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.