Sunday, March 30, 2008


So I'm on the road, now in Albuquerque (missed connections and twice rerouted, but three airports with mountain views to compensate) , and blogging on a borrowed PC in a hotel lobby. I don't have a laptop. There is a definite trend these days, when composers gather, to see them huddled over their portable computers (usually Macs) in cafes and other public places, either composing or wifing away. Am I missing some essential tool of the trade, have I made a counter-current lifestyle choice, am I just a semi-luddite, or am I always the last kid on the block to get the cool toys? I don't have a cell phone either, refuse to carry one; I even hate carrying timepieces around with me, preferring public clocks and querying strangers for the time).


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Event Horizon

Self-criticism, on the edge of a manuscript:

... have to remember that music is not a collection of objects -- notes -- but rather sequences and ensembles of events. Both notation and certain favored compositional tools tend to push musicians into an object orientation. Notes are markers of similitudes (pitch, duration, etc.) between events but not the reiteration of sound-objects, which on any level other than the most casual is impossible, both physically and psychologically. The common preference for composers to use certain instruments -- keyboards, in particular -- as compositional tools is sometimes a liability, in that a "push-the-button-out-comes-the-sound" mentality often distracts from the extemporal uniquity of sounds within a musical context.

But isn't there also, compositionally speaking, something of an advantage in using an object orientation, whether via notation or a push-button instrumentation, to clarify and focus on the event aspect, if only through the notation's isolation of the least interesting features in a music?

Twentieth century music, in part, was all about the note, and the most vital work now at hand, it seems to me, is, at least in part, all about forgetting whatever it was we had once decided the note was supposed to be.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Slow Listening

Don't like the label "classical"? We could always follow the "slow food" movement and go with the phrase "slow listening", making a virtue out of the fact that the features we treasure in music are not only those that are immediate and on the surface, but require listening that consumes meaningful amounts of time but is rewarded by meaningful amounts of content. The economist Tyler Cowan (pointing to an Economist article) writes of a rumored new single fee, all-the-music-you-can-download, program for Apple. The money line for us slow folk:

One point is that songs will get shorter and their best riffs will be held to higher standards of immediate accessibility. If the marginal cost of a song is free, people will sample lots more and they will give fewer songs a second listen (higher opportunity cost); of course the opening bits of a song are already free in many cases but this will make sampling even easier.

A Decisive Musicality

A young person is most fortunate when he or she has a decisive and early encounter with a real musician with a gift for teaching. In parallel to playing trombone in school bands and fitful piano playing, I studied recorder with Shirley Robbins throughout high school, and that time with Mrs. Robbins was my decisive musical encounter. Her musicality still drives my life and work as a composer. She was often frustrated with me as a recorder student; I practiced too little and all my other interests (tangential, juvenile) were a distraction, but studying with your Mrs. Robbins was always about more than playing the recorder, and to be honest, the recorder was simply an excuse to spend time in her world, which was one apart from suburban Southern California. Her home was a musical and cultural salon in a land where television sets had long occupied most living rooms.

Working with her was about music in a larger sense, and about history and literature (how many recorder students are sent home with books on medieval Sephardim or Samuel Beckett novellas?), about ethics and attitude, no, not attitude: posture. (No surprise that she would later have a second career as an Alexander technique instructor). Being with her was persimmon pudding (with the fruit fresh from her garden) in the winter and getting an awkward adolescent onto the dance floor to galliard and bransle, and it was always her dark alto voice, the only voice I ever allowed to get away with calling me Danny.

Shirley Robbins passed away in late February. The photo above is my first conducting gig, at a very thin 15, with Mrs. Robbins looking on, in one of her backyard concerts.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Tearing Down the Great Firewall

I have written previously here about Chinese censorship of web sites, including a large number of musical blogs. I advocated an avoidance of Chinese products, including information products like broadcasts of the Olympic Games. With the current violent repression of protest in Tibet, this situation has become more critical, and the Chinese government is using its censorship instruments to effectively deny its own citizens any objective information about their behavior in Tibet, a basic right due to all citizens in any state.

Aboves and beyond the relationships between states, the government of China has a vital interest in maintaining a relationship with individual consumers of their products. I believe that the best action for individuals is to indicate publicly that until the status of Tibet is resolved non--violently and to the advantage of the Tibetan people that one intends not to buy products made in China nor consume information distributed by China, for example broadcasts of the Olympic Games. Targeting Chinese-government sourced information is appropriate as the Chinese extensively censor information coming into the country, including web sources that Chinese citizens could use to gather objective information about the current situation in Tibet. Voluntarily not reading Chinese government propaganda is not a form of self-censorship, but a measured response to censorship from the position in which we, as individuals, are most important to China, as consumers, indicating that we consumers recognize the real market value of their products and refuse to buy them.

