figure in the classroom, a solid musician, and always very perceptive and encouraging about students' work. But damn, when it came to music history, he would just make things up. It wasn't a matter of not having ever really learned the music history, or having forgotten it, or having learned an earlier, out-dated, version of things. He was deliberately making the narrative stranger and more interesting than it actually was. While I initially took it as a kind of one-man campaign against musicology (or perhaps, and more personally, against his more pedantic musicologist colleagues), I soon realized that he was always looking for ways to communicate to his students something more than the banal generalization or trivial detail about music. His carefree attitude toward history was intentional and -- for those who listened closely -- always something substantially more than the BS it often appeared to be.

I have wondered, since starting this blog, what, exactly my own obligation towards "the truth" (i.e. historical facts about music, as well as we know 'em) ought to be. As a composer, my obligation towards music history is, gently put, to use it, recklessly, mining it for models and ideas, and then to make something new with those models and ideas, perhaps altering them beyond recognition in the process. To borrow a trope from literary folk, composing can often be the record of other music misheard or creatively re-imagined. Thus my compositional relationship to past musical practice may be three-dollar-bill inauthentic, and a casual mix of the historically informed, uninformed (when not willfully ignorant) and the wildly conjectural.

But what about this blog? Is my obligation here something more like that of a journalist, to be able to end each item with a Cronkitian "that's the way it was"? If so, I'm not sure that I'm altogether suited for the job. Certainly, I have neither the patience nor the energy to get into a heated argument over "rules" of notational practice (damn it, they're conventions, not rules) or terminology or historical performance practice or reception history. That's just not my portfolio.

(That should hammer the last nail in the coffin of my so-called academic career, the lid of which was already firmly closed by some earlier posts on music theory).

On the other hand, I do like a good story, and I will do my best to keep telling them. As to veracity, my caveats have been made, and I won't let a little truth get in the way of truthiness and a bit of suspense. So don't be surprised if you turn up here one day and learn that the culprit was either: (a) Gesualdo in the bedroom with a sword, (b) Lully in the ballroom with a dance master's staff, (c) Hugo Wolf in a brothel with the French Disease, (d) Charles Ives in Central Park (in the dark) with a Baseball Bat, (e) Anton Webern on the porch with a cigarette, or (f) Harry Partch in a boxcar with a tuning fork.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

||: repetition :||

For a time, say '78 through '84, my music used a lot of literal repetitions, notated often between happy pairs of ||: :||s. Repetition was a useful element in music which was more immediately static than dynamic, more about being somewhere, than going somewhere. Of course, no repetition was ever precisely identical to that which was being repeated, the most careful of human performances always carried traces of subtle alterations, and even in the most mechanical repetition, the context, of time delayed and experienced, altered the identity relationship in a fundamental way.

For a time, say say '78 through '84, my music used a lot of literal repetitions, notated often between happy pairs of ||: :||s. Repetition in music was useful for creating contexts that well self-sustaining and self-similar. Canons were a particularly useful extension of repetitive techniques, as the music was simultaneously asserting something about where one was, where one had been, and where one might be going. Canons became increasingly important to me in the late 1980's, and now I can't imagine working without them, but they are increasingly loose, rather than strict, in character. Letting a voice which had been trailing gradually move to a leading position in a contrapuntal environment (John Cage, borrowing an idea about Gagaku from Henry Cowell, called this a "Japanese Canon"; Morton Feldman would brilliantly use this same idea, borrowed perhaps from simultaneous Torah recitation in the Orthodox Schul, Jo Kondo's idea of a "shape" and its "shadow" was definitely in the same ballpark) was literally like getting ahead of oneself.

Before I get ahead of myself: For a time, say '78 through '84, my music used a lot of literal repetitions, notated often between happy pairs of ||: :||s. Attracted initially by the impossibility of the exact repetition, I became more attracted to the idea of an explicitly imperfect or quasi-repetition. An example of quasi-repetition which continues to haunt me is Jo Kondo's Sight Rhythmics, in which the same piece is "repeated" six times, but from each "repetition" to the next, one element in each measure is altered, with alterations accumulating until the sixth "repetition", called a Skolion, in which the material is rewritten altogether. But the changes here always remain clearly within the territory, the ballpark if you will, of repetitions rather than variations, because the sensation is always one of sameness rather than the variety a proper variation would demand.

But I'm getting ahead of myself: For a time, say '78 through '84, my music used a lot of literal repetitions, notated often between happy pairs of ||: :||s. I've recently been writing some music in which there are lots of literal repetitions, but repetitions which find themselves in conetxts which change enough that I'm not comfortable fitting them between pairs of ||: :||, no matter how happy they might be. The context has changed the material enough identifying any of it as a repetition now seems somewhat dishonest. I suppose I ought to write something now about not dipping into the same river twice, but having come 'round to recognizing that the same river is not a particularly useful idea (as a river is more of a process than an object), let's leave it at that, and you'll have some idea of the ballpark about which I'm currently bopping. Or something like that idea, but entirely your own...

