Sunday, December 30, 2007

What's Opera, Doc?

Gratuitous opera posting designed to improve blog ratings. But then again, any cultural history that fails to take into account the importance of Bugs Bunny's transvestism is seriously lacking.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

A Fever'd Mind Seldom Rests

A thought experiment: We all wake up one morning having forgotten music, what music is, and what music does to us. Three things can happen: (1) we re-invent music, more or less as it was before, or (2) we re-invent music, but it differs in substantial ways from what it had been, or (3) we get about with our lives but without any music. What have we lost and what have we gained in each scenario? What does this suggest about the nature and value of music? To what degree do these three possibilities reflect the working methods of a composer?

Friday, December 28, 2007


This blog has been quiet because I've been horizontal (bronchitis; it's going around; three cheers for decent health care). In the past three years (and 757 posts) I've had it worse, in fact I've had a couple of operations, and still managed to blog a bit, but this time, the world can wait.

In any case, The Winter Album will be online on the 1st of January, 2008 and it will be well worth the wait.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Allen Strange's Taqueria

I divide composers into two classes, those who care about cooking and those who don't. (It also happens that the class of composers who write music I like is more or less coterminus with those who care about cooking, but in a universe with many happy coincidences, should that be altogether a surprise?)

Newly returned to the internet is composer Allen Strange's Manual for Mexican Street Cooking, available here. This is a nice resource, with a personal and pragmatic take on some matters strictly gourmand. Strange, long a professor of music in San Jose, has retired to places North, continues to make music, and also has written, with violinist Patricia Strange, a valuable book of instrumentation recipes for composers, The Contemporary Violin.

Growing up in Southern California, the present season has always been one intimately associated with tamales. Yes, if you stuff it in dough, I'll probably eat it, but tamales are in a class by themselves, whether sweet (filled with pineapple, mango, jam) or savory (my ideal is the long lost Atascadero tamale of my childhood). The recipes I use come mostly from an ancient copy of Maria A De Garbia's Mexico en la cocina de MARICHU, which I picked up somewhere in Mexico City a long time ago, but at this point, I tend to go freestyle with my tamale stuffings, improvising with whatever is at hand, and remaining resolutely un-PC with my tamale dough, happily enriched with dangerous quantities of manteca (yep, lard).

Friday, December 21, 2007

Venture Capital and Composition

Check out this website for recombinant, a start-up firm offering music automation solutions in the emerging field of media genomics, with core competencies in music analysis, recognition, and recomposition. Consulting on copyright infringement litigation appears to be a major part of the business. It's co-led by composer David Cope (who was one of my teachers).

Music: The Animation of the Moment

To my question (inspired by Errol Morris's cogitations on a pair of photographs):
Isn't much of music -- at least that much that is not about speech-like communication -- the attempt to fill in the space between two moments of time?
Charles Shere posted a serious response:
Well, not to me, no. I mean, yes: music as it was thought of in its Great European Age, say Bach to 1950, yes: it's attempts to fill in "space" between moments. Or so we think of it, though I feel that many masters manage to do this sort of mechanically (though very well indeed) when in fact they have a completely different idea in mind, and that's what I like about a lot of Berlioz, Schubert, Bruckner, Sibelius: their music may be about filling a duration, but it's also about getting completely away from a concern with that.

Point is, a lot of newer music (including much of my own) is not about moving from moment to moment, but about existing within time, doesn't matter what moments one might choose as kickers or closers.

I don't think that my claim is contradicted by Charles' point; in fact, I suspect that my claim is the necessary precondition to a music which -- perhaps dialectically, perhaps intuitively -- is all about allowing us to get beyond, or even forget the moment with its beginning and end and to transcend our everyday experience of time as duration.

This is a process which began, as far as I can tell, with the notion of polyphony and was later dramatically expanded with the use of multiple topics in late Viennese classicism. Polyphony, at root, is about doing different things (making different sounds) at the same time, allowing them to share a moment, and music history illustrates a course in which the definition of "different" was continuously expanded (systematic musicology would describe this on a continuum from more alike to more differentiated, or homophony to heterophony). Notable way stations on this path include the polytextual motet, the simultaneous tempi of Monteverdi's Concitato style (which is a rather simple relation to the extraordinary Javanese irama system*), the three simultaneous dances in Don Giovanni, and continue through the network technique of Wagner, Ives' use of polyphony to evoke physical spaces, etc..

The initial fork in the road is that between music as heightened speech communication and music as an aesthetic marking of time's passing. There have, in fact, been very good examples of music which has attempted to reconcile this, and often the means have been polyphonic; the contradictory accompaniments in Schumann's Im wunderschönen Monat Mai and Ives' The River come first to mind. But the more influential path seems to me to be in the diachronic play of musical topics which emerges an an alternative to the rhetorical systems cultivated in the baroque and classical eras and emerges most clearly with the late works of Mozart and throughout Beethoven's catalog. It is most central to the "figure in a clearing" topic, which I would date in absolute works to Beethoven's Pastorale Symphony**; this topic is characterized by a musical background (not yet an accompaniment, just an atmosphere) without significant temporal markers of its own before which foreground events occur. This topic is important to each of the composers Charles mentioned, and I would add Mahler, Ives, Cage (in the works with rhythmic structures and, later, time brackets) and Feldman (the composer on the grid) as well as any composer who begins by first laying down a persistant groove and then putting things on top of it.
* Paradoxically parallel tempi, creating environments in which it is unclear whether the prevailing tempo is slow or fast are fascinating. My favorite recent example is that of Alvin Lucier's string quartet, Navigations for Strings, in which the notes played by the strings are articulated at a very slow speed, but the resultant beats from the microtonal tuning often emerge as the vivid surface of the music, and are at times quite fast. Or another example from the history of film -- here's Jonathan Rosenbaum's article about tempo in the films of the extraordinary director Yasujiro Ozu, Is Ozu Slow?.
** The Pastorale is absolute music with a programmatic veneer: you get over the program quickly enough to realize that there really is music there.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Music, photography, science

