Wednesday, October 31, 2007

5 x 5

Steve Hicken of listen has dropped a meme. My answers include only works or people that I have not actually seen/heard/met in person before:

1) What five operas would you most like to see performed?

Il Riturno d' Ulisse In Patria; L'Oca del Cairo; Guillaume Tell; Die Feen; Four Saints in Three Acts.

2) What five pieces would you most like to hear performed? Oliveros: In Memoriam Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer; Mumma: Hornpipe; Sibelius: Fourth Symphony; Partch: Delusion of the Fury; Mozart: G Minor Quintet

3) What five living performers would you most like to meet? Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Ki Purbo Asmoro (javanese dalang), Rohan de Saram (cello), Maurice Steger (recorder), Juliane Banse (soprano)

4) What five living composers would you most like to meet? I'd rather meet one really good dentist first.

5) What five living musicians (composers, performers, writers, scholars, etc) would you most like to play three-on-three basketball with/against? I'll go two on three with rapper Shaquille O'Neal against musicologist Richard Taruskin, composer Charles Wuorinen and critic Norman Lebrecht. Heck, they can even have the blogger A.C. Douglas on their side.

Even more responsibility

Here's a article from today's Die Zeit (in German), discussing the current controversy over the performance of works by Hans Pfitzner. The subtitle of the article goes "The composer was a dyed-in-the-wool National Socialist. Even the friends of his music can't wash him clean."

The article is followed by an interview with the conductor Ingo Metzmacher, who cannot be described as "coming from a right corner" and for whom Pfitzner's anti-modernism and anti-semitism are decidedly alien, but nevertheless makes a case for the performance of Pfitzner's music.


I just realized something that must be totally obvious to everyone else on the planet.* When a critic writes about a piece of music or its performance, she or he is responsible for backing up the opinion with evidence and argument.** Composers, on the other hand, have the luxury of placing their opinions out into the world without critical apparatus, and those opinions will be considered by audiences alongside the composer's music. Thus, unlike a critic, I have the luxury to say that "I like X" or "don't like Y" without further verbal ado, but I've got to be prepared for an audience which will only swallow that opinion with whatever salt my music summons up.

*As poet Charles Olson put it best: I Have Had to Learn the Simplest Things Last.
**See also this earlier Renewable Music item: In other words, in order to read a piece of criticism, you have to read critically. Basta.

Landmarks (30)

Wolfgang von Schweinitz: Plainsound-Sinfonie (2003-2005) für Bassettklarinette, Ensemble und Orchester, op. 48

A product of long research -- often in collaboration with the remarkable Canadian violinist and composer, Marc Sabat -- into musical intonation, the Plainsound-Sinfonie is also a profoundly learned, but also nostalgic and whimsical, homage to an orchestral tradition, beginning with late Mozart and making a unique trajectory from there. I hear bits of Weber, Wolf (the other one), the Skryabinistes, the composer's colleague, James Tenney, and his teacher, Ligeti, whose own late works share an interest in making old instruments do new (or rediscovered) intonational tricks. Other recent pieces of Schweinitz pass through territories as disparate as Schubert, Wagner, and Morton Feldman. Schweinitz, recently appointed as Tenney's successor to the Disney chair in composition at CalArts, is a composer with a unique set of credentials (he studied in both Germany and the US) but more critically, a unique set of sensibilities. Von Schweinitz was very early on, and inaccurately as these things always are, stamped with the label of the Neue Einfachheit, primarily on the basis of his early (1976-77) orchestral Variationen über ein Thema von Mozart. The label stuck, but Schweinitz moved on, ever further along his own trajectory, and that has often included works of substantial scale and duration, among them the opera Patmos (setting the entire text of the Apocalypse of St. John) and an 81 minute-long piano trio Franz & Morton. It should be apparent that an element of excess is everywhere in Schweinitz's music, an excess that can be identified with the early seventies, but a classical impulse is everywhere as well, and the art here is holding the two factors in balance.

Let me mention a couple of features of the Plainsound-Sinfonie. Its genre is, as to be expected from Schweinitz, both classical and excessive, and as such is at once symphony, concerto (for bassett clarinet, the extended-range instrument for which Mozart originally composed his clarinet concerto, and not to be confused with the bassett horn), overture, and tone poem. The microtonality of the piece is no abstract exercise but is designed rather to project a tonal scheme that begins with classical dimensions and then moves into territories more strange, in particular through the use of a tuba tuned to the rest of the ensemble via a subharmonic ratio of the number eleven, and thus, effectively, a quarter tone off, a relationship that is, at times, comic, at other times, tender.

Scores and sound samples of Schweinitz's works are available here.

Some blog openings you won't read here

I was having morning tea on Friday with Anne-Sofie von Otter...

Eight of us arrived at the enormous estate...

Running northwards along the shore of Lake Michigan...

As an Aquarius, of course...