...that topic

I have a draft blog item that's now over a year old about how a composer comes to decide on the duration of a piece of music. The same topic is now receiving a healthy discussion over at Sequenza21's Composers' Forum. My item has remained in draft form because, honestly, I haven't figured out a way to talk about it without falling into language (length, density, duration etc.) that is inevitably more or less suggestive of concerns other than music. So let me leave it at this: the relationship between the the character and number of musical materials and the duration and pace of the context in which those materials appear, whether intuitive or calculated, is perhaps the most personal decision a composer can bring to her/his work and a telling mark of his/her own musicality.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Operatic potential

The unfortunate re-emergence of assasination (Ahmed Shah Massoud, Anna Politkovskaya, Pierre Gemayel), and of poisoning in particular (Yushchenko, Litvinenko), as a political instrument may well have an unintended side-effect: May I be the first to predict that we will soon see and hear a number of new music theatre works in which poisoning returns to its proper place in the arsenal of operatic action.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The case against over-notation

News item: a number European towns are removing traffic signage. Preliminary results suggest that an anarchic form of traffic control is as safe if not safer than an over-signed and over-controlled environment. The relevance to the long-standing music notation debate (too much/too little) seems clear.

I'm not a fanatic in the over/under-notation debate. In my own scores, I like to find the most efficient notation of those elements I consider essential and then leave interpretive possibilities open (and often ambiguous), which ought to put me in the minimally notated camp. But I've never been exactly comfortable in being a camp follower (especially, Groucho Marxist that I am, in those camps that would have me as a member) and some composers like to be more specific, and that's okay. And even if they push that specificity to the point of making a fetish out of a page that has more black marks than white space, I'm not about to deny this minor form of polymorphous perversity to anybody. On the other hand, if such a minor fetish is raised to an official standard in institutional admissions, concert programming or in competitions, then that's definitely entering the realm of non-consensual aesthetic power grabbing, and that's both uncivil and musically foul.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Back to the wilderness, buckoes!

Leonard Bernstein on Aaron Copland (source):

"He was the composer who would lead American music out of the wilderness..."

Well, with all due respect to Messrs B & C, why the hell was leaving the wilderness necessarily a good thing? Much of the best music in the US has belonged and still belongs to that wilderness, happily rough edged, unruly, unapologetically unfit for Carnegie Hall.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Costs and benefits

A well-planned busy morning gets broken up by the unplanned task of retrieving a small but essential toy part from the vacuum cleaner. A picnic gone wrong is a reminder that the invention of the tin can was independent of and, in fact, preceeded the invention of a can-opener. A consortium of the EU and six states have agreed to spend 10bn Euro over 20 years on the Iter fusion reactor, outlook for success unknown. Equal temperament gradually became a standard keyboard tuning in the west (as well as in all the far east states which produce instruments for export to the west), allowing unlimited modulation at the cost of compromising the intonation of some intervals, and perhaps obliging one to said unlimited modulation. The US President pitches an invasion of anti-Islamicist Iraq as part of a war on Islamicist terrorism, creating countless new Islamicists in the course of a botched occupation. Electronic amplification makes it possible to have sophisticated sound in any location, including all the wrong places, and at large amplitudes, including too-large amplitudes. Once you've started your 12-tone row, chances are that you're going to keep going all the way to the end. Wonderbread. Robert MacNamara. Analog noise, as on a scratched record, is annoying, but usually conserves some of the continuity of the message, while digital noise can break up the message irretrievably.

Margo Schulter: the neo-medieval avant-garde

One of my goals here has been to identify some of the under-recognized niches in the experimental and contemporary music landscape. One scholar and composer who deserves more attention is Margo Schulter. She has specialized in the nexus between medieval and renaissance tuning concepts and voice leading practice in early repertoire, both analytically and synthetically, through locating unexplored potential in historical practice for new work. Her impressive, if modest-in-scale, compositions are in a style which she identifies as neo-medieval, featuring deliciously subtle alternative tunings. To a certain extent, it is a kind of historical fiction, imagining a music that could have happened in 1300 or 1400 had history taken a slightly different course in the generations after Perotin or Machault. Ms. Schulter, although working outside of the academy, is one of the most rigorous and thorough scholars out there, and, in addition, is one of the most generous spirits in the contemporary music world, paying attention to the work of others with rare intensity and always more interested in fruitful collaboration than in competition.

