Wednesday, January 25, 2006


I'd willingly have a tooth pulled without a pain killer if, in return, I would never again have to hear a composer who has just received an opera commission1 say: "Of course, I don't really like opera."2
1. Opera commissions are rare, doled out in an unpredictable mix of real competition, insider politics, and caprice. Once made, a good opera commission can help feed a composer for up to two years composing and try-out time. And if the opera has legs, it pays grand rights. All-in-all, it ought to be enough to make you find
something attractive about opera.

2. I've really heard that sentence about not really liking opera from at least five new recipients of operatic commissions. Typically, the next sentence begins with some back-pedaling:
"So, I will make an anti-opera/non-opera/theatre piece/staged oratorio/live film score etc. instead."

3. And the next sentence will include the obligatory line about not liking vibrato (to which I respond "I like vibrato well enough, I just don't like singers who can't control it.)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Defending Ockeghem from his devotees

It's time to let Ockeghem be Ockeghem again.

For a long time, the "complexity" gang has summoned Johannes Ockeghem up as an essential figure in a reading of musical history where composers are emphasized for the complexity of their works.

Now, I've just read something by a critic-and-composer-who-shall-not-be-named, who probably would go to great lengths not to identify himself with the complexity crowd describing a "Johannes Ockeghem, who smoothed over all seams in his music for an absolute minimum of contrast"

How do these two views add together? On the one hand, Ockeghem is a composer who has left us with a few major pieces based on rather sophisticated musical ideas -- combining several meters or modes, and by making extremely long melodies that are essentially unpredictable in their contour or in the succession of note durations. No motives, sequences, very little repetition. On the other hand, those melodies are indeed smooth and the tight ensemble character is only broken by small local peaks in the melodic curves or a bit of ficta-induced variety from time to time. Ockeghem succeeds in a remarkable balancing act between the unpredictable and the continuous. In his L'homme Armé Mass, the cantus firmus is not sung continuously. Instead, it comes in and out of the piece, disappearing and then suddenly reappearing, as if it were just another tributary, adding to the mainstream of sound without punctuating it dramatically. This is music full of contrast, but think of the kind of contrast that you see at twilight; it's compressed in absolute value, but within that compression the relative peaks are startling, and the details vivid if fleeting. My early music teacher, Shirley Robbins, described Ockeghem as sounding "like chocolate."

I recommend the three volume collected works of Ockeghem, it's just the kind of thing for anyone who likes to sing or play music that rewards both the mind and the senses. I don't have the complete works of many composers in my home library, but this one was essential to have.

The Commission (II)

It was now pushing three in the morning. Later than I should be up, but not unusual. But the commission I had just accepted was unusual by any measure.

When a composer writes a piece of music, he or she might be doing it because he or she wants to -- due to inspiration (whatever that is), pure musical or intellectual curiosity, as an exercise in keeping musical "chops" in shape, or as part of a larger project. On the other hand, she or he might just be doing it as work for hire: someone wants to play a piece with your name on it, or someone needs some functional music. The best case, of course, is when someone comes along and commissions you to compose precisely the piece you had wanted to write anyway (okay, even better than best: had already written). Getting paid for work that you would've done voluntarily is a sweet thing.

However, in the commission at hand, I was not being asked to do something that I had wanted to do. The patron presumably knew that, but his assumption was that given the right price I would be able to do what he wanted. His price was right and he had explicitly asked me if I were "an educated composer". I understood my affirmative answer to this to mean that I was trained in the skills associated with classical music: harmony, counterpoint, formal theory, and free composition, and that I was familiar with the repertoire (Viennese, late 18th century) I was to... imitate? emulate? approximate? forge? fake? And there was precisely the point that, at 2:57 a.m gave me a sudden pang of uncertainty, perhaps regret, at taking this commission.