Filmmaker Errol Morris's extraordinary blog, Zoom, has a paragraph that hit me like a brick:
I know. It is insane, but I would like to make the claim that the meaning of photography is contained in these two images. By thinking about the Fenton photographs we are essentially thinking about some of the most vexing issues in photography – about posing, about the intentions of the photographer, about the nature of photographic evidence – about the relationship between photographs and reality. We also have the first motion picture because we have two images in sequence. We just don’t know (at first) what the sequence is because they are not conjoined in celluloid. One further point. Isn’t much of science the attempt to fill in what happened between two moments of time, t₀ and t₁? To explain how and why something changed?
Isn't much of music -- at least that much that is not about speech-like communication -- the attempt to fill in the space between two moments of time?

Decoding Composer Biographies, Lesson One

Here, then, are quotes from real & official composer biographies found on the web:

(n.n.) is one of America's most distinguished artistic figures.

"Distinguished" means older, academy-dwelling, and out-of-fashion. "One of (the) most" describes neither the size nor the selector of the cohort. "Artistic figure" is a phrase designed to lift the subject out of the lowly class of musicians (you get an even more exaggerated effect in German by insisting that "Ich bin Kunstler").

The compositional and intellectual wisdom of (n.n.) has influenced a wide range of contemporary musicians.

"Wisdom" inevitably means aged. Note that the compositional and intellectual influence is noted but not the music itself. This particular quote is a surprising one to find on a publisher's page, since a publisher should be interested in promoting the works more than teaching skills of the composer, and if you're staking a claim for influence, give some evidence and argue the point. Note also that "contemporary", in this context is an insider signal for "uptown": Danger, Will Robinson! There's never anything less novel than self-described "contemporary music".

(n.n.) is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Who cares? I side with Groucho Marx: Any club that would have me -- or any other composer -- as a member is suspect. The same goes for a list of prizes: keep them buried in your resumé for your colleagues and your tenure committee to discover and admire, but curious performing musicians and lay people out looking for interesting new music really don't give a flying fermata.

(n.n.) is one of America's most successful composers

Again, who's in the cohort? How is "successful" defined? Pocketbook? Performances? Notoriety?

(n.n. is) among the first composers of his generation dedicated to the combination of music, science and computer technology.

Don't use "first" (even when qualified by "among") when it is falsifiable. ("Leading" (as in "a leading composer for toy piano") is a frequently encountered alternative, safe but wishy-washy.) And by all means, don't use these kinds of qualifications in an autobiographical context -- wait for someone else to make the claim for you. Stick with the facts: "n.n. is a composer dedicated to the combination of music, science, and computer technology" does just fine.

Next Lesson: Some official composer biographies to admire.

Our Happy House of Cards

If you take a course in calculus or quantum mechanics, the content of the course is pretty much going to be the same wherever you go -- sure, there'll be different emphases, and certainly different pedagogical styles, and the environment (both physical and human) in which you study does make a real difference, but there is a more-or-less settled consensus on what is essential to know, what is useful to know how to do, and what the shared terminology for the subject is.

In musical studies, we are very far away from such a consensus. The canon of music history is increasingly loose and evermore less centered around "classical" concert and operatic works of late 18th- to late 19th-century central Europe, and the repertoire of works studied as part of an historical narrative is increasingly variable from school to school and from one teacher to the next. In music theory (which is actually more practice than theory), there have always been local styles of analysis and terminology (yes, Virgina, there's an invisible line running roughly along the Germany-Austria border separating the scale-step theorists from the functional theorists, so that the tribes shall never mix) , but the local practices in (or even within) individual schools in the US often take this to an extreme, such that unless a student is flexible and a very quick study, it's rarely possible to jump from the middle of a theory course "sequence" in one locale to another. Add to this the complication of parallel sequences taught in many places for jazz or vernacular musics. Or how about electronic music, an even more extreme case? At some schools, an electronic music course will cover "classical" (love that word, so useful in so many contexts) studio techniques, including old-fashioned tape splicing, in others, it may be digital recording techniques or computer music (synthesis or computer-assisted composition), and in others it will be using the studio to make digital mock-ups of instrumental scores, and in still others, you may lay hands on circuits and wield your soldering gun to roll your own electronic instruments.

I happen to think that this lack of consensus is a very good thing. The diversity and liveliness of music demands a diversity of approaches and musical studies has long since grown out of the idea that a single aesthetic, as described historical or analytically, has value above others equivalent to the value of truth over falsity in domains like math or physics. William Austin's Music in the Twentieth Century told a fantastic story beginning with Debussy while Alex Ross's recent book tells another compelling story beginning with Strauss's Salome and neither story cancels the other out. Having these alternative accounts of the same time period gives our sense of history dimensional depth and texture. I think that there is a lot of study to be done on the ramifications of having parallel historical accounts or parallel theoretical systems for the production of real music and the parallel streams should be crossing one another more often, invisible line at the Austrian border be damned. Indeed, voice leading scholars may have something to tell jazz musicians (who focus on chords and scales) while a student of the Javanese gender has really interesting things to say about counterpoint.