A selection of her writings are available here. Some of her pieces may be found here or here or here (ogg vorbis files prepared by Gene Ward Smith).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Fox on Feldman

The Guardian has an article online on Morton Feldman by composer Christopher Fox. It's a good introductory piece for a lay audience. One correction, though: Fox says that Feldman studied with Cage, a characterization which neither Cage nor Feldman would have accepted.

Talking Turkey

The following remarks are not intended for vegetarians or anyone with a sentimental attachment to domesticated animals.

Two tips for roast turkey: (1) debone it (2) brine it. Deboning is easy to do, and probably the only thing that Jr. High Biology class has prepared you for, but you need to be patient (give it 45 minutes for the first operation) and practice on a chicken or duck or two sure helps before trying to debone the big bird*. If you have neither the time nor the confidence in your deboning skills, there are a few professional poultry people out there who will debone to order, but not one of them lives in Germany, so I had to teach myself. You basically cut a slit down the back, straight down the spine, starting an inch or two from the top and continuing to an inch or two from the bottom. Then, with a small knife, gently separate the soft tissues from the bones, moving around the ribcage until the the spine, ribcage and breastbone come out in one piece. Manually pop the wings out of the shoulders and the thighbones out of both hip and legs. I prefer to take out the rib cage, breast plate, shoulder blades and the thigh bones, leaving bones in the drumsticks and wings. Those bones don't get in the way of slicing and lend the bird a bit of structure for presentation. Fill the bird with the stuffing of your choice to roughly the original form and sew it back up with strong cotton thread or light twine. (There is a urban cooking legend that dental floss will also work. Forget it. It's almost as nasty an idea as using a bidet for a Farce Double.) Brining is soaking the bird beforehand in strongly salted water, roughly 1/4 cup salt for every five pounds of bird. Brining's not necesary if you're working with a kosher turkey (which has already been treated with salt), and shouldn't be done with any bird that's been chemically treated (but you wouldn't buy one of those, would you?) but is essential for a fowl of any other provenance. Lightly rinse after brining and allow the turkey to completely airdry on a rack in the fridge before spicing, stuffing and roasting. I have brined before deboning and deboned before brining, and have noticed no difference in effect, but omitting the brining can lead to a dismal fowl, and omitting the deboning can lead to that dismal table game of "who really doesn't want to carve the turkey?".

And finally, remember the sage words of my old friend Kali Tal**: You can never have enough cranberry sauce.
*If you aquire some virtuosity with deboning, you might try stuffing your turkey with a smaller boneless bird or two. The triple play of chicken-within-duck-within-turkey, each layer separated by its own variety of stuffing is considered the ultimate in this genre, slow cooked for most of a day, and with slices through the meat resembling a paté.
**Yes, Kali, I do remember that JelloTM was invented by a woman. But I still don't know why I should know this fact.

(By request, this is a revised and amplified encore of a post from November 2005.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

(picnic, lightning)

Biography certainly plays a role in what a composer does and how she or he does it, but it doesn't work retroactively. In this Mozart year, we've been bombarded particularly hard with narratives about his final hours and final works, each narrator certain that this coincidence has some meaning beyond our simple despair that these works happened to be the last. There are similar narratives about final works for many composers. But, aside from those composers who decide consciously to stop, resting on their laurels, or to retire in a fadeout or with a bang, or just plain decide to quit, a concerted end to life and work is just not the stuff one plans. You don't compose your way off the stage. While we now recognize that many of the late works of Mozart have a unique maturity, and in particular an attitude towards musical history that had to have been a growing part of his musical consciousness, and it is immensely difficult for us to imagine what Mozart would have done next, it is even more difficult to believe that he heard those late works as either late or last. For the composer, those works were simply new, and his mind was surely already turning toward the next.

Hans Rott died at 25, leaving only one major work, a Symphony in E major (1880). A piece that should have been heard as a promising, if not brillant, beginning -- and one that was probably essential to Mahler's development -- thus gets (mis)heard as tragic and culminating, transfering it into the realm of requiems and the like.

I've written here previously about the case of Mahler, affected (perhaps) by the "Ninth Symphony Curse" yet managing in spite of it to write 10 or even 11 symphonies (depending upon how you count) before dying too early, at 50. Conventional wisdom assigns these to the stylistic category of late works. Late in chronology, but are they necessarily late and last in the composer's imagination? A narrative culminating at the Ninth or Das Lied von der Erde or the 10th, misses the point that, had he lived an average lifetime, at his pace of work, we'd now be listening to Symphonies 15 or 16, or perhaps an opera or two. Imagining the tonal directions that such pieces might have taken -- given Mahler's access to nearly complete chromatic collections in the tenth as well as his lament for the loss of meantone intonation with its pure thirds -- is tantalizing and a particular challenge to the Viennese chromatic language that would emerge after Mahler's death. And speculating about the formal invention that he might have achieved is perhaps even more of a challenge to that tradition.