I have no experience as a forger. Musical forgery is not an unknown field, but, lacking certain lucrative dimensions associated better with the visual arts, it is a field that has had only limited cultivation. Some musicologists have shown talent at completing a missing voice or two for old polyphony when some of the part books have gone walkbout. Some musicians have completed the works left unfinished by departed composers. Mozart's Requiem, Puccini's Turandot, and Berg's Lulu are each well known in versions completed by second parties. There's even a small and highly competitive, if friendly, industry involved in completing Mahler's Tenth Symphony (as well as an even smaller, but equally competitive and much less friendly, industry associated with Ives' Universe Symphony.) But I was not being asked to re-create, finish or forge the work of a known composer. I was being asked to compose a piece under my own name, but meant to sound as if it belonged to a repertoire some two and a half centuries old and associated with a city, Vienna, which I scarcely knew. Perhaps the closest parallel was to be found in the "baroque" works of a fictional "Giovanni Paulo Simonetti" which were published as "composed and edited by Winfried Michel", a contemporary recorder/flute/continuo player and editor. Michel wanted to extend the traditionally-styled repertoire for his instrument directly from his experience as a performer with a deep engagement with the repertoire. I was an experimental American composer being asked to be a classical Viennese composer. I determined quickly that whatever I would end up doing, I would do so without pretending to be anything other than experimental or American.

(A Borgesian literary friend of mine would later say that I was being asked to play Pierre Menard to Mozart's Miguel Cervantes. I reminded her that Menard had it easy: he had time, while I had less than 24 hours. She said: "Then write it up as a "real-time" TV series").

An algorithmic composer friend said that all I needed to do was enter a bunch of authentic pieces into a data base, fragment them following some sort of analysis, and recombine them. I said that thought that that would be impossible in 24 hours, no fun, and cheating. The idea was to write my own music, but to write it so that it might slip undetected into the repertoire. No matter how I chopped up fragments of Haydn, Mozart, or Czerny (Czerny?) they'd eventually get recognized, for two many of those fragments are recognizeable. No, I had to back up a bit, and find enough standard material -- the cliched stuff that everybody was using then -- and combine it with just enough original material to create a distinctive, yet undeniably classical, composer's personality. And what about this business of embedding the woman's name into the music? Using existing fragments of real music was clearly not going to work.

When I indicated to my prospective patron that I had the skills and knowledge he required, it was formally true, but to be completely honest, I was hedging his question. As Bill Clinton might have put it: it depends upon the meaning of "have" is. Like most American music students, I had some real training in the classical musical skills, even showing some talent for modal counterpoint in particular, and had practiced imitating Palestrina Masses, Bach Chorales, and Haydn Sonata-Allegros. But those imitations were highly synthetic and done in a context that was far removed from the originals. To pass the assignments, I had to slavishly follow rules that the composer-to-be-imitated would have scarcely recognized, the works with text were often in languages I did not command so my diction was probably faulty, the essential baroque and classical theory of Affects was treated only in passing, and the dimensions of my exercises tended towards the minimum rather than the optimal.

But I accepted the commission. And I did so because of a deep and dirty secret, one held by members of what we will here call The Composing Guild. And -- in full knowledge that I may be risking my Guild membership in telling you -- that secret is that all composers get along by carrying bags full of tricks. Composing tricks. Sometimes these tricks are very small. (For example, Hans-Werner Henze knows how to make an orchestra sound luxurious just by adding a bass clarinet to the right place in a tutti.) Sometimes these tricks have a long pedigree. (Henze picked up the bass clarinet business from Richard Strauss.) Sometimes the tricks are so well known that they become trademarks. (Try entering a contest with a piece featuring a Henze bass clarinet thing: the Guild will backlist you in a semiquaver and it's even possible that your license may be on the line. As they say in The Guild: we watch out for our own).

My own bag has a lot of tricks that are common to many musicians, many that I share only with like-minded composers, and a handful that are mine alone, but that handful makes all the difference. In a pinch, I can pull out some of my semi-random-walks-around-the-tuning-lattice or my special pulling-some-tonal-voice-leading-out-of-a-row trick, and make the music sound all mine. But in order to find the right tricks for making music that would pass for Viennese classical music, I was going to have to dive very deep into my bag, into tricks that I hadn't put on stage for a long time, at least since my student days. But using those tricks alone would only reproduce those student exercises. I was going to have to add original tricks to the mix, and it was getting very late in the night for this old rabbit to learn some.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Alan Rich, Carlos Kleiber, Prozac

Yet another example of why Alan Rich is my favorite critic:

...there are Deutsche Grammophon DVDs of Die Fledermaus and two performances of Der Rosenkavalier that somehow under Kleiber’s leadership become transformed into the excelsis of wise, all-knowing, human comedy. If people really knew how to immerse themselves in any or all of these miraculous events, the makers of Prozac would suddenly recognize their product as superfluous.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Commission (I)

It's getting close to two in the morning. The family is long since safe in bed and I've already been editing a score for close to three hours. Serious eye fatigue, but the only responsible answer to my insomnia. The phone rings and I rush up the stairs from my basement studio to get it before anyone else wakes up. The voice on the phone, southern German or Austrian by accent, but attempting to use his best schoolboy English, asks:

"I am speaking to Dr. Wolf? Composer in the Frankfurt telephone book? Can you make fast composition? It must sound as classical music. Mozart, Haydn, Czerny..."

("Czerny?" I ask myself.)

"Why not use real Mozart or Haydn?" I ask him back.

"No, it must be a new piece, not a modern piece, a new piece in the classical style. And it must use the name of my woman ("Frau", he must have meant, so it's unclear -- girlfriend, wife, or perhaps the "other" woman). Her name is ____ ____, you see, many good letters for making a melody."

(Aha, now I understood the reference to Czerny).

"And you want classical music?"

"Ja, it must not be a big piece. No Sonata or Symphonie. A piano piece. Not difficult, for music lovers to play at home. Leicht, but leicht-easy-to-play, not leicht-entertainment music. Maybe for music lovers to play to their lovers. (He laughs with a light falsetto, strange to hear from an otherwise bass voice). Maybe dances, like minuets."

"But don't you know that I compose modern music, new music, experimental music, fifth-of-Wild-Turkey music, you know the stuff that scares the dog away..."

"But you are an educated composer?"

"I suppose so."

"Then fine, you can compose classical music, easy as American pie, okay? But please, make it taste like Strudel, not American pie!"

"Why not ask a German or Austrian composer?"

"Germans are too serious, Americans are -- how do you say 'heiter'?"


"Yes, cheerful, like a boy scout."

I started to protest a bit more, but his mention of a commission, no, it was the scale of the commission mentioned, more than enough to replace our terminally ill refrigerator and then some, that rapidly weakened my protest into an enthusiastic acceptance. But:

"The piece must be finished soon. 24 hours. To give to the pianist."

"And who is the pianist?"

He then mentioned a name that I knew, a big-time piano player, and not one who ran around in penny-pinched new music circles. If you wanted a classy performance of classical music, this was not a right name but the right name.

"One more thing, Dr. Wolf, this is a private piece for a private concert. My courier will come to you tomorrow, you will exchange the score for the money, and we will be then finished with our business."

"And the music, is this work for hire or a commission -- do you want to own the license for the music as well?"

"After the performance, it is all the same to me. It is your music. Plagiarize yourself. Play it in elevators or undergrounds. Let a thousand mobile phones ring with your music. Stuff it into music boxes. Stuff it into cereal boxes. Send it into space on a golden platter with a V-2 rocket. But you must not expose the name of my woman. That is private. That is what I have bought from you."

He paused, sighed, then:

"It is very late. My courier will call you tomorrow afternoon to arrange the transfer. I suggest that you sleep now and write the music by sunlight. Dream well, Herr Doktor."

Looking up

"He had moved back to Angers, since Paris was threatened by Zeppelin attacks..." -- Jean Barraqué, Debussy

"(Schoenberg) was a lovely and delicate man, very nervous when airplanes flew over U.C.L.A.; who once hushed us, too, in order to hear a bird outside." -- Lou Harrison, introduction to his Suite for Piano