Around & About

Some composing bloggers have been very busy of late:

Paul Bailey is putting up more recordings of his opera, retrace our steps.

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz is in the final stretches of his year-long project We Are All Mozart.

Matthew Guerrieri has been writing a wassail a day for a week.

Jodru of ANABlog has been tracing Stockhausen's steps. (Ben Harper, of Boring Like a Drill also has some more smart things to say about KS).

Man, do I feel like an aging expat when I read Nico Muhly's blog -- his lively diction seems to belong to a language that hadn't yet been invented when I left the States and I can only parse the half of it.

Elaine Fine has the very good idea of blogging her thematic catalog.

Me? I'm resting on my laurels.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Crossing Fields

Since 1977, when I first took a lesson with the tuning theorist Ervin Wilson, I've found it useful to think about pitch relationships in terms of a lattice (or, more precisely, a manifold, but this is music theory, so we needn't be too fussy) in which classes of intervals -- octaves, fifths, major third, etc. -- are each assigned their own axis and pitches are located at discreet points in the space described. (The tradition of thinking about pitches in this way originates with the German theorist Hugo Riemann, with an important precedent in the Dutch scientist Huygens; it was further developed by Shohe Tanaka, Adrian Fokker, Walter O'Connell, Wilson, James Tenney and more recently, in the tuning community and, to some extent, among, "neo-Riemannian" music theorists).

The whole point of such spatial representations of pitches is that spatial proximity represents one form of audible proximity, or harmonic distance, and this is important in real music. With pitches, there is an additional form of proximity, and that is in terms of absolute distance in frequency. The two forms of proximity interact in subtle and musically important ways. Two tones an octave apart will be usually (= played on instruments with harmonic spectra in a middle register) heard as more similar to one another than two tones a major seventh apart. Although the major seventh is a smaller interval, the octave is a less complex interval described by a very simple harmonic relationship, thus trumping the major seventh.

While one can devise metrics for these two ways of measuring intervals and from the metrics derive some formulae for comparing intervals, in real music this is an extremely delicate business, subject to a large number of variables, and ultimately, the way in which a composer decides to wander about a pitch lattice may mostly be a function of personal taste, habit, or even chance. Nevertheless, I find it an enormously useful way of managing pitches and intervals.

The same structure may also be usefully applied to dimensions other than pitch. It is possible, for example, to view musical tempi as described by the duration of a basic pulse. Such pulses can be assigned places on an n-dimensional lattice in which each dimension describes a distinct form of rational relationship between tempi. An X lattice corresponds to the powers-of-two axis in harmonic space -- each discreet step on the lattice is a doubling or halving in duration. Thus, one moves from eighths to quarters to halves to wholes. Perpendicular to this is an axis with powers of three -- moving in one direction triples, in the other divides in thirds. If the two axes meet at a quarter note, then this second axis continues in one direction with a dotted half, and in the other with triplet eighths. In the space describe by the two axes, one can soon locate all the pulses described by augmentation dots or as parts of triplets. In this way, the simplest rational relationships between tempi are represented graphically, and one can move among them via a handful of common counting units. Thus you can get a sweet little field of tempi through which one may securely modulate -- i.e. mm 60:80:90:120 -- by notating only with quarters, dotted eighths, triplet quarters, and eighth notes.* If one adds to this "harmonic" set of rational tempo relationships the possibility of speeding up or slowing down the basic pulse in absolute terms, this is equivalent to the second type of pitch relationship described above and, as in the pitch dimension, the range of possibilities for subtle yet recognizable relationships expands tremendously.
* If you're interested in pursuing this further, the two obvious English-language sources to turn to are Morley's Plain & Easy Introduction to Practical Music and Cowell's New Musical Resources, two books no composer should be without.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Blog Rolls

I haven't quite figured out blog rolls, neither the etiquette nor the tactics. I've listed music blogs and web pages that I actually read in full, but I have the impression that some people consider it good form to cross-blog roll one another, which makes me a bit uncomfortable (it's not as bad as cross-citing in scholarship, but it is distinctly like trolling for friends on myspace & I'm just too damn old to get into that without embarrassing myself). Some blogs have adopted the policy of dropping well-known blogs from their rolls, on the principle that they don't need your help, and the lesser ones do; others have adopted the strategy of only listing the top blogs, hoping to be judged by the apparent company you keep; still others have figured out that the blog roll doesn't matter much or even at all and favor instead links within articles, or simply don't want to give the competition even the slightest edge.

Where particular people congregate

Composing is usually a solitary activity (for some exceptions, see here) and composers compete with one another for gigs, commissions, attention, so it's no wonder that most blogging composers blog as solo acts. But there have been a few attempts at collectivization (Sequenza 21) and a few more attempts to install composers as columnists in magazine-like blogs. The latter include the ArtsJournal, staffed by print journalists, including at least two composers who do criticism on the side (or vice versa), and the NY Times, which tried it by inviting four composers to write for a blog The Score (which appears to have been inactive since April, although access is now free).

There would definitely be some advantages to joining a group effort -- the pace for the individual contributors could be slower*, but if they shared the discipline of writing at regular intervals, it would probably make the blog a more attractive daily read -- but no one is exactly inviting me, and I suspect that my fourth grade teacher got it right: highly creative; needs improvement in getting along well with others , so my act will remain a solo.