Morton Feldman may have gotten it right with his Last Pieces (1959), which he composed while still young (if not youthful, a word that I find tough to use with Feldman at any age), and, in spite of the title, were neither his last pieces, nor even late pieces, not even by a longshot. But could it be that by detaching the notion of a late style from age or career chronology, Feldman usefully got over the anxiety of a late style, allowing himself, in the second half of his career, to compose as if he had all the time in the world?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Xenharmonikon 18

The 18th (and final) issue of Xenharmonikon has been published. An informal journal of microtonal music, XH was established by John H. Chalmers, Jr. in 1974. The long list of contributors has included Lou Harrison, Ervin Wilson, and Ivor Darreg, and issues have included theoretical and practical articles (notation, instrument design) and scores. The current issue includes substantial articles by George Secor and David Keenan on notation, Margo Schulter on the application of Secor's 17-tone well-temperament to her neo-medieval music, and Paul Erlich on a "middle path" between Just Intonation and equal temperaments. Copies are available through Frog Peak Music.

(For the record, I edited four issues in the 1980's, but Xenharmonikon has always really been Chalmers' feast, and I was just keeping the fire warm).

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Everything, dropped

Against the Day, the new novel by Thomas Pynchon, arrived this morning. I tried to put off starting the book, but couldn't help myself, and now, 100-some pages in, I'm beginning to suspect that I am basically lost to the world.

Pynchon's manages, as usual, to jam as many references together as possible while simultaneously parodying historical literary genres low and high, but his writing here has a remarkable smoothness. The book opens with "another" serial adventure of the "Chums of Chance", wildly but virtuously out-Swifting Tom as five chums are found half a mile up in the air in The Inconvenience, a hydrogen-filled balloon en-route to the 1893 World's Fair. (The aerial opening recalls both the screaming missiles of Gravity's Rainbow and the gentler snowflakes in Mason & Dixon. (Like M&D, ATD also features a sentient dog.)) The boys loyally follow the Charter of the Chums, which is nothing less than the 19th century version of Star Trek's Prime Directive... With airships, anarchists, psychic antigravity, pre-relativistic physics, and surprising ethnological encounters, I'm having a blast in the novel's pre-20th century landscape, and am not a little disturbed by its familiarity.

More later.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

In response

One of the best things that has happened since this page started is that a series of younger composers have shared their work with me. As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing better than opening your email in the morning and, out-of-the-blue, finding a new score to read through and learning the name of a new colleague. It's an authentic sign of intelligent life in the universe, and (Ives knows) these are all-too-rare.

Some of the composers have asked me for comments or criticism, and I've done my best to take that request seriously. While I'll admit to be flattered by being asked for my opinion, and (misanthrope that I am) enjoy the sense of community and continuity that this implies, I think that it usually suggests something even more about the character of these young musicians, and that is that maybe they like and value music more than they like the apparatus that has grown around it. After all, I have little concrete to offer them in terms of their professional lives: I have no institutional connections, don't teach, don't sit on juries or grant committees, don't write reviews, and don't produce concerts or recordings. All I can offer is a word or two about their music, and the fact that they're willing to enter into an open dialogue about their music is something to be optimistic about.

If I have any model in doing this, I think that it may be the artist Robert Irwin, who, at one point, gave up his studio, and began to describe his work as being "in response". In response to individuals and situations. Or to John Cage, who made a point of keeping his phone number listed in the directory and answering the phone himself. My mailbox is open, and I look forward to whatever comes next.

Getting it done

When I'm composing for myself, without a deadline to meet, the idea of finishing a piece tends to lose urgency. While I will readily admit to some less-than-optimal working habits, this is not procrastination, but a program: when the composing is going very well, it can be a manic experience; musically, intellectually, emotionally, a party I'd rather not end. Given the luxury of time to get things right, to be particular about details, I tend to take my time, and will often throw out five to ten times a much music as will eventually make it into the piece. And without the pressure of a deadline, I tend to be promiscuous about my musical projects, going from one to another, and sometimes dumping the both for a time to chase a new idea or fantasy.

But at some point, the piece is either going to get done, or join the file drawer full of sketches, drafts, the unfinished, the abandoned and unfinishable. In theory, this is material that can be returned to, but in practice, most of this will become permanent residents of the file drawer. A few pieces will be thrown away without delay or regret, usually the products of unfortunate ideas or faulty technique. Some pieces just get lost (one of my last pen-and-ink scores actually got washed away, sitting on a open window bank during an unexpected storm). The best ideas tend to lock themselves in my ears and mind, and when they return, it is usually unprompted by any written record.