No sooner had I invoked the name of Eddie Van Halen...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Fibs & Sins, an update

I'm frequently asked for recommendations for notation programs, and my answer is usually "depends...", with an encouragement to consider a variety of programs rather than get stuck in a software monoculture. I mostly use Finale 2007, and sometimes use Harmony Assistant and Turandot, and have recently played with Lime and Lily Pond. I am happy with Finale 2007 and find it both flexible and powerful, but that flexibility and power has come at the cost of a substantial investment in learning the tricks of the program, and the assistance of a few third-party plug-in, especially the indispensable TGTools made by the composer Tobias Giesen. However, I have paid close attention to reviews of the latest Finale update (2008) and have noticed a real trend among power users of Finale to either skip this update or to switch to Sibelius, due to the apparent decision of the staff at Finale to invest more in additional features rather than improve the performance of existing features, including a couple of persistent bugs. I have also been impressed by the fact that Sibelius staff maintain a presence in public fora and appear to bend over backwards with customer queries. Finale staff are often, frankly, a bit surly -- bug reports are responded to with diffidence and suggestions for improvement get form letter responses. It also seems to be company policy at MakeMusic, which owns Finale, to ignore public fora, like the Finale Users' List. Finally, I have looked at the public financial statements of MakeMusic, and I have some concern for the future of the product. I really don't want to be stuck with orphaned software, especially with orphaned software that depends upon the registration system initiated in 2006 or 2007. Because of this, I've decided to make a Sibelius cross-purchase (there are special offers this month) as insurance against further developments at MakeMusic. Again, I really like Finale, can do almost anything I want with it, hope the best for its continued development and I don't plan on using Sibelius, with its inflexible entry methods, with any frequency but a bit of insurance seems warranted.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Contest time, again

Yes, It's once again time to play Name the Next New Music Box Cover Person, our regular contest. Each month -- as you know far too well -- the New Music Box, the internet organ of the American Music Cartel Center features a video interview with a new music personality or two. My own guesses have had a bad track record and my wishes are even further off. Of late, there have been a conductor, members of a new music ensemble, and four composers, one prodigal junior composer, a pair of great big senior composers, and one other composer cosily nestled in-between (at least three of the four being practicing cat owners). Once again, I predict that the next interviewee will be a critic; by all rights, it ought to be our most senior active critic, Alan Rich (someone: do a serious video interview with Rich now -- the man's been places and heard good music, including the first performance of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra) but -- it's the AMC, after all -- it's much more likely to be a New Yorker, so I'll guess Alex Ross, with his spanking brand-new book out (find out if that guy owns a cat!). What's your best guess? No NMB insiders allowed, no entry fee, and the winner gets a gift certificate for a Buñueloni at the Cedar Tavern, should it ever reopen, and in addition I will throw another $1.39 into the unclaimed pot, carried over from last month's contest which had no winner, making it a grand total this month of $6.67. Once again, staff members and relations of the AMC are excluded from the competition. The judges' decisions on the accuracy of the entered predictions will be arbitrary, capricious, and final. Entries must be received before midnight, GMT, on October 31st.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Exercises in Style

Without much doubt, one of the significant events in recent music history was the invention of the note. Not that notes had not been used before, but rather that we started paying attention to them in a different way. In fact, we become fairly obsessed with notes, often attending to them at the disadvantage of larger or small pieces of the musical fabric. Indeed: making and playing and listening to and anything else that might go into knowing a piece or repertoire of music often took second place to the all-important task of accounting for, explaining, or justifying every single note. Like many other composers of my time, this obsession with the note colored my entire approach to making music, an approach that usually began with a breakdown of possible materials into their smallest bits, i.e. notes, and would then proceed to distribute said bits until they had been satisfactorily arranged in one way or another.

The Oulipo: although I know too little of their work -- and of that, mainly novels by Queneau, Perec, and Mathews --, I do owe something substantial to the famous writers' workshop for "potential literature" (a term of art I really like), and that came in the recognition that Oulipo members never restricted their work, their experiments, to operations at an elemental level, but instead allowed that they could take place at any level of work from the sentence to the paragraph to the chapter to entire books or series or even (at least potentially) libraries. The same generous re-consideration of the scale of ones work could reasonably be extended to music, as not only the notes themselves, but phrases, movements, whole pieces, and whole repertoires could be subjected to disciplined creative action.

One book by Queneau in particular, his Exercises in Style, played an enormous role in my thinking about this question of the scale of operation. Although I've only recently read the excerpts translated in the Mathews/Brotchie Oulipo Compendium, and up to then know only that the book sets out to tell the same unimportant story in 99 different writing styles, the fact that there was a book out there called Exercises in Style made it possible for me to compose a number of works, among them a small "opera seria for handpuppets" called The White Canoe. Mr. Gorey's libretto for the opera was composed of 13 scenes of rhymed couplets, had a clear narrative, and satisfied -- if sometimes irreverently, all of the conventions of the number opera form. The libretto more or less demanded a score that at least paid respect to those conventions. So my experiments took place at a larger scale, in that each scene began as an exercise in the synthetic combination of at least two styles. Say, Mozart and Cole Porter. Or: Offenbach and Philip Glass. None of the combinations were to be done in the same way. In the end -- and I'm unsure whether this is virtue or vice -- little of the music was tied too closely to either of the source styles, and none was a simple synthesis of a pair or trio but became instead what might be called a dialectical other.

The imitation of musical styles is not a skill for which I can claim any particular virtuosity, or even virtuosity beyond that expected of musicians trained in a particular repertoire or two. But there are some circumstances that almost force a style upon a composer, and some styles are much easier to reproduce than others. For example, when asked by drama teacher at the German Gymnasium in Budapest to set some songs for a production of The Good Person of Sezuan, the lyrics forced my muse into a corner in which the presence of Weill was unmistakable, and I didn't resist the temptation. Another time, I got a call late at night from a stranger offering a welcome sum of money for some counterfeit Viennese classicism. That was tricky -- it had to fit into the style, but it also had to be something that was, in terms of the historical corpus, original. In short, I was commissioned to become a tightrope walker between those two goals. The everyday forger is a copyist, but the successful forger makes original works designed to be mistaken for unknown works of others.

