Sunday, September 07, 2008

Now that it's so easy

How does a musician accumulate his or her repertoire of music? Repertoire, the music one knows, whether as a player, a listener or an analyst, is central to a musician's identity. For younger musicians nowadays, accumulating music is almost too easy: whatever can't be immediately downloaded, whether in the form of scores or recordings, can usually be ordered online, but this is a very recent state of affairs, and we are scarcely aware of its implications.

I'm not exactly ancient, but as a teenager in the '70s and just a bit too far outside of a big city, getting to know a repertoire took some real efforts. I was dependent upon radio broadcasts (especially L.A.'s Pacifica station KPFK, which had a strong signal and where William Malloch, David Cloud, and Carl Stone offered consistently interesting late night programming with highlights ranging from Malloch's documentaries of Mahler and Stravinsky (also here) to Stone's early interview with Jo Kondo or a complete broadcast of the then-new Einstein on the Beach recording; there were also some great student broadcasts from the Pomona College Station, including one in which all of the then-brand new Obscure LP series got broadcast).

I was even more dependent on libraries, cycling among the public libraries in Ontario, Montclair, Pomona, and Claremont and the college libraries in Claremont, Riverside, and at CalPoly in order to get my paws on scores and to listen to record after record. I'd go through enthusiasms, some of them now a bit embarassing, spurred on by the happenstance local collections: one library had a lot of Hovhaness orchestral works with their crazy canons, another had a standing order for every George Crumb and Stockhausen score, another had complete Gate Five, CRI, Nonesuch, Louisville, Advance and Folkways recordings. I vividly remember, in late 1975, checking out the complete Folkways series of New American Music, New York Section, Composers of the 1970's which included Glass's Two Pages and a truncated version of Mumma's Cybersonic Cantilevers in the very same week that Michael Nyman's landmark book, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, arrived in the new books section of another library; I begged the circulation librarian to let me check that one out right away, and I can still summon the excitement of that coincidence, in which I felt like I was receiving the most important musical news of the day. 33 years later, I'm certain that this was the case.

As a young musician, I was, on the one hand, playing the largely entertainment repertoire of school bands and orchestras on trombone and, for a time, horn, doing rehearsal piano duties with choirs and slugging my way through an odd slice of keyboard repertoire (when I was able to buy sheet music, I had to be selective, and my selections led to a collection in which the 19th century was basically vacant, except for that big green album of "music the whole world likes to play" salvaged from an old piano bench) and, outside of school, playing a lot of early music. The mix of the music I was playing, listening to, and beginning to compose was thus outside of any traditional constraints or sequence. It was all new music and it was all exciting. When I went off to University and started playing gamelan, it was less an encounter with the exotic other than a thickening of the plot.

And this: Photocopying was a suspect and expensive activity in those days and I couldn't always check materials out, so if I wanted to keep a score, I often had to copy it by hand. Sometimes my copies were rather hastily done, in a kind of shorthand, but it was also an opportunity to improve my manuscript hand and I trace any analytical skills I have to the experience of copying, which is an old and noble tradition (i.e. Bach copied his Buxtehude, Cage copied his Webern). Even now, with computer engraving, I find that copying a score, note-by-note, is a superb way to get to know a piece, and precious details would be missed if I relied on downloads and xeroxes, and computer engraving with a decent built-in playback can be a useful assistant in training the accuracy side of musicianship. All of those complicated serial-bebop rhythms, for example, can be rendered with icy precision, and that is often a useful point of departure for turning the notes into something approaching music.

Finally, there were a few items that came by mail. Some publishers refused to do retail busines but I still have some Cage and Wolff scores ordered from Peters while I was in High School. I was too late to subscribe to Larry Austin's Source: Music of the Avant-Garde (luckily, Pomona College had a full set of the series), but Soundings, Peter Garland's score-filled journal and John Chalmers's informal journal of microtonal music, Xenharmonikon were incredibly important to my education. And, somehow, I found my way into small networks in which ideas and materials were generously shared and exchanged. One time, a friend let me borrow his copy of a La Monte Young disk and, within a week, I had a handful of high school kids singing along in our living room to an amplified turtle aquarium motor drone of our own. I sometimes suspect that the fact that getting a hold of these things was such an effort that passive consumption was all but impossible; one was forced to pay closer attention to every detail and a do-it-yourself attitude was inevitable.


Justin Friello said...

To comment on hand-copying a score:

When I began composing, I had no computer software to assist me, so I began writing the music by hand, and still do to this day before ever inputting it into Finale. I find that when I'm writing a piece by hand it turns out far better than if I used a computer in any way to help in notating a piece before its completion. I know the piece better, and I feel more connected to it, much like how an author must feeling when writing a book in longhand. Not to mention that it's an incredible feeling to step back and look at a score written entirely by hand and sense its existence.

Paul H. Muller said...

As a trumpet player who volunteers in a university orchestra I often re-copy my part to transpose it into B flat (I'm not one of those who can transpose and play at the same time...) If I have a hand cramp at the end of the piece I know I am dealing with the Romantic style, whenever the piece may have been written. We once played Sibelius #1 and I don't think he left a single phrase unmarked by dynamic changes, tempo change or some other notation. It was worse than Mahler...

As for finding repertoire, I am in the process of trying to widen my listening of post-minimalists. So I download everything I can that seems to be in that category. I also listen to CounterStream Radio, so the whole Internet royalty issue is a big one in my opinion. I have also been trying to widen my historical listening, but mp3s of Feldmen or Carter can be elusive. Classification and reviewing of mp3s is what is needed and it will be a thankless task to organize all the free stuff out there. Internet radio has a part to play here.

Back when you had to buy a CD or LP I think there was a bigger investment by the individual in the music. I once waited 12 weeks for a John Handy album when I was a teenager - it seemed like a lifetime.