How do you decide when a piece is done? Most other composers probably have some dynamic or dramatic ideas about this. Climax, release, arsis/thesis, all that rot. And many of them have some notions about the how a "professional" score should appear and what elements it must include. In some cases, the idea, nature, and terms of the project are so clear, that the premise defines its own conclusion. A lot of process pieces work this way. Much of the music of Alvin Lucier as well. Sometimes a piece is complete when it literally exhausts a list of possibilities. This is a premise of some serial music. But my own music isn't always that neat, and the end of composition comes not from an exhaustion of possibilities, but from a exhaustion of my engagement with the work, or a sense that I can't really do too much more without doing more damage than good, and the piece is simply declared "done" by fiat.

I suppose that the notion of getting a piece done is for me less a matter of achieving some kind of perfection but rather of getting over imperfections. I go with Wm. Blake, as in A Vision of the Last Judgement:

"Error is created. Truth is eternal. Error, or Creation, will be Burned up, & then, & not till Then, Truth or Eternity will appear. It is Burnt up the Moment Men cease to behold it. "

Saturday, November 11, 2006


This time of year, getting darker ever earlier, settling into the cold, is the time when all emotions associated with my distance from home, California, become most acute. And it's distance in time as well as space. Frankurt, relative to most of Germany -- or Europe for that matter -- has changed a bit in the past seventeen years. A skyscraper or two, a renovated square, a new underground line. Changes of regime in the musical scene. But nothing resembling the pace of change in California. My grandparents remembered orange groves being planted in the desert, my parents watched the last of the groves get replaced by tracks of houses, and I've seen some of the oldest tracks removed to make way for ever new developments. The freeway system built largely in the sixties is now a decaying object, the dry desert that I knew around Palm Springs in 1968-69 is now humid, thanks to golf courses fed by stolen water. There are deep wounds in both landscapes -- the dying forests in Europe, long a fragment of their selves, a product of over cultivation, or the Salton Sea in California, product of an accident, and now a useless monument to pride and stupidity.

But the urban landscapes that have grown out of those wounds have a vibrancy of there own, and I can't imagine my life without this. In Los Angeles and in Frankfurt, at night, there is a charge in the air. A bit of moisture in the air at night helps carry doppler-shifted sound from passing trains on the AT&SF line, or here from the U-Bahn, now overground in our neighborhood. I think I first really "got" La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano listening to it in a pickup on the 10 Freeway during its first local broadcast. It took 16 years for me to actually hear the annual grand bell-ringing in Frankfurt, and all of a sudden, the layout of a town I had thought familiar, was transformed by tonal relationships made spatial by great hanging chunks of bronze, now from this tower, now from the Cathedral, now from across the river.

Change in landscape, demography, or culture is both inevitable and unpredictable. I refuse to join the chorus of laments over the "demise" (whether coming or complete) of classical music. That tradition has always been in transition: coming, going, returning, and sometimes unrecognizeably so. We are still registering the impact of sound recording on music, and doing so as the recording media are themselves in transition. Outcome unknown. (Hell, we're still registering the impact of notation on music: the jury on that is out, too!) In the States, earlier regimes of classical music culture were intimately connected with waves of immigration largely from Europe. As those immigrants generations have passed on, and newer patterns of immigration have been established, reception of that repertoire will necessarily change.

I was fortunate, I think, to have grown up on the edge of all this, on the coast that doesn't look immediately back to Europe, yet has been welcoming to the best of that tradition, as one tradition among many. And I've been equally fortunate to have lived for a time in the middle of Europe and to have heard and seen one particularly old culture in all of its thickness, if only within the limits of my alien ears (that's my ethnomusicological training writing). But is there any fortune greater that being able to recognize that all this evidence of historical capacity for change is also evidence for the potential to do new and interesting work, now, and tomorrow, and the day after that?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

á la Rihm

More compositional culinaria. Sign and Sight, which summarizes and translates current items from German Feuilleton pages, has this item from Die Zeit:
Wolfgang Rihm, one of Germany's leading contemporary composers, talks to Claus Spahn and Thomas Assheuer about how lived experience corresponds to musical expression. "The two don't correlate on a one-to-one basis. But for example I always have a notebook with me where I can jot things down. Here for example (Rihm shows a page of his notebook with a list in point form), that was a talk with one of the best cooks in Strasbourg, Monsieur Emile Jung from Au Crocodile. He explained to me the principle behind spicing. One strong element is complemented by three medium-strength and six weak ones. That's a fantastic doctrine for composition, because it avoids a bland mishmash and gives you a dominant theme orchestrated from different sides. If you arrange the dynamics similarly in music - with one powerful, three intermediate and six weak elements - you get a balanced result, even if the form is asymmetrical. But don't worry, that's not how I cook up my compositions.
I can't help but contrast Rihm's recipe Cage's advocacy of macrobiotic cooking, with its simple balance between yin and yang elements, or even better, with this classic item from La Monte Youngs Lecture 1960:
I used to talk about the new eating. One time Terry Riley said, "Yeah, even the cooks'll get rebellious. We'll walk into a hamburger stand and order something to eat. In a few minutes, the cook'll give us some salt. Just salt. Then one of us will say, 'What? Is this all?' And the cook'll answer, 'whatsamatter, don't cha like static eating?'"