The connection between stylistic imitation and musical training is often close. The composition of a "Palestrina Motet", "Bach fugue", or a "Haydn sonata movement" are tasks still frequently assigned to students of music theory, although every good music theory teacher is well aware of of the two perils involved: first, that there is no single road to Rome in imitating a style, any number of theoretical regimes (or, shall we say, algorithms) can be called into play to replicate a musical score, and it's entirely undecided which regime is either the most "authentic" or the most "efficient; second, if a student's compositions hews to closely to its models, it will likely to bore, a failure in terms of originality (and the very reason we choose particular works as models is their quality, among which is presumably originality), but if the exercise is too original, doing things unknown in the models, then the work may fail on plausibility grounds. A tightrope walk.

All that said, I still have to admit to a decided haziness about exactly what "style" is, and the border regions between apparent styles (like those between idiolects, dialects and languages) are both fascinating and frustratingly vague. (I'm sure that Potter Stewart would have defined style as well as anyone (i.e. See it -> Know it. (Picnic. Lightning)).) But when it comes to music, speechlessness is the norm, so if we're a bit vague when it comes to defining style, it's entirely with the range of the acceptable.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


I'm pondering an odd project for this blog in November: composing a small piece each day and putting the scores online here. My idea is to compose a set of what might be called 30 Exercises in Style & Possible Solutions to Assorted Musical Problems, otherwise entering into the project without predetermined ideas about the resources required, methods invoked, connections between individual pieces. Each piece should be complete, self-sufficient, and with a duration of at least the better part of a minute but without an upper limit. Scores may be in a tradition notation or not, and some may be more practical and others more conceptual in nature.

(I'm interested in this project because of a commitment to having a repertoire of really new music scores as an online presence, without the mediation of traditional publishing institutions. But the idea of a piece each day is a good one for any of you who might be stuck. Lou Harrison shared this advice for "blocked' composers from Virgil Thomson: "Simply compose one short piece a day. It must be a complete composition each day. It is like 'kindling' ~ one day along will come a more important idea that will require extensive work ~ the flame is thus lit & away you go! It is important, he says to keep regular appointments with the muse ~ if she doesn't arrive then it's not your fault, at least You are there!")

I've tried, if not always successfully, to keep a certain distance between this blog and my own compositional activity, trying to use the blog more to open up some conversation about matters musical and beyond rather than as a promotional instrument, so I have some reservations about this. So, if anyone has any objections, and you'd prefer that I hold forth on Mandarin swearing in Firefly or such, please let me know, and I'll just figure out another way to agitate.

Update: Doing daily composition is already part of my routine, and this blog has been basically an extension of the little journal entries I write while doing that composing. My concern here was whether or not putting these pieces on line would be out-of-line with the spirit of this blog.

Friday, October 26, 2007

States of Art

With all the recent reportage on "the state of classical music", with narratives ranging from gloom and doom sagas, or thrillers of corporate and state intrigue, to fantastic tales of unlikely (if mutated) survival, the desire to place musics into cultural/historical narratives sometimes strikes me as misplaced because, if music history tells us anything, music has the power and mutability both to express the most local of times and places as well as to be fit into eras and locales far from its origins.* Music emerged out of cathedrals and cloisters both pious and sleazy, out of feudal states both glorious and petty, from mercantilist or steam-punk early industrialist states, and from any of the evil empires of the last centuries, and not one of these identifications with a particular time, place, and system automatically qualifies a piece of music as good, bad, or indifferent. Music be pliable, my friends, and cooption brings bother delights and dangers. That's why I hold to my thesis that the best music -- the renewable music, if you will -- is that which continues to resist its state, and the next, and the next...

But resistance is, indeed, often futile, even for the strongest among us. I've been reading Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk's dazzling anthology Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism, which takes on everything from urban renewal in Medellín and the disneyfication of Hong Kong to Ted Turner's bison ranges and a plan (or scam?) for a floating libertarian tax haven state-on-a-ship. Yes, a slice of the world that Dick Cheney wants to build, made safe for Halliburton and Blackwater, but also for Columbia Artists Management and Sony Classics. But I can't help but take some small encouragement in the fact that many of these plans (and scams) are falling apart left and right. It's now a consensus opinion that, having taken office on a platform of "government is inherently bad", the current administration sought to govern as poorly as possible, to prove the point while offering maximum largesse to their cronies. Likewise, the biggest firms and institutions in our little music world are demonstrating that conglomeration and synergy often really means bloat and lethargy and, most tragically, the musically bland, while smaller enterprises and individuals are readily demonstrating fleetness, flexibility and fearlessness towards musical diversity. But these enterprises and individuals always run the risk of recuperation: as we once cheered Nonesuch, we now cheer Naxos, and even young radicals sometimes get tenure and petrify. And when we soon cease our cheers for Naxos or the ex-rads, if the world is right, there'll be new forces to cheer waiting in queue.

I have wonderfully mixed reactions to much that is in this book. China Miéville's essay on the anarchocapitalist floating tax refuge, for example, wisely zeroes in on its inevitable turn towards a police state (yes, give a ship full of libertarians their guns, and pretty soon they'll all be playing cops), and he presents one of the most cogent defenses of a state I've encountered, but I'll still hang on to the idea that the time will come when we get along well enough and fairly enough and pretty much out of one another's way that a state is just not particularly important, providing services, not government. And when that time comes, I here and now predict, music (good, bad, indifferent) will just get along fine.