I personally will avoid buying products made in China and will not watch one minute of the Olympic games unless the status of Tibet is resolved non-violently and to the advantage of the Tibetan people. I urge readers to consider doing the same and to be public about their decision.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Elaine Fine has a great post about that phrase "classical training". Musicians don't exactly have an equivalent to the (varieties of) classical technique practiced by dancers in daily classes (or Cunningham or Graham technique, for that matter), at least not beyond the warm-ups and exercises native to each instrument. As for practicing composition, there's probably no closer equivalent than a counterpoint exercise; I often find myself in a train or plane or waiting room doing a series of solutions to a single cantus firmus or inventing some fugal answers. Perhaps it is a bit archaic, but it does keep ear and mind nimble, in practice, and ready for something more.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Allen Strange is gone

I just got the sad news that Allen Strange has died. I did not know enough of his music, but I knew his writings (he wrote the book on modular analog synthesis, used by two generations of students, even in these days of virtual analog synthesis, and later, with his wife Pat Strange, wrote the book on contemporary violin techniques) and was staggered when I heard back in the '70s, at the Cabrillo Festival (when the Cabrillo when still maverick territory) his group, the Electric Weasel Ensemble, play the apparent premiere of a work by the extraordinary composer Johanna Beyer, Music of the Spheres, written in 1938. (See also here) . I got to know Allen a bit by email while he was working on the violin book, and it was a real and immediate friendship, with a couple of friends-in-common, and a shared interest in musical tuning. A native of Calexico, California, he was a genuine west coaster, and I've praised his online taqueria-style cookbook here before.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

An unbirthday wish list

Today's my unbirthday, too old again by half, and I happen to have a small wish list of the commissions I'd like to have:

1) a piece for chamber orchestra, Passagework, in which conventions of surface and depth are reversed.

2) a piece for solo cello, in which the suite's traditional contrast between dance tempi in a succession of movements are replaced by foci on individual qualities of playing: range, line, timbre, velocity. Both minimal and virtuosic.

3) a set of social dances, in Székely style, starting very slow and getting ever faster, until very fast indeed.

4) two sets of small pieces for solo instruments, one A Spice Box, with each piece named for a different spice (Cardamom, Cinnamon, Galanga, Wattle Seed...) , the other From the Dim Sum Wagon. The one set would be highly focused, concentrated, the other more composite.

What would you like to write?

The Counterforce

(This is fragmentary, but I have go to get it down:)

When the arts are lively in a community there are inevitably going to be those artists who get along well (or well enough), both aesthetically and politically, with the local institutional structure and there are artist for whom "getting along with" is simply not part of the program.

I've been reading Carolyn Brown's superb account of her days with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Chance and Circumstance, and one story in the narrative is that of the excitement as the company formed within the downtown artistic community (and with tendrils outside the city -- to Black Mountain College, to the communal project in Stony Brook, and wherever in the world company tours would eventually take them) while individuals negotiated their own relationships to the official institutional scene which remained stubbornly uptown.

Brown herself took daily classes in classical ballet with Tudor and Craske during (and beyond, with Craske) all of her years of study and performance with Cunningham. She even subbed in the corps during a guest appearance by the Sadler's Wells Company while Margot Fonteyn soloed in Sleeping Beauty; Brown's awed description of Fonteyn's performance is one of the best parts of the book; her take on Balanchine's supposed abstraction is also refreshingly objective). I reckon that, in time elapsed, Brown probably spent years on the subway commuting between halves of Manhattan.

We are fortunate that, before the last memories fade altogether, there are still memoirs being written of this critical time in American Arts. Brown's memoir points outward at countless points to the connectedness of this era. In the 1950's, the immediate rapport at the Cedar Bar between painters and composers is important, and the model of artists, living downtown, selling and exhibiting further north, is a critical one for the rest of us. The important figure of M.C. Richards is here, too, someone who connects to Black Mountain, to David Tudor, to the emergent crafts movement, to poets, and to her work on Artaud or Rudolph Steiner. Richard's Artaud, of course, connects immediately to Beck and Malina's Living Theatre. Malina's own autobiography, from a few years back, connects to an earlier "New York School" of composers, with Cage, Harrison, Hovhaness present and , as the Living Theatre was on the knife's edge of the Old and New Lefts, forward to the downtown scene that would include Cage and MacLow collaborations at the Living Theatre, Cage's (inherited from Henry Cowell, and eventually handed over to Richard Maxfield) courses at the New School, La Monte Young's concerts in Yoko Ono's loft, Fluxus, and eventually the Judson Dance group, which emerged from all of this, but most immediately Robert Dunn's composition course at the Cunningham Company. The downtown theatre and dance scenes that follow the Living Theatre and Cunningham and the Judson's continue to mean a lot, and not least to musicians. It is no small coincidence that Stravinsky and Cage, and, later, Phillip Glass were composers for whom music for the theatre was central.

(When some critic-who-shall-not-be-named insists that "downtown" music began in Yoko Ono's loft... )

So much activity, all of it with only provisional institutional support, if at all; at constant risk of being without rehearsal or performance space, seldom paid, and when, poorly. But good ideas eventually survive, I think. Charles Ives got theatre pit bands to read scores that classical orchestras could not then digest, the ultra-modernists of the '20's had to go underground in the nationalist-modal/tonal-'30s, Cage and Harrison trained bookbinders to play their percussion scores, and later made party pieces, "exquisite corpses", in collaboration with Cowell and Thomson. Those evenings of co-composition presage the days spent splicing together in the project for magnetic tape by