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Sometimes the most brillant elements in music are subtle, materially small but registering with surprising weight. Here's an example in Ockeghem's Mort tu as navré de ton dart (yes, another Ockeghem item):

The piece is in two sections, the first in a triple division, the second, duple*, with contrasting tempi and densities. Ockeghem connects the two sections with a modest move, allowing the next-to-highest voice (contratenor altus) to change its tempus, first singing a division of three against the prevailing two, and then two dotted notes against three undotted in the other voices. This happen once only and then all four voices continue in the duple tempus to the end. That one triplet, and the following duplet add, at low levels of subdivision, a bit of breath into the second part, both connecting back to the tempus of the first section while introducing, perhaps, some ambiguity about how things will continue. At this low level, it is not the gesture of a slick musician articulating in-your-face polyrhythms with aggressive precision but rather a relaxed, almost rubato, gesture, and one which makes a whole out of the contrasting sections.

And then this: Ockeghem's modern editors, Wexler and Plamenac, suggest that the text underlaying the contratenor altus here is in cruce.

* There is considerable debate about how such a transition is to be realized; most current scholars and performers appear to prefer a sesquitertia (4:3) relationship between the two tempi, with a common long duration divided into three parts in the first section, and four in the second. I find the sequitertia solution very convincing, however, a connection between the two parts is also vivid when note values have a constant duration. Note values in the example are halved.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Well-Fed Composer

Food, as a topic of discourse, comes a dangerously close second to music in my chatter, and it's almost always interesting to hear what others, composers among them, are cooking or eating. I'll go even further: a good menu is always a more interesting read than an iPod play list, and a recipe by Charles Baker* or Julia Child beats harmony instruction by Piston, Schenker, or Schoenberg any old day.

Here are some of the composers online with materials about the edible world: Charles Shere, with enviable connections to the wonder that is Berkeley's Chez Panisse, blogs about music, eating out, travel, theatre, eating out, literature, and did I mention, eating out? Dennis Báthory-Kitsz has written a nice diary of a week's home cooking, in a home with a kitchen that appears to have some distinction. John Mackey, a younger composer whose works I do not know, has made a point of including quite thorough photodocumentation of his meals in his blog. More gourmand than gourmet, Mackey's vivid photos may prove to be a valuable record of American eating habits in the early 21st century. (And, gawd help us, the consequent rise in American cholesterol and blood sugar levels.)

I'm sure that I've left someone off this list, but sorry: I've got to go fix something to eat.
* The two volumes (eating, drinking) of Baker's The Gentleman's Companion are in a literary genre of their own. The account of the Saigon absynthe cocktail is alone worth the price of finding a set.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Yuji Takahashi

The composer (and fine pianist) Yuji Takahashi has a large number of scores online in PDF format at his website. His music is always interesting and makes a unique set of connections to other contemporary music -- to Xenakis, experimental music, improvisation, political music, as well as to traditional musics both Japanese and European.

Zukofsky writes

Paul Zukofsky has some useful articles on rhythm and other topics online here.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Landmarks (20)

Johannes Ockeghem: Mort tu as navré de ton dart (ca 1460) & Josquin des Prez: Nymphes des bois (ca 1497).

These two pieces are links in a chain: the first is Ockeghem's lament for Gilles Binchois, the second is Josquin's La déploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem. In sequence, these compositions assert a historical continuity and re-imagination that characterizes and is unique to the European musical renaissance. They each combine settings of a contemporary secular poem in French (but one clearly rooted in the classical past of the Roman planctus) with a sacred cantus firmus in Latin. Ockeghem's upper voice sings a ballade (his only ballade) with a melodic shape more like those of Binchois than his own, and Josquin's upper voice begins with a citation, from the opening of the Kyrie to Ockeghem's Missa Cuiusvis toni.

(N.B. Actually, this chain could be extended further, with, for example, Nicolas Gombert's lament on the death of Josquin, Musae Iovis, thus setting the links -- corresponding to generations -- in alternating hues, one more clear and direct (Binchois, Josquin) , the next more complex and elusive (Ockeghem, Gombert)).