*The most interesting of these are the big books by Alex Ross and Richard Taruskin, titles known and available in all the familiar places. Boy, I'd like to see those two duck it out, blogging heads style, someday: they both do interesting dances around their favorite dead, white, European male intellectual sparring partners, Ross with Adorno and Taruskin taking on all comers (idealist, materialist, dialectical, positivist... if he had a sense of humor, he'd probably read like Veblen), and someone with more patience for these things than I have is going to write something smart about this.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Habitual obitual

Does anyone else make a habit of scanning through the "Musician Deathwatch" at Tim Rutherford-Johnson's blog, The Rambler? I'm not an especially morbid sort, but sometimes when I'm down, it cheers me a bit not to find my own name in the obits. It's sort of like the "Magic Fingers" bed-vibrating machines in cheap American motels: you keep poppin' the quarters in, because it feels so good when it stops. WHICH reminds me of an interview (not online, sorry) with Daniel Barenboim in the current issue of Die Zeit, in which Barenboim says that "silence is death and sound is life", which is an oddly over-simplified thought from a mainstream musician who has actually become more interesting over the years, despite all the pressures of the institutional systems in which he wanders. While there is a political context in which this pair of equations makes sense, music is all about sound and silences articulating one another in lively ways, and each is musically meaningless without the other. While death may be meaningless without its contrast, indeed opposition, to life, the reverse is not true, for much can happen in a lifetime that has nothing to do with death, and I happen to count music, with sounds and silences both, among that muchness. And the fact that people, alive and well, can take some moment of their lively wellness to recall the silences and sounds made by musicians who have already taken their shuffle off this coil, well then, those sounds and those silences certainly appear to have some power to transcend the terminal.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Free Study Scores!

(An encore posting from March 8, 2007)

I've had a long argument with an open software advocate about music. My contention has been that music is already essentially an open source medium, as the combination of a good recording and good listening skills can often make the construction of a piece of music transparent. However, as good as one's ears can get, it is still often very useful to have a look at a score, both to see how the composer has indicated his or her ideas, but also to find interpretive possibilities not taken in the performance at hand. Some of the most important learning experiences for me as a musican came about from copying out scores by hand (I did that a lot, as I was on a paper-route income and photocopying was expensive for me).

Unfortunately, getting your hands on scores in the first place is often difficult and expensive. Study scores -- small format editions -- are increasingly rare, and they are sometimes sold at shockingly high prices. So in schools or universities, we tend to get taught either from questionably legal photocopies or from the same few pieces that are widely available in study editions or packaged into anthologies (the two volumes of the Norton Anthology will set you back 71USD), or a student is sent to the dreaded reserve desk in the library in hopes that no one else has checked out the score.

It's understandable why publishers have had little interest in making study scores available. The profit in sheet music of any sort is never high unless a publication can have a large audience over a long period of time, and the chief business of a publisher is the mix of score and parts rentals to professionals and collecting the publisher's share of royalties from works under copyright.

Sometimes, however, publishers have realized that making their materials more widely available at more reasonable prices can both create income producing sheet music, and create, via the promotional opportunity, more royalty-income. The recent Peters editions of collected smaller piano works by Cage and Feldman are a good example. Whereas, in the past, getting a look at all of these scores required many small purchases, and were both troublesome to order and troublesome for Peters to produce as the pieces were largely published as on demand ozalids or photocopies, now a pianist or a music student can have a substantial repertoire of contrasting pieces all at once in a single anthology, the price of which is modest when compared with the old price for all the separate pieces. Unfortunately, not enough publishers are following the Peters example -- assembling a complete set of Webern study scores (ca 3 hours of music total) piece-by-piece would cost many hundreds of dollars, for example, and a Stravinsky set would cost thousands. Why isn't there a single volume complete Webern*, Varese, or Ruggles?

More publishers need to get wise and realize that they have a real promotion opportunity for their scores if they simply put them online. The editions don't have to be beautiful, and they can be watermarked with great big "DO NOT COPY" messages. This will not diminish their income from the pieces, as they will continue to rent hard-copies of the full-sized and bound scores and parts needed for performances, and they will continue to be paid royalties for performances and mechanicals.

Here's a concrete example: The late Robert Erickson was an excellent and inventive orchestrator. But his pieces are too little known and played infrequently. His scores would be very useful in teaching orchestration, but although they are all available through Smith Publications, the editions are extremely expensive, affordable only by the small coterie of major research libraries with score collections. If only a few of the larger scores were made available in cheap study score format or -- even better -- free and online you can bet use of his scores in teaching orchestration and perusal of his scores by concert or recording organizers would increase substantially.

Erickson is far from the only composer to whom this applies. For a real survey of recent orchestration, study scores need to be more widely available of works by Goeyvaerts, Feldman, Cage, Xenakis, Ligeti, Reich, Scelsi, Sariaaho, Lindberg, Nono, Kondo, Takemitsu, Brant, Lucier, Adams, Tenney, Barlow, and many others. As long as these scores are not available, the status of the entire new music project with the larger musical culture may be very effectively questioned if not discounted altogether. The music has to be present -- in performances, recordings, and in scores.

There is a vicious circle here: music students don't encounter scores like those of Erickson in school, and when they grow up and start making concerts of their own they don't play any Erickson, all because they simply are unaware of his works. Here is an opportunity for publishers -- as well as for those composers who have chosen not to work through third-party publishers -- to get out of this vicious circle, to establish the works as fixed presences in the musical culture, and to promote the works at a modest cost, while offering potentially substantial benefits in terms of the real income that a piece can generate.

* An elegant, hardbound, but pocketbook-sized volume of Webern works was actually published in the last days of the Soviet Union. This was a "pirated" edition, of course, but why the heck didn't Universal get the idea and start publishing the thing itself?