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Rubato, Gut City-style

Sometimes it takes me a while to figure things out. Writing my last item about Morton Feldman, I might have solved a mystery that had been in my head for about 16 years. In the late eighties, the two central figures at Darmstadt* were Brian Ferneyhough and Morton Feldman, a pair that made absolutely no sense to me at the time. But in recognizing that an important quality in Feldman's music was the loss of the hard edge of discrete events, I could immediately hear that Ferneyhough was after much the same. In particular, part of Ferneyhough's project is the extension of the written-out rubato tradition to all parameters of music (I don't really believe in "parameters" myself as anything more than a useful metaphor, but that's my problem and something for another post) . I believe that this project can be heard as part of a tradition going back to Busoni, on the one hand (whose Bach transcriptions are absolutely all about removing the hard edge) and to Skryabin and the Skryabinistes, especially Wyschnegradsky, and the other.** I also think that this tradition has a lot to do with the sublimation of improvisation through notation (I don't believe in improvisation, either, but that's still another post), and from there you can get to some very mysterious connections. From Richard Barrett to free improvisation, for example. I once asked Ferneyhough about the relationship between Babbitt-style and Darmstadt-style serialism, and he said immediately that the European serialism was also about mysticism, something either not present or deeply sublimated in the Americans. (I do believe in the little man who blows out the light when you shut the refrigerator door, but I'll spare you a post on that one). A mystical aspect is present in Feldman's music, but one more to do with practice rather than belief. I think an appeal to Kabbala, as some writers have made, as a source of Feldman's technique, for example, is probably misplaced, but an appeal to the Orthodox practice of simultaneously reading scripture in subtly varying tempi , intonations, dynamics is getting close to the source of Feldman's music. He always stressed that writing music was a performance, and frequently mentioned some of his favorite painters in that connection. The ink-thick scores of Ferneyhough are performances, too, although quantity is a minor measure of quality in this business. I suppose, in the end, that the binding connection between Feldman and Ferneyhough is a search for subtlety. For Ferneyhough, the surface complexity is the means towards that subtlety, while Feldman had several techniques towards that end, sometimes even including surface complexity which he selected and applied with impressive efficiency.

And, yeah, an unreasonably impressive percentage of Feldman's pieces sound beautifully, but you know that already...
* Darmstadt, literally Gut City, town in South Hessen, and home to the biannual Summer Courses for New Music.
** Feldman had, of course, his own connections to Busoni and Skryabin, through his piano teacher Madame Press.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Feldman's 80th

The first performance of Morton Feldman's String Quartet and Piano (played by Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet during New Music America 1985 in Los Angeles at the LA County Museum of Art) remains a totally vivid experience for me. I can still play back long passages of that piece with some precision at the piano, although I've never heard a second performance. (I went to that concert with my father. The first part of the afternoon was spent together at a USC football game, the second part at that concert. Both the composer and my father fell asleep during the concert.)

Later, during two months spent in San Diego in early 1987, I got to know Feldman a bit. He was guest teaching at UCSD, and I ran into him and his companion Barbara Monk in the music library. I introduced myself, mentioning Wesleyan (where I was dissertating) and he enthusiastically recalled that "there's a pianist there -- he plays like a philosopher" and then invited me to sit in on his seminar, which I did, in violation of all bureaucratic propriety. The philospher-pianist he mentioned was Jon Barlow, both a fine musician and an astonishing musical mind.

Although this was only a few months before his death, Feldman looked great -- he was slimmer, smoke-free, dressed for Southern California weather, and would happily dash down to dinner at the Hotel del Coronado with Barbara after his UCSD duties were done. Then he'd fly back to Buffalo for the rest of the week. He held forth in the seminar in his best style, although I suspect that the students disappointed him; they just didn't know enough -- or care enough about -- the musical repertoire that he valued most. A reference to Schubert or Scelsi or Delius would just drop like a iron.

I am second-hand witness to a couple of Feldman anecdotes I'd like to share, with the caveat that they are second-hand, and I'll be delighted to correct them if need be.

The two anecdotes take place at one of those legendary cocktail parties. At one , thinking that Feldman was out of earshot, a young composer said to a friend: "Morton Feldman? But he's so boring!" Feldman was, in fact, in earshot, and immediately sprang into the conversation, tapping the young composer on the chest with his forefinger, saying: "You, sir, should be so boring". At another party, Feldman made a personel offer to Milton Babbitt, speaking as one team owner to another: "We'll trade you Charlotte Moorman for Ben Boretz", a perfect exchange of each team's most embarassing public exponent.