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Public Theorist

Scott Spiegelberg is a theorist, specializing in pedagogy and perception, who has made a point of making his work public, and in doing so in a way that doesn't restrict his audience to a narrow circle of professional colleagues. His lively blog, Musical Perceptions, has included a number of great items, including some compact and practical primers on Neo-Riemannian theory and realizing Figured Bass. Spiegelberg has also been a pioneer in using the blog as a medium for classroom teaching (his blog side-bars a number of these class blogs) and, again, his committment to the broadest definition of academic publication is well in evidence.

I have written a few outrageous things about theory on these pages, as part of my on-going attempt to articulate the distance between compositional and theoretical projects. Theory is an important service discipline for composers, a mirror to our own work, and a never-empty source of new ideas, but in order to take advantage of theory, composers will inevitably play fast and loose with the most elegant theoretical constructions. In this context, it's good to encounter a theorist like Spiegelberg, who seems comfortable writing about music theory in a way that balances perspectives and never gets too far away from either the practical issues of music making or the mysterious issues of musical perception.

Getting 'em young

The Boy Scouts, in cooperation with the MPAA have now developed "an activity patch for learning about the evils of downloading pirated movies and music".

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Formal Dreams

I don't often remember my dreams, preferring, I suppose, to enjoy them. But here's an exception: I'm composing a big, complicated piece, and sketching it in a frenzy. In order to keep track of things, I start hanging the sketches on the walls, and when space runs out in my studio, these start spreading out onto the walls of every room in the house (in a physical replication of a classical theatre of memory, I now realize). Taking a walk, or in the dream, a mad rush, through the house becomes a tour through the piece in progress, with each room a section or movement with its own character. The childrens' rooms are scherzo-like little madhouses full of their toys and my musical toys, the kitchen is somewhat routine, with lots of repeat signs. There is some flexibility in the order of the sections/room, but that is constrained by the limited number of routes through my house. In order to get to the kitchen, you have to pass through the living room, which is the most massive and most detailed. As the piece begins to take on uncontrollable dimensions, I run out of rooms and start putting things in the boiler room and the garden shed. Even the mailbox is full. We start to talk about annexing the neighbors' house... and then I wake up.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

More Movie Music

Just some questions, no firm opinions at all: is there a useful distinction to be made between the film music of composers who specialize in film music and those who come to film music from outside? Does the film music of Shostakovitch, Thomson, Copland, Glass, or Takemitsu fall into a different category than that of Korngold, Hermann, or any one of the Newmans? Does coming from inside or outside of the film branch give a composer a different perspective on the conventions of the genre?

And: What can be usefully said about the concert music composers who failed to break into the movies -- Schönberg and Stravinsky, for starters -- is that failure due to a mismatch in musical or personal temperaments? A variety of expressionism, with a real debt to Schönberg has become a familar trope in film music, but it seems to me to be more an import of external stylistic features than any deep structure (which shouldn't be surprising: musical concepts of coherence and closure take a back seat to those of film narrative, effect, and pacing*). On the other hand, with the exception of the famed disneyized dinosaurs, Stravinsky seems to have had less impact on film music.

(I've set aside the music of those composers working in experimental film environments, which are presumably less constraining).

* On the other hand, why can't you try to have it both ways? There was an interview somewhere recently with a Hollywood blockbuster composer who mentioned starting a job with some fibonacci-derived materials, and then giving them up in favor of more or less improvising to the screen image. While there's nothing necessarily good or bad about using fibonacci sequences in music, I believe that there was something terribly empty in the gesture of just giving up on the potential for a score to incorporate structural relationships of both music and film genres. What a loss!

Film music

At Slate, Jan Swafford makes a case for Toro Takemitsu as the best film composer of all time. Such a category is hopelessly qualified by context -- and the context is one in which a composer is only one part of a corporate effort, with very little influence how, in the end, her or his music will be used. That qualification taken, my personal choice would be Alex North (with Henry Brant orchestrating), although, as I have noted here before, Bernard Hermann remains the most influential.

Monday, October 16, 2006


Years ago, in an analysis seminar with Gordon Mumma, we came up with the notion of an identicle, the smallest bit of information with which a single piece, the catalog of a single composer, a genre, or a repertoire might be identified. For example, a long series of triads in the upper voices with the bass one scale tone off might be an identicle for the music of William Schumann. An abundance of sonorities composed of a perfect fourth or fifth with an added augmented fourth or diminished fifth can frequently be a giveaway for music by Boulez. The identicle could be found in orchestration: A constant doubling of the first violins by the flute is an identicle for the orchestral music of Robert Schumann.* The examples are not limited to classical music: even those with a casual aquaintance with Central Javanese music can soon sort out Solonese from Yogyakartan style by paying attention to the peking, a high pitched metallophone, which in Yogyanese style anticipates the ensemble melody.