Getting yourself into trouble

Sometimes you can learn more about composition from artists engaged in media other than music. Here's a great video interview with the painter Chuck Close, talking about when a work is finished, the advantages of working within constraints, the development of a personal style,
...painters would similarly try to get themselves into trouble. You'd push yourself into your own corner where nobody else's answers will fit and that's the key to finding yourself.
and much more.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Traditional Music Publishing Takes a Last Shot Over the Bow

Scott Spiegelberg has posted the news that International Music Score Library Project has been shut down, in response to a pair of cease and desist letters from Universal Edition. I believe that this moment will go down as a mistaken, last gasp gesture on Universal's part. As I commented to Scott's post:

UE is being very shortsighted here. For concerts works not yet in public domain, the score on paper, by itself, generates little or no income for a publisher, and often, only production and warehousing costs. When, however, a performer downloads a UE score and performs or records it, she or he must still pay a license for any performance of the work, regardless of whether or not she or he has purchased a physical score. That fee is collected, as usual, via the local rights organization, or in theatrical contexts, via a grand rights contract. Moreover, publishers can continue to extract rental fees for performance-ready parts and other materials which are less easily transmitted online.

Scores online should be thought of as perusal and study materials, with their primary function one of promotion and marketing. Scores online are available to musicians and concert producers for help in planning possible performances and recordings. Publishing houses no longer have monopolies on the means of producing scores, so the essential services that they can provide to a composer (in return for one half of her or his license feed) are marketing their work and, when applicable, managing rentals.

A publisher who does not place scores in online libraries is making a nonsensical distinction between paper scores in physical libraries (which are generally available only to academics) and online scores (which are available to anyone at any time) and is doing their composers a disservice by not using the best marketing tool currently available. A score placed online is a score with a stake in the repertoire of performable music; a score held closely by a traditional publisher is a score held captive.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


All the pianos in my family had benches full of sheet music, and that music was mostly popular classics of the "Music the Whole World Loves to Play" variety. We tend to hold that repertoire in fairly low esteem these days and I doubt many kids these days grow up playing the Dance of the Hours, To an Evening Star, or the Minuet á la Antique. The repertoire was not only light or character pieces, though, it also included four-handed arrangements of symphonic works and operatic transcriptions that brought both sophistication and clarity to the transmission of music. The disappearance of that entire repertoire is a marker for the loss of music making at home as the central activity in a musical life, activity from which the concert halls, opera houses, player piano rolls, broadcasts, and recordings all extended.

As a composer, I recognize that producing sheet music for home consumption is no longer the kind of enterprise from which careers are made (indeed, the last American composers of serious music for whom that could have been true were probably MacDowell and Griffes). But if I really want live performance to be the vehicle for my art, informal music making in private settings must nevertheless be recovered for new music, if new music is to have a place in the culture that is both high and deep. Engagement with the new music -- if it is to be more than casual, recognizing the wealth of detail, rich association fields, and structural interest -- has got to go beyond passive consumption and become active, a close encounter. If I've got Dichterliebe or The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs on my piano, I want to play at them, singing through them with my composers' croak, and get to know them better than Stardust or Yesterday, because there is simply more to know. I want my daughter to start playing the cluster music in the first volume of Kurtág's Játékok and maybe later some of Mumma's pieces ...from the Sushi Box or Monahan's Piano Mechanics, because the challenges to ears and hands will simply make her a more interesting person.

The composer Lawrence Dillon writes here of an unusual event, a house concert programming one of his pieces. Isn't the unusual aspect here not the concert itself, but the fact that such a concert should be rare?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Idiolect Composers

Here's a link, at Crooked Timber, to a BBC documentary about a large collection of German shellac recordings from the First World War of prisoners of war from Britain and Ireland, a time capsule of local English dialects.

I have a fascination with dialects, and especially in the borders between dialects and between dialects and idolects, the territory in which linguistic innovation has traditionally been most active. My fascination is an aesthetic one, with very little hard linguistics behind it, and it's attached to a notion, perhaps fanciful, about the relationship between the speech patterns and the music of individual composers. The extent to which a composer speaks -- and does so in a particular idiolect -- rather than sings through her or his music probably varies a great deal, but it's impossible for me to hear much Cage or Young or Oliveros or even Babbitt (maybe especially Babbitt), without thinking of their speaking voices. (Some works, for example those by Lucier and Ashley, are entirely explicit about this relationship). I've recently encountered some online recordings of Stravinsky rehearsing and of Schoenberg, which are also highly suggestive of an interplay between musical and linguistic idolects.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Last Word on Minimalism

The talented Mr. Guerrieri, of Soho the Dog, not only composes, critiques, makes sausage, and blogs, but is also a comic strip artist.

I don't do comics myself but I do have a favorite, David Lynch's The Angriest Dog in the World, which ran for from '83 to '92 in the LA Reader, and is now considered a pioneering work in the genre of constrained comics. It always consisted of a fixed introductory text ("The dog who is so angry he cannot move. He cannot eat. He cannot sleep. He can just barely growl. Bound so tightly with tension and anger, he approaches the state of rigor mortis.") and four images changing in only the smallest of details, the last after nightfall, of the growling dog, chained outside a house. But the text in the balloons emerging from the house changed each week. My favorite went something like this: "'Darling, do you like minimal art?' 'I married you, didn't I?'"

The missing mechanism

The award of the Nobel Prize in Economics this year, to Messrs. Hurwicz, Maskin, and Myerson, is yet another opportunity to reflect on the curious economics of new music composition. The latest Nobel trio are specialists in Mechanism Design, which is all about agents with private information selling and bidding for goods, and how specific outcomes can be achieved by designing structures or rules through which each participant has an incentive to behave as the designer has intended.