* Pace seems to be important for readership: if I stop writing for more than two days, Technorati will drop my "authority" number, recently from 48 to 39; but if I write too frequently, a similar effect takes place.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Copy that

I've been doing some analysis lately, an odd pair of pieces: Mozart's extraordinary Streichquintett in g minor (KV 516) and Barney Childs' Eighth String Quartet. I had the ambition to do a close reading of the pieces, trying to get at as many details as possible, and I found myself doing this by actually copying the scores out. This is a very old-fashioned way of getting to know a piece of music, but it is no less valuable for being old-fashioned, especially because copying is a kind of slow motion performance and one in which each notated detail gets its own time for consideration.

In the Childs Quartet, about which I'll write more in a later post, a piece composed entirely of very slow and sustained chords, the sonorities of these chords -- their densities, balance, registration, and beating due to relative consonance or dissonance -- needed to be experienced in real time by sustained timbres not possible on a piano. For that reason, I used my notation program as a sequencer in order to hear the piece in something approaching the specified timbres, and I now have a much better idea of how the piece works or doesn't work.

With the Mozart, I've been making an arrangement for piano, four hands, because (a) it's music that I've always wanted to play, but don't happen to play the specified instruments with sufficient virtuosity, and (b) because this music is all about scoring patterns, going from one instrumental combination to another, and using the changes in patterns to project the tonal material, and the act of translating the score into another instrumental medium inevitably forces one to engage with these patterns. So far, I've been able to get away without changing any of Mozart's notes (i.e. transposing up or down octaves or doubling at octaves) but I have been led to some very interesting solutions, with, for example, at one point the "primo" pianist having to wrap her arm around her partner in order to play a melody in the bass and a countermelody in the treble, while her partner plays the accompaniment in the middle. I suspect that a polished arrangement will probably demand some registration changes, and perhaps some subtle doublings, but my working score has already proven to be a great way of getting into the nuts and bolts of a remarkable piece of music.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


The lattice of coincidence has allowed the media a unique moment to ponder two heterodox theologies, those of the Republican candidate for his party's presidential nomination, Mitt Romney, a professed Mormon, and those of Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose religious idiolect has a mixture of sources, from the Cologne-style Catholicism of his childhood -- a tradition which has persistent pre-Christian elements -- to the outer-space theogony of The Urantia Book, with a special attachment to the star Sirius.

Interestingly, both theologies have some common elements, with god-like existence beyond this plane promised to believers, a strong (if somewhat generic and decidely pre-feminist) eternal mother figure, and -- in common with a number of traditions, an antagonist angel with the name of Lucifer. The Mormon Lucifer attracted some controversy when a competitor of Mr Romney pointed out that LDS theology considered Lucifer to be the younger brother of Jesus. The press rapidly took up Romney's dismissal of this point, and the competitor, Mr Huckabee, apologized, although his remarks did, indeed, appear to restate the Mormon viewpoint (see here, for an official statement). Mormon theology is heterodox from a consensus shared by most Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches on a number of issues, ranging from orginal sin to the nature of Christ and mankind in relationship to God, and in particular to the topic of slavation and heaven, so that when Mr Romney identifies Jesus as "the savior of mankind", he is not identifying a personal savior (which is unnecessary, in the absence of original sin), and speaking of a very different kind of salvation, in which all those sealed by the church (including those sealed in memoriam) will go as Gods themselves to heaven, and like God and the Great Mother continue to be fruitful and multiply.

Mr Stockhausen's theology, and in particular that expressed in the seven-day opera cycle, Licht, largely adopts the figure of Lucifer from The Urantia Book, but adds a number of characteristics, in particular a tendency towards clowning or tricksterism, not found in the rather humourless Urantia Book, but widespread among other faiths and fictions. It's probably still to early to attempt a sober analysis of the theology behind the Licht cycle, and, indeed, it may not prove to be a consistant one or one that even coincides with much precision to Stockhausen's own faith (the same can be said for Wagner and the Ring), but it is striking that, as an artwork with theogenic elements, the one great lacuna is, in fact, a deity. Indeed, given that the overwhelming narrative and textual substance of the work is a kind of free association extended rap around the composer's autobiography, it is hard to escape the conclusion that in the universe of Licht, the relationship between the composer and a creator God is largely one of identity.

Addendum: A description of Stockhausen's funeral is to be found here.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Minimalism, again

The composer Ron Kuivila has a knack for clarifying matters for me (and often for cheerfully mucking them all up again, but that's another post, another post) . He recently reminded me of an old definition of minimalism, the precise origins of which are obscure, but likely from the visual arts, that works for music (or film, or dance, or writing, or architecture, or cooking, or computer programming, etc.) as well:

Minimalism is the elimination of distractions.

Kuivila naturally turned that period into a spoken-out-loud "full stop". I'll add my "basta" and we can be done with it.


Part of the recent good news in classical music has been the growth in endowments for US music schools, allowing for new construction and, in at least one case, for significant reductions if not eliminations of student fees. These developments are to be greeted, but also to be put into perspective: often, the best material conditions for musicians in the US will be those found in student environments, while conditions for professional music-making are often seriously underdeveloped. I want to have great facilities for music everywhere, but do find it strange that in many communities the best facilities are within educational institutions, which tend to be isolated on campuses and restricted to in-house use. There are even junior colleges in the States with better concert halls or theatres than those located in the closest big cities. In Germany, the situation is reversed, in that educational institutions are seriously under-supported, lacking the concert halls, practice and rehearsal spaces common in US schools. (A professorship here -- a title with great social prestige actually becoming a permanent part of ones legal name -- does not even guarantee that that the holder gets an office or studio.) The topic of capital investment for music is one that deserves some deeper thought, but a bit more balance in the distribution of resources would seem wise.

A Winter's Progress

The project for A WINTER ALBUM of short online scores for piano continues apace. Five scores have already been received and a large number have been promised. The album promises to be diverse and delightful, with the scores so far including pieces in traditional notation, graphic notation, a variable score composed in HTML, and one with very modest household electronic aggrandizement. New contributions are, of course, welcome, and the (impossible, but what the heck) deadline remains the first of January, 2007. Contact me (djwolf (AT) snafu (FULLSTOP) de).

Thursday, December 13, 2007


I am a friend of steamed buns, whether plain or filled. I've encountered Chinese-style buns in California, Mexico, Indonesia, Germany and Hungary, and home-made, they've become a staple, filled with meat, leeks or cabbage, or -- when I'm not watching my sugar -- sweetened red beans. I like the meat version best, and eat it, as I learned in Indonesia, with sambal oelek and ketchap. Steamed breads probably spread westward from China across Central Asia and the variations on the Mongolian/Turkic mantu and manti are legion, with the Kazakh version, filled with a pumpkin and meat mixture deserving some special mention

One of Christina's grandmothers came from the German minority in Bessarabia, that wedge of land between the Dniester and Prut rivers that has been tossed between the larger neighboring countries for centuries and most of which now belongs to the Republic of Moldova. A favorite there were the large steam buns with a crisp crust on the bottom served with a savory sauce or with potato soup (in Germany similar buns are frequently served with a sweet vanilla sauce). I presume that this steamed bread from the Black Sea region is from the western edge of the transmission chain via Central Asia.

Dampfnudeln und Pfeffersoß

With dough hooks, mix 1 lb white flour, a package of yeast, a bit of salt, and perhaps a bit of sugar with a cup of tepid water until smooth -- about 7 minutes with my sturdy hand mixer.

Cover and let rise in a warm place for about an hour.

Rub some fat (either a mixture of ghee and oil, or lard and oil, or shortening) over the bottom of a large deep pan, cut the dough into four equal parts, and make them into balls, place the balls in the pan, add water to a depth of no more than two centimeters. Cover and let cook until all of the water has steamed away, about 40 minutes, and the buns all have a nice crust on the bottom.

Serve hot with hot or cold Pepper Sauce

made from 5 bell peppers (I use long red Turkish peppers, but my mother-in-law uses a mixture of red, yellow, and green bells) and 1 large onion, chopped to centimeter-square pieces, sauteed in a bit of oil (not olive) , sometimes later adding one medium eggplant, similarly cubed, and then a can of chopped tomatoes, some salt, some parsley, and cayenne to taste (I use 1 tablespoon of hot hungarian paprika and about a half teaspoon of cayenne). Sautee for about an hour at low temperature, adding water as needed. Can be served hot or cold, when warm, with Dampfnudeln or mashed potatoes, when cold, with bread, sausage, or fried eggs.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

It's Sweeps Week

Yes, it's time again: Scott Spiegelberg is gathering data for his survey of the top fifty or so classical music blogs. If this page is once again in the top fifty, it will be further evidence that classical music blogs are still far from finding their potential audience.

I wish to assure you that Renewable Music has not skewed its editorial content in advance of what we like to call "classical music sweeps week", and to insure a fair result, the following topics have not been mentioned here:

Tinfoil hats, engram-meters, orgone accumulators, alien abductions, neo-conservatism, dowsing, homeopathy, fired US Attorneys, creationism and/or intelligent design and/or flying spaghetti monsters, ancient astronauts, perpetual motion machines, dog-fighting NFL players, vanishing CIA torture tapes, the Huckabee diet, sacred garments in autochthonous American religions, the removal of Halliburton to Dubai, the Iranian nuclear weapons program, biodiesel, John Lott's sockpuppet, Oprah Winfrey's Obama endorsement, Bee colony die-outs, the busking Joshua Bell or the New York Philharmonic's sudden case of Pyongyong fever.

Well, okay, I did mention the bees and Bell, and recommended the Pyongyong metro website, but those were relevant...


Some people hear sounds as colours, synaesthesia; I don't have that particular pleasure, but I do hear sounds as possesed by vivid textures. Some sounds are smooth, whether with the depth of melted chocolate or insubstantial like fog. Each sound has an edge, but some edges are hard to locate, let alone to get a grip on, while the best-defined edges crash and crunch and crackle. Sometimes the most striking edge of a sound is that at the release, where it may disappear into silence or terminate efficiently and sharply defined by silence (which may have a hard edge of its own) or the next sound. Conducting can be a marvelously tactile experience -- when it goes well, you can convince yourself that your body is actually pushing those wave fronts around, and each measured beat acquires its own hard edge in physical space.

It's useful to practice composing transitions, from this to that (or from here to there, if you prefer a spatial metaphor), and edges are essential to this. Perhaps the best practice for transitions was tape splicing, back in the days when one spliced tape. (It's of some significance, perhaps, that audio tape editing was a skill largely overtaken from film editing with its origins as a silent medium; of course, one could also argue that the aesthetics of film editing owe much to music, and opera in particular, making a sweet circle of influence). Joints between tape fragments could be vertical, a straight cut through the tape, directly from one fragment to the next (a butt joint in joinery parlance) or they could be diagonal, gradually going from one thing to the next, rather than suddenly. Or there could be space -- silence -- between the fragments, silence have articulative power of its own. Ezra Pound, in his The Theory of Harmony, argued reasonably that any sound could follow another provided the time between the two was of sufficient length, and that the more different the two sounds were, the greater the distance. This is, of course, a rough formula for making smooth transitions, and music isn't always smooth, thank Ives, and turning Mr Pound's formula on edge, is often just the thing for waking the bored and complacent and breaking the illusionary peace of a musical moment turned dull.

Monday, December 10, 2007

This is my mind imagining making money off of your mind on music

In idle moments, I've realized that if I had a tad less backbone, were a tad more evil, and were significantly more greedier than I actually am, I would probably go straight into the pop-therapy/human-potential/psych-training business with a program based on improving your life and my pocket book through immersion in environments of precisely tuned musical sounds, with the sales pitch that the right combination of intervals will sooth your psyche and cure your physical ailments, and bring the world peace and prosperity. Or something like that.

There have recently been a number of well- and even best-selling books for lay audiences on the topic of what music does to our minds (and -- the more interesting question of -- what our minds do with music), including Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neatherthals, Dan Levitin’s This is your brain on music, and Oliver Sacks' new book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. I enjoy reading Music 00001, Victor Grauer's speculative blog on the origin of music and Martin Braun's Neuroscience of Music website has also been extremely helpful with his summaries and critiques of recent research; Scott Spiegelberg's Musical Perceptions blog presumably doesn't need introduction around here. The science of musical perception, and the neuroscience in particular is a hot and rich field at the moment, with interesting insights into everything from the origin of music to the evolution and relation between the neurological organs used for speech and for music (and the related question of the use of music as a communicative and as an absolutely aesthetic system) and on to the extent and limits of our musical perception, the last a very interesting question for composers. If I read the research well enough, it seems that we are just at the beginning of figuring out what music does and can do for us.

So back to my dastardly plan: I would devise a course, dished out in small, and ever-more-expensive units of training by lab-coated trainers in small cubicles with ultra modern decor, Lazy-boy chairs, some LED-studded machinery and very comfortable headsets, in which subjects were immersed in precisely generated synthetic environments of tones, beginning with the most simple intervals in ratios of just intonation, and moving on to ever more complex ratios. * (I would orient the course towards intervals rather than precise frequencies; although some have tried (and marketed) courses in learning absolute pitch, a disposition for AP appears to have a genetic component that is not universally distributed, and aside from AP and some military research on the use of very low and very high frequencies for crowd control, the best result I've encountered for the influence of frequency is a study indicating -- I kid not -- that certain frequencies can improve or ruin the taste of Carlsberg beer. If I were an innkeeper, that'd be useful...) Simultaneously the sounds would begin with sine waves, gradually move on to more complex and even noisy wave forms. The subjects would learn to recognize and even reproduce each new interval, and eventually chords and clusters, with the objective of mastering ever-larger vocabularies of sounds with ever more accuracy. As the trainee would be able to internalize ever more complex acoustic phenomena, the phenomena of tonal dissonance would be eventually become relative rather than an absolute, with the sales point being that ability to control a dissonant and noisy sound environment is a precondition for being able to survive and thrive in an increasingly complex, indeed dissonant, world.

In other words, a glossy new package for some old-fashioned ear training.

*I would orient the course towards intervals rather than precise frequencies; although some have tried (and marketed) courses in learning absolute pitch, a disposition for AP appears to have a genetic component that is not universally distributed, and aside from AP and some military research on the use of very low and very high frequencies for crowd control, the best result I've encountered for the influence of frequency is a study indicating -- I kid not -- that certain frequencies can improve or ruin the taste of Carlsberg beer. If I were an barkeeper, that'd be useful, but I'm only a composer.


Charles Shere has placed his prescient 1982 (!) essay, New Music in the United States, 1950-1980, online here.

The closing paragraph is stunningly accurate and could not be more current; it's almost a summary of recent blogospheric discussions. It begins:

All these different streams of music are capable of further development. None of them is likely to dominate the American music of the future. Like the other arts, music in America at the beginning of the 1980s is characterized by a tremendous plurality of points of view— and, on the forefront, especially among younger composer-performers, by a preference of results to theory, of artistic expression to artistic politics. Gamelans, rock fusion, music for conceptual theater, virtuoso performer music, collage, and the pursuit of exact intonation all flourish simultaneously, driven into modest surroundings by the continued indifference of government, the media, and the musical Establishment, but responding with growing resilience and tenacity.

Read the whole thing!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A minor German paradox

One striking aspect of the West German new music scene of the fifties is how rapidly an institutional consensus formed around the importance of two young figures, Hans Werner Henze and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and how different those figures and their music have been. This development and the contrast between the two could certainly not have been predicted in 1953, when Henze established his permanent domicile in Italy and Stockhausen first began his long association with the electronic music studio at the WDR. At that point in time, both shared horrific experiences in the late war years, and both were decided modernists. Each had initiated their own path away from a 12-tone orthodoxy, one towards a less rigorous usage of the method, and the other toward more total serialism, but that was an unremarkable fact for the era, in which West Germany could look to a number of other significant composers with siomilar concerns (Fortner, Hartmann, Klebe, B.A. Zimmermann).

Musical success is a mysterious matter of determination, talent, timing, connections and some of these factors are governed more by chance than ratio, but the postwar predominance of the music of Henze and Stockhausen is that of music from an unlikely and remarkable pair. Henze, marxist and gay, was able from the distance of his Italian villa to carefully build institutional ties in Germany, as a teacher and festival organizer, and was equally careful to insure that the political content of his work never overwhelmed his musical surfaces which were approachable by a wide audience and always displayed more continuity that contrast with his received musical tradition, making it readily playable, even by the most conservative ensembles or in the most traditional opera houses. Moreover, he composed repertory pieces that could share programs and seasons with the works of others. Stockhausen, on the other hand, straighter than straight and politically disengaged, successively burned down each of his institutional bridges (Darmstadt, his publisher, his recording company, his professorship, and eventually the radio station), choosing instead to create his own institutions in their place, in pursuit of musical ideals which seldom coincided with those of institutional musical life. His catalogue has remarkably few pieces that could be played in short notice or in company with music by other composers due to unusual instrumentation or technical requirements, but mostly from design, due to his strict breaks with conventions of technique and style, which thus requires rehearsal time well in excess of that usually possible, as well as his frequent usage of specialized technologies.

Stockhausen neither read the news nor watched television, his literary interests seem to have ended with his youthful attachment to Hesse's Glasperlenspiel, his scientific investigations likewise seem to have ended in the 1950's with his study of phonology. His deeper attachments were to a spiritual impulse, one which wandered from Cologne-style catholism to religious exotica east and from outer space, but in the end was essentially a faith in his own work. Henze's Italian P.C. -style Marxism took its own twists and turns, and is, one supposes, ultimately also a faith in the work itself more than an orthodoxy and always more pragmatic than idealist, allowing him to keep a professorship in Cologne, while Stockhausen gave his up, and to lead music festivals in Italy or in Germany, successfully navigating real political -- and often very conservative -- waters. Henze has always remained informed about world affairs, and his interests in the work of others and in other art forms are far from casual or naive. Unlike Stockhausen, whose ambitions turned to writing his own libretti, Henze prefered that others provide him with words, most notably the writer Ingeborg Bachmann as well as a series of operas on classical themes.

The paradox, that the more conservative composer was politically further left, although never a populist in the socialist-realist style, while the more progressive composer sat more easily in a conservative political frame is perhaps typical and unique to post-war West Germany. I can't quite reconcile this, another symptom of the limits in my anthropological insight when it comes to this country where I happen to live, an accidental guest in a place in which music is sometimes a wonderland.

Sins and Fibs, a small update

I recently posted about my decision to by a crossgrade from Finale to Sibelius (music notation software) as insurance against further negative developments with Finale. I've got Sibelius up and running, but Finale is still my main axe, so I can't yet offer a thorough review. I can say, however, that Sibelius's licensing is awful, allowing only one set-up on one machine at a time. This is totally insufficient for an active composer or musical academic who might reasonably need two or three active installations, at some combination of home and office computers, and a laptop for use in-between or in the studio. Finale's licensing, allowing two active installations at once, is restrictive enough, but this is clearly inadequate.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

A Legacy

The assessment of a composer's legacy is always a function of time, a judgment speaking more of the moment than of the achievement itself. The flood of fine performances and recordings that followed Morton Feldman's death, for example, could hardly have been predicted at that time, and the present esteem for Feldman's catalogue is one of the more unforeseen and welcome developments in recent reception history.

In the case of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the work -- through authoritative, if not always wholly satisfactory, recordings, voluminous writings, extensive radio, photo, and film or video documentation, and a living tradition of performance practice -- has always been a more reasonable proposition to assess as a whole. While there are significant issues and controversies, much of them dealing with broader cultural matters only indirectly musical, it's probably safe to identify a few achievements that will be lasting. I believe that the first four piano pieces, two very different early tape pieces, Studie II and Gesang der Junglinge, Gruppen for three orchestras and Mantra for two pianos are landmarks, as well as his essay on musical time time passes..., in which he proposed the serialization of tempi. (I find Kontra-Punkte, Carre, Kontakte and Sternklang to be near misses.) He was a prodigious assembler of technical means, and I would identify two broad ideas about technique -- a generalization of the serial idea and the extension of a melodic formula into works of significant length through the use of diminution -- as his most important.

Stockhausen had passionate loyalists and equally passionate former loyalists, and among the latter, the discussion over the point of disaffection was frequent. Personally, I always have the impression that he got lost in Kontakte, a score in which the principle of tight organization and a joy in improvised discovery found themselves in significant and unresolved conflict, and a similar conflict played intself between the score for instrumentalists and that for recorded sounds. Like others, I'm unable to follow Stockhausen's intellectual and, in particular, spiritual development, in which it appears that the same naiveté that surrounded the Kölner catholicism of his use was carried forward in his later engagements with such as Sri Aurobindo or the Urantia Book. (To contrast: John Cage, who for all his interests in spiritual matters and a decided ambiguity about his disciples who chose to confuse him with another J.C., kept a cool head when a famous critic claimed that one of his pieces based upon star charts would last forever, because God created the heaven so that the pieces were, in effect, written by God, responding: No, I wrote the piece and there is no God.)

But taking any composer's mythology or theology serious is probably always going to be a tricky proposition (just think of Mozart's Masonism, Liszt's Catholicism, or the Mormon elements in La Monte Young's work), and with Stockhausen, a bit of anthropological distance is always in order. In this regard, it was very helpful for me to learn that the refrain "Montag, Eva-Tag" in his opera Montag, was nothing more than a riff drawn from a bit of German cinema advertising for discount ticket night: "Montag, Kino-Tag". For as much as Stockhausen aspired to a universal musical language and status, a goal shared by many composers who came of age in the years after the second World War, as much as the pieces named above as landmarks represent a successful approach to that universal status, and as much as Stockhausen attempted to investigate (and even appropriate from) musical cultures outside of his own, the bulk of his work strikes me as a very local music, and his relative isolation, in later years, from the international new music scene, his cottage industry for self-publication (there's something telling in his leaving Universal Edition), his familial ensemble, and the summer courses in his village home are all of a piece with this.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Invitation: A Winter Album

This is an invitation to readers of this blog, a project in my small campaign to keep a repertoire of new music scores available online, a presence: to compose a short piece, for piano*, as many hands and fists and required, alone or aggrandized in any manner, perhaps a page or two of music, to be gathered into an online album of music, appropriate to the theme of Winter. Deadline: the 1st of January, 2008. Send me a pdf, with your own copyright atop if you'd like me to host your score, or a link to your own site which will be indexed with the album.

*I know, I know, a piano piece is a fairly boring idea, but I expect that many of you out there have ideas about the piano that are anything but boring. Besides, if this project works, the next project can be that Song or Flute or Percussion Album you've always wanted.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Landmarks (31)

Steve Reich: Drumming (1971) An evening-length work based on the execution of only three rigorous processes (substituting beats for rests (and then vice-versa), phase-shifting, and the doubling of resultant patterns). The piece is essentially repeated three times in succession by complementary ensembles (drums with male voice; marimbas with female voices; glockenspiels with whistling and piccolo), each located in a distinct tessitura, each with a distinct pitch collection, and closes with all three ensembles combined into one.

Drumming's unique achievement is that of working with a technical rigor equal to but altogether external to that favored by the already aged avant garde while simultaneously reaching into the most basic and most immediate impulses in music-making. It's difficult now to recall how much this piece (and others by Reich: Come Out, Piano Phase, Four Organs) shook up the new music world as a concrete demonstration that there were alternative paths to rigor and audible complexity, and that these paths were unconcerned with a large amount of music-cultural baggage. Reich also made it clear in these works that one could engage seriously with musical traditions outside of one's own musical immediate musical heritage without either copying directly from or parodying the substance of those traditions. Further, Drumming, like Riley's In C, (a piece, to the performance practice of which, Reich had made a key contribution) was further evidence that the prevailing spirit of new music making could be at once serious and a cheerful.

In recent years, and with the composer's approval, the practice has established itself of playing the first part of Drumming by itself, and without the vocal doubling of resultant patterns. With my musical moralist's hat on, I'll say that I don't approve of the practice, for Drumming divorced of both its full length and the singing is Drumming reduced to, well, just drumming.


Recent hints that the Bishop of Rome may be either curtailing the range of permitted liturgical music or calling for more emphasis on one traditional repertoire naturally recall the endeavors of previous office-holders, and perhaps none more than John XXII, whose

...Docta sanctorum of 1324 criticized modern composers for using hockets, as well as discant and French motets, "for they cut up chant melodies with hockets, make them slimy with discants, sometimes force upon them vernacular tripla and moteti" ("Nam melodias hoquetis intersecant, discantibus lubricant, triplis et motetis vulgaribus nonnunquam inculcant" [Corpus juris canonici 2:256]). (My source is here.)

No hockets? Oh well. Luckily, I wasn't in the market for a job as a a liturgical music composer.

The emphasis on the Gregorian chant repertoire is historically problematic as the Roman Church has traditional been rather catholic in rites and in ritual music. While Gregorian chant more or less replaced some liturgical repertoire -- Mozarabic, Gallician, and Celtic chant among them -- other traditions, among them the Ambrosian rite and chant, associated with Milan, and those of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches survive with official sanction.

Benedict XVI has himself displayed a certain degree of musical flexibility: footage of him ploughing his way through a few piano pieces by the Lutheran composer J.S. Bach are on rather frequent view in German television. Benedict's own older brother, the priest and retired music director of the Regensburger Domspatzen has even recorded liturgical works by Bach and his great predecessor and co-religionist Heinrich Schütz. One suspects that Benedict's reform ideas are based less in a form of religious orthodoxy than simply in conservative musical tastes.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Most of the matter in the universe is dark, and most of the matter in music is passagework. Passagework is designed not to attract its own attention but rather to fill in the spaces between points of greater attention. Some composers (Bach and Mozart of course; Rossini is my particular favorite) are so damned good at passagework -- and tucked in among the interior voices at that -- that attention is often deflected away from the music we're supposed to be paying attention to. The body of theory associated with the name of Heinrich Schenker is largely about explaining how passagework comes into being in one body of tonal music, and how, if we can listen closely enough, it can be made to go away again, vanish, even. Like stage magic, passagework may often be as much virtuoso legerdemain as it is proper music-making. The devices of passagework are often better characterized by quantity than quality, they value density and velocity, and indeed, as much as passagework represents musical detail, the actual details are often less important than the general profile or contour they outline. Passagework has the capacity to extend material indefinitely and while in much traditional music this always risks inflating the values of those materials, an achievement of minimal music was the erasure of a distinction between the passagework and the music the passages were meant to connect, sn economy of musical materials that was at once new and very ancient. New in that it invited attending to the entire music texture in a different way, with the surface of notes played simply one element in a larger complex of interference and resultant patterns, combination tones, and other acoustical epiphenomena, and old in that the music recalled that other impulse in the primitive origins of music, the impulse that came not from communicative needs, as heighted, emotive, speech but from an aesthetic need, to fill passing time, whether at work or when idle, in an interesting way.

Saturday, December 01, 2007


It's always about the next piece. Having placed thirty daily exercises into a more public sphere (well, not that public: from the response I've had, I can now imagine a reasonable retort to the old question: What if you threw an orgy and nobody came?), there is some sort of obligation to escort them further -- by either encouraging performances of the done pieces, finishing the half-baked, and promptly, if gently, disposing of the un-done-able. But there are always new ideas, and the old will have to wrestle with the newcomers to find their way forward into the works -- more substantial, and remunerated -- to come. It's a mad little Darwinian struggle sometimes.

Today's (December 1st) exercise will stay put in its sketches. You (readers, both of you) deserve the break.