One aspect of Feldman's music that strikes me as particularly valuable is his constant search for practical, technical means to remove the edge from discrete events. Low dynamics, the coarse pitch selection of the graph pieces, independent durations or tempi, metrically non-alligned scores, alternative note spellings -- such devices conspire to shade the music away from black and white towards a continuum of grays. The parallels to the techniques used by his favorite rug makers are obvious. There is always a grid of some sort, the verticals on the loom are like Feldman's pre-drawn barlines on his scores, and the single tones, like single threads, are discrete events, but subtleties of timing, color, distance transcend that grid. Too, with Feldman's scores, like those rugs, one is always aware that the score at hand is itself a performance, and, as unique as that performance may be, that it belongs intimately to a repertoire.

Ron Kuivila once told me that Feldman thought of his own position in music history as "nudging Debussy". I believe that now, especially with the local and universal qualities of Debussy's achievement made clearer by historical distance, Feldman's own self-asessment is a reasonable one.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


This is a sample from a recent etude for solo keyboard instrument, American Trees & How To Climb Them. It was written under a considerable set of constraints, chosen to force myself to work against habits. This section uses a row, the row was selected by chance operations, and the whole piece is in a rather unusual tuning, with 15 tones to the octave (notated pragmatically as c c# db d d#=eb e f f# gb g g#=ab a a# bb b).

There's nothing less fashionable these days then 12-tone or serial techniques, and the 15-tone technique used here owes more to the eternally unfashionable Hauer than to the frequently unfashionable Schoenberg. (I was once attacked online with some brutality for being a "serialist"; I happen to have defended the rights of serial composers to do their thing although at the time I had never myself done anything even remotely serial, so inventing something this lyrical under these particular constraints has been an especially satisfying experience.)

One passing thought about serial technique: Isn't it ironic that the current digital technology is nearly ideal for realising total serial pieces? Any composer can have a RCA synthesizer equivalent in their bedroom (or wherever) , but composing serially is just about the last thing that anyone wants to do these days. (To be slightly evil and paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld: "You make music with the instruments you have, not the instruments you want".)

The 15-tone equal division of the octave is strange, but offers some interesting features -- usable triads and seventh chords, a familiar augmented triad, a semi-familiar anhemitonic pentatonic, and some surprising modulation potential. I like it that the best fifth is the (octave reduced) sum of three 640 cent "tritones" and that it's melodically quite clunky with a small semitone and two sizes of whole tone, one closer to 3/4 tone, the other wide like slendro.

Thursday, January 05, 2006


It's not quite a new year's resolution, but I've decided to avoid recorded music for a while. I'll use the playback facilities in my notation program, and I'll make live electronic noises, but I'll just not deal with cds and dats and mp3s and oggs and wavs for the next few months.

It seems that the easier it gets to handle recorded music -- portable, divisible, non-perishable -- the less I have to do with it. Even more than going to concerts, I prefer score reading as a way of getting close to a piece of music. I can read scores noisily at home, singing and some instrument or another at hand, or silently, which is useful in public.

Although they've been important to me, I've never owned many recordings. I never had a record player of my own and my first cd player came with a computer. Back in LP days, the interesting ones were fairly hard to get and I couldn't afford many anyways (& unlike some of my colleagues, wouldn't steal them). We have a lot of cds around the house, but I've seldom bought one, they just appear, as gifts or jetsam from visitors. I did listen to the radio a lot as a teenager, thanks to a lucky combination of insomnia and good programming at KPFK and KUSC in those days developed a good sense of both classical and experimental repertoires. But I've never been into that swagger that some guys get into when comparing their record collections. (The whole John Zorn scene seemed to me to be a pissing contest over who had had stolen the most records).

In contrast, digging into a score has always been an ecstatic experience for me. There is a moment when the notes come off the age and jump into association spaces that are always new and surprising. It's like that moment when you suddenly could ride a bike or could read, but repeated over and over again. Repeated listening to recordings have diminishing returns -- the piece becomes more and more the same, and recordings come out of speakers and headsets and thus have a physical presence that is too stable for my tastes. Repeated score readings create new worlds.

Sunday, January 01, 2006


Every composer I know has their favorite tools -- pen, paper, chair, mouse, monitor. One of my favorites is the Noligraph, which is simply a holder for five ball-point fillers, alligned just right for drawing staves on the spot.

I had previously used a stave-maker which used a wheel with five points that turned through a trough with a cotton ink pad; Stravinsky himself invented a device with five pencil leads and there are also inkpens with five parallel nibs, but this ballpoint set is the most reliable I've found.