Such mechanisms are seldom at play in Newmusicland. Here, a commissioner usually wants a work by one composer in particular and the amount of the commission is fixed by external circumstances and is usually non-negotiable. Typically, a patron will simply give a composer a call or meet over lunch (Russian Tea Room, anyone?) and say something like: "I've got 5000 Sheboygans burning a hole in my pocket, why don't ya' write me a nice little piece."

Imagine, however, designing an alternative environment for commissioning music incorporating more market-like mechanisms, specifically auctions. We want our design to bring composers and commissioners together with optimal matches of pieces and commision fees. Composers (or groups of composers, working as a consortium) could propose the composition of works with specific forces and dimensions, setting a (private) reserve selling price for the proposed work. (In an auction, a reserve price is the minimum price that must be bid for a sale to take place, or, conversely, the maximum price for a purchase to take place). Commissioners would approach the auction with their unique private lists of preferred composers, types of works, and commissioning budget, including their own reserve purchase prices. In the best scenario, a composer and a patron would eventually be matched in the auction at a price optimally somewhere in-between the two reserves.

The greatest advantage of such a marketplace, however, is simply that it would be one in which any potential composer or commissioner could enter and compete. The present commissioning environment is largely one of small networks of familiars and typically does not allow for an unestablished composer to enter, let alone compete on an even footing with an established composer, even though a patron may well be attracted to the idea that for the price of one piece at reserve price by the established figure, she or he might purchase an entire album of pieces by the less-established composer (or even a group of them).

I have written positively before about the eBay commissioning projects of composers Dennis Báthóry-Kitsz and Celeste Hutchins, but I've more-or-less convinced myself that they really won't fly until both the supply and demand sides of the market have reach a critical mass.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

At home in Pyongyang

The New York Times is reporting that the New York Philharmonic is considering touring to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Odds are probably against playing there, but if they do end up visiting Kim Jong-il's bizarre and tragic little kingdom, the orchestra players might want to prepare themselves ahead of time by getting acquainted with the Pyongyang Metro.

I was definitely surprised to learn that a country which cannot feed itself has not only a nuclear program and a modest film industry (including outsourced subcontracted animation for such films as Disney's The Lion King and Pocahontas), but also a subway system. The extent and exact plans and timetables of the system are, however, state secrets. The best source of information is probably this webpage, one of those specialized sites in which the web shows its true potential.

And, as long as they're making travel plans, they ought to have a chat with Bobby Egan, the owner of Cubby's restaurant in Hackensack, New Jersey. He's apparently one of Pyongyang's chief cultural interpreters for all matters American.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

My lounge act

A number of composers have an alternative stage act, one in which the line between serious music and entertainment is cheerfully violated. Chris Newman, for example, a composer/poet/artist with a "legitimate" pedigree (let's call it Kagel meets Feldman, throw in some music hall comedy, and leave it at that), has had a minor but successful career singing his own songs, among which the cycle New Songs of Social Conscience (including the very cheerful "Good Day After Good Orgasm") is perhaps his magnum opus. Sometimes the alternative act includes and entire alternative identity: Peter Schickele's professorial recitals of the music of P.D.Q. Bach, Robert Sheff's lounge-room Liberace, "Blue" Gene Tyrrany, and Gareth Farr's drag queen drummer Lilith LaCroix are well-known.

Sometimes -- and just as a day job, mind you -- I've considered adopting a stage persona of my own. My Junior High band director , Mr. Johnson, once insisted that anyone could make a living as a lounge piano player if they had Indian Love Call, As Time Goes By, and Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'round the Old Oak Tree under their fingers, which is probably still sound advice, if you substitute something a bit more recent for the Indian Love Call (the number of old lovers who want to relive their Yosemite Firefall honeymoons over cocktails is now probably safely reduced). I took his advice and assembled my own little book of stylings for standards, but have never actually been called into barroom service. With sober reflection, this is probably for the best, as I'd make a preposterous stage presence. (Ron Kuivila once wanted to put me on stage as a character named "Not Michael Jackson", which just about sums things up: a 6'4" person of natural pallor, and someone who you really do not want to see dance.)

Friday, October 12, 2007

There's definitely a libretto here

As we approached the shoal surrounding Cape Arenas we admired the phosphorescence of the sea. Bands of dolphins enjoyed following our boat. When they broke the surface of the water with their broad tails they diffused a brilliant light that seemed like flames coming from the depths of the ocean. We found ourselves at midnight between some barren, rocky islands in the middle of the sea, forming the Caracas and Chimanas groups. The moon lit up these jagged, fantastic rocks, which had not a trace of vegetiation. All these islands are uninhabited, except for one where large, fast, brown goats can be found. Our Indian pilot said they tasted delicious. Thirty years back a family of whites settled here and grew maize and cassava. The father outlived his children. As he had become rich he bough two black slave, who murdered him. Thus the goats ran wild, but not the maize. Maize appears to survive only if looked after by man. The two slaves escaped punishment, as nothing could be proved. One of the blacks is now the hangman at Cumaná. He betrayed his companion, and obtained pardon by accepting being hangman.

from Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative (excerpts translated by Jason Wilson in Jaquars and Electric Eels)

(Thanks to David Feldman for the suggestion).

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Here's a perfect example of why institutions make me nervous:

... This morning, some members of both staffs [of the American Composers Forum and the American Music Center] got together over a conference call to discuss some important preliminaries.