Identicles are, in and of themselves, usually fairly trivial, and perhaps most immediately useful for getting results on "name-that-tune"- or "drop-the-needle"-style listening exams. But the process of locating identicles can inform questions about the unity of a work or body of work. This process strikes me as intimately related to that used in discovering algorithms to construct a work or repertoire of works. David Cope's idea of a signature -- which he locates in the source repertoire from which he derives new works in the "same style" -- is perhaps a more tightly defined (in terms of parameters) and higher-level instance of an identicle.

While this is low-level, if not casual, stuff for analysis, I have found that watching out for identicles is useful for a composer. A composer has to find a balance in his or her work between asserting a recognizeably personal style and, at the same time, not getting stuck in a rut and too closely identified with particular stylistic features. Am I repeating myself? Is the music too much of the same? Or has it become too scattered, too disparate? Or even: is the music creeping into the identicle field associated with one of my contemporaries?** These are the sort of questions in which analysis that doesn't go too deeply into particulars is probably advantageous.

* Schumann's flute writing was long a textbook example of how not to orchestrate; recent attempts to recover the performance practice style of Schumann's time suggest that this is far from the case. In the conjectured historical style, the strings do not play through the entire duration of their notes, or at least not with a constant intensity, allowing the flute tone to emerge from the composite tone in a synthetic timbre with considerable character.
** It is interested to note how carefully circumscribed the identicle fields are about the individual composers associated together in groups or schools or circles. The individual compositional identities of members of the Second Viennese School, Les Six, the New York School, the principle minimalists, or among the post-Ferneyhough complexists were very tightly defined. This is, perhaps, one of the lasting weaknesses of the camp followers of the mid-century American symphonic style, of the flute piece in stilo Gazzelloni, or of Princeton-style serial bebop.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


I was shocked, shocked (1) to discover, this morning, that Renewable Music had entered the top ten reblog sources over at New Music ReBlog. This being a distress signal for over-production, I promise now to do my very best to return to the respectable second tier where scoundrels, artists, and the constitutionally lazy ought to reside.

The truly shocking thing about this is that I'm someone who has run hot and cold when it comes to talking or writing about music. There have literally been years when I've thought that there was nothing to be said or, at least, I had nothing to say about music. During those times, I've usually done my best to simply shut up. The Age of the Blog (2) just happened to arrived during a spell when this was not the case.

From time-to-time, in these pages, I have written things that are provocative. But so far, complaints have been limited. While I suppose that this is mostly a measure of low readership and low readability (3), I do have to wonder if in part this is because new music has entered the Age of the Blog at a time in its development when its capacity to provoke, excite, or, indeed shock, is at a low point. If so, we've simply got to get back to work.
1. Shamelessly sentimentality-betraying movie reference.
2. Shamelessly age-betraying allusion to the "Age of the Feuillton" in Das Glasperlenspiel.
3. Slight exaggeration. A reading level analysis of this blog notes that the average number of words in a sentence was 18.2, the percentage of words with three or more syllables is 17.55%, the average syllables per word is 1.62, the Gunning Fog Index is 14.32, the Flesch Reading Ease is 51.54, and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade 10.61. On the basis of the Gunning Fog Index, readership here is expected to be somewhat higher than (College) sophomoric, the Flesch Index indicates that it is slightly more difficult that the 60-70 score desired for general audiences, and the Flesch-Kinkaid grade is higher that that of the New York Times, but lower than that of Academic Papers. Okay, dudes, I can live with that.


There's been a lot of lamentation about the absence of new music reviews in the Village Voice. But has anyone noticed that contemporary dance continues to get covered? Take, for instance, this review of the new Merce Cunningham season. You have to wonder why dance continues to be covered. Is it because of some quality intrinsic to dance or because of a larger audience base? In any case, it is nice to know that if you compose for dance, you might still get a review in the Voice.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Some reading

Here are a pair of books for thinking musicians, and those who just like to think about music:

Christopher Small: Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Wesleyan 1998) This was recommended by Adam Baratz at his blog Form/Content and I second his recommendation. Small is not afraid of the hard questions: "Is there something built into the nature of the works of that repertory that makes performing and listening to them under any circumstances go counter to the way I believe that human relationships should be? (...) Was even Mozart wrong?"

Bart Kosko: Noise (Viking 2006) This is unabashedly popular science writing, but the breadth is remarkable, going far beyond acoustical noise. I think the topic can very useful for those of us who spend our lives intentionally putting sounds out into the world or telling others to put sounds out into the world, i.e. composers.