We spent quite a bit of time trying to answer what might seem to be pretty basic questions: "What is a composer?" and "What is new music?"...
While I'm sure that the folks in New York have nothing but good intentions -- they really do want a catholic definition of these terms and they really do want to be able to create the best services for their members and for new music in general, however defined -- I really don't want someone else -- be it an individual, a committee, or a consortium -- defining these terms for me, and especially an institution with even the most modest influence over performances, commissions, positions, residencies, publicity, etc.. By nature, these are the sorts of terms that are always redefined by the next work, not the works we already know. And it's that very process of perpetual discovery and redefinition that keeps the new music new. The questions of "What is a composer?" and What is new music?" are precisely the questions that every good composer ask herself or himself every waking minute of every day, and often in every dream as well. That's simply our work, and we try to answer it through our musics. The alternative of an institutionally defined and administered definition will just land us in Khrennikov-land, or worse, a Khrennikov-land run with American efficiency and ingenuity.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

In the company of instruments

There is definitely something to be said for the composer who can make do with a good pen and a blank sheet of manuscript paper. In principle, that's all I need, or all I've been trained to need, but in practice, I do like the company of instruments and have been known to make a noise or two in-between drawing lines, curves, and blobs.

I don't have a piano in my studio, but there's one upstairs if I ever need it, and I do find it tough to walk by the piano without pressing a key or two. My studio computer has a very modest midi keyboard, and I will admit to using playback in my notation program, especially for timings and corrections and for some microtonal work, with pitch environments that are not yet familiar. Around the studio are a violin and a cello, a flute and my father's old eb clarinet, my alto trombone and my son's tenor, a case full of recorders (I'm especially proud of the set of renaissance recorders in meantone, g-alto, tenor, bass), a small bagpipe, a cornetto, a fretless banjo, a cheap hawai'ian guitar, lots of flutes from central America and southeastern Europe, a small collection of chinese instruments, several jaw harps, as well as various gongs, clappers, and cowbells.

Not to mention the gamelan.

Now, having these instruments around and being able to operate each of them at at least a minimal level of competence is something entirely different from staking a claim to a level of virtuosity on all of them. Beyond the joy I take with consorting in one form or another, having them around makes composing into a more immediate and concrete experience, and is a natural extension of two important early experiences: a junior high band director who, recognizing my interest in composing, let me systematically borrow instruments from the school's collection to take home, look under the hood, and test drive and, later, working for Charles Chase in the Folk Music Center, learning how to repair many of them, at least at a rudimentary level. For students of composition, there's probably no course of more practical use than one of those music education classes in preparation for instrumental instruction, a class in which you learn something about where you have to move your fingers to get each note and a bit about posture and emboucher and bowing. Do that, then take a history of orchestration class, study a few scores that tickle the timbral tendrils of your heart, and you're ready to orchestrate, kids.

But there really are composers out there who do without all the noisemakers in their houses, and many of them do just fine, too. One of the reasons our musical lives are lively is that there is music that lays well in the hands alongside music that tells the hands, "I don't care what's easy to do: surprise me!" Isn't life grand?

Monday, October 08, 2007

History, authenticity, scholarship, blogs, and all that

Got some time for an example of scholarship at its best? In his NY Times blog, Zoom, the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is two parts into a series investigating a pair of photos from the Crimean War, one of which may -- in the opinion of Susan Sontag -- have been staged.

If I sometimes give the scholars of record in my own field of interest a hard time, it's simply because I feel passionately about the project of knowing music better and am sometimes disappointed when a musicologist or theorist doesn't take that project any further. Moreover, I am concerned that musical research takes place at too slow a pace, and is often done in fora that are too-exclusive; the combination of these leads to a public image of music scholarship as a slow, unexciting, and clubby academic exercise, and that image runs counter to everything I value in music itself.

While some larger issues are implied by Morris's research here, in particular the reliability of historical evidence both in immediate and long-term evaluation, the exciting thing here is the form of the research. It is presented with the immediacy of a blog entry (albeit, a very substantial blog entry) , takes the opportunity to risk lines of research and opinions that may never find their way into a standard research publication, and the response from readers forms an essential element of the research. Contrary to all MSM complaints about the noisy and rude commenters in the blogosphere, the response is is instead the thoughtful and measured response that actually prevails, and it brings both surprising and useful techniques and resources to the project. Morris takes this wise counsel with the seriousness it deserves.

And this: the series has really got me hooked. Can't wait for part three.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Not knowing Nono

Ben Harper, of Boring Like a Drill, has a great post about Luigi Nono's music, focusing in on its changing reception, or more precisely, its changing packaging.

I am rather attached to Nono's 1980 string quartet Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima and I have, more than once, considered adding it to my "landmarks" list (see the sidebar). But each attempt to write something meaningful about the quartet has failed, and I'm not sure whether my failure lies in my inability to get closer to a work whose distance to my own musical culture is great, or in a more fundamental doubt about the work as a technical and musical achievement.

Nono does not make it easy: the score is annotated with a series of 53 quotes from Hölderlin, difficult, sometimes cryptic or even mystical stuff. These are not at all like the playful texts that sometimes accompany scores by Satie; I suspect they are more akin to Ives's philosophical Essays before a Sonata, but without the connecting prose and argument that give Ives's writings their explanatory power, I suspect that the function of the Hölderlin texts is to accompany, not explain, the music.

The music of the quartet is mostly quiet, always on the edge of the abundant silences which are measured both precisely and under fermati of various relative lengths. The progress of the piece is always in a halting rhythm and uncertain metric. Nono's choices of pitches and timbres continually challenge the ear's ability to define a pitch as a pitch. The use of Verdi's scala enigmatica (C, Db, E, F#, G#,A#, B) is less a point of reference for the listener than a point of departure for the composer, in particular allowing the contrast between the wholetone and semitone clusters found in the scale and chromatic or microtonal modifications of individual pitches to further obscure pitch relations.

There is substantial critical literature, mostly in German, about Nono's music, none of which I have found helpful in getting into the quartet. There is also Nono's music-historical role and, in particular, the controversies around him, his work, and the work of others: Nono's attacks on Cage and Stockhausen in 1958 (the Cage attack was largely the writing of the young Helmut Lachenmann) ; his engagement with the PCI; the turn away from real politics (and possibly towards the mystical) with the Quartet and the 1984 "tragedy of listening", Prometeo; the ugly posthumous attack on a supposed Scelsi-Nono-Feldman "cult", spurred on by the composer György Ligeti and led by the critic Peter Niklas Wilson... None of that is much help either.

Both supporters and detractors of Nono's music share a lack of loquacity when it comes to engagement with the actual material substance of the work. I like to be able to discuss music in very concrete terms, and these have been either vague or absent in the Nono discussion; with Nono's turns, especially in the latter music, to territories (both musical and otherwise) that are very mysterious to me, obscure notes have invited more obscure notice, and as a listener I scarcely know where to begin.

As attractive as musical territories are which are slow, quiet, halting, obscured, ambiguous, ephemeral and/or enigmatic, they can also be deceptive. They can disguise writing made from facility and habit rather than labor and conviction, and an absence of material will often be less a mark of profound economy than the receipt for an absence of ideas. With Nono's quartet, my gullibility is tested: I am attached to the piece, but can't begin to explain why; I doubt its technique but want to believe.

Robust arrangements

Some music crystallizes in a very particular form: each detail has to be a certain way, and the smallest variation at the surface can effectively kill the piece. Other music is surprisingly plastic and robust under transformation. The too-wise-for-his-age Nico Muhly zeroes in on the plasticity of some music, pop music in particular. I'd like to add two examples of surprising robustness or fragility. Le sacre du printemps is a piece which has gone through a fascinating life cycle, and as it 's orchestral suite entered the stable of symphonic warhorses, its original rough invocations of the folkloric became angular details of the modern, and those details, those wonderful details, became precious. And to a great extent, it was in the orchestration of the piece that that preciousness was located. With canny ensemble chords that locked in intonation like barbershop or wind solos in forbidden but absolutely right registers, Le Sacre was a model of music inseparable from its orchestration. But when the composer's own two-piano rehearsal arrangement started making the rounds, or even better, The Roto Rooter Goodtime Christmas Band's five-minute precis (for a sextet dominated by low saxophones and trombones, with extended wind techniques taken straight from the partbooks of Spike Jones' City Slickers), well, the robust rough beauty and brutal dynamicism of the score returned, defeating a seventy-some years of preciousness. (Among other things, the RRGTCB version reminded me of how much I loved those tunes, those tunes). But here's a counter example: Alvin Lucier's I am sitting in a room is, in principle, a score that could be realized by any speaker, to any text, in any room, and with any number of variations in technical setup. Many such variations have been tried, but none has recovered the qualities of Lucier's own performances. His voice, his text, his room, have all asserted their presence in the identity of the piece; in particular, there is a dramatic curve to the performance, tied up with the listener's response to Lucier's reading of the text, and the process of erasing its imperfections by transformation through -- and, eventually, into -- the natural resonances of the room. There is a psychological particularity here which was , for the composer, unintentional, but its is in precisely that particularity, delicate and unresponsive to re-arrangements, that I am sitting in the room has become such a stable part of the repertoire.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Noise no more

The territory of the musical grows. Noisemakers accompanying hunt or battle or clockwork or commerce become musical instruments, and as they integrate themselves into ensembles they lose the signs and associations of their previous occupations and simply become musical signs and symptoms. Dissonances appear first as accidents, then are avoided, then forbidden, then toyed with, then considered precious, and finally, mundane, only to be explained away so that we can begin the process all over again. Speech doesn't sing and song is speech gone wrong, until it's the other way around. I couldn't dance to that yesterday but now I can't hear it without starting to move and tomorrow I'm certain I'll have forgotten how (never mind, you're far too tall to dance in the first place). Technology makes the transportation of sophisticated music to all the wrong places possible: so how come they still laugh when I sing to myself in the subway?

As my teacher N.O. Brown put it, "truth is error burned up."

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Cheerfully minor

From an email: "For a classical musician, you seem obsessed with obscure or minor genres."

Nope. We just happen to find ourselves in a musical landscape increasingly without predominant genres, but rather with many extraordinary niches. The challenge to listeners is now to be both adventurous and discriminant, rather than simply consuming whatever gets thrown your way by the "music industry". My own training -- which I think of as very west coast -- carried no particular attachment to the big names and big works of the western classical canon. In High School, I was transcribing Machaut from original notation one day, and Partch from his tablature the next, and both experiences were as important to me as playing the Fourth Brandenburg or a Sousa March (well, the Sousa only when sitting, not marching) or, later, accompanying a shadow play in the muddy mountains of central Java or getting lost in the Santa Cruz mountains while playing Christian Wolff's Large Groundspace. Discovering musical quality and virtuosity in unexpected places is a great pleasure. If minor, then cheerfully so.

A minimum of means

Here's a page with some rough but delightful audio examples (click on the characters below the Real Audio player ad) of the ichigenkin, an archaic Japanese silk string monochord used as a solo instrument and to accompany singing. Played with a plectrum and an ivory slide, the ichigenkin represents a highly distilled aesthetic, retaining some playing techniques from its now-distant ancestor, the Chinese q'in with an indigenous melodic style. Although rare today, the ichigenkin has not been neglected by contemporary composers, and recent repertoire includes works by Sukeyasu Shiba and Yuji Takahashi. Although this is one of the most structurally minimal of stringed instruments, the technique and repertoire is far from simple, and I find myself ever more charmed and engaged by details revealed through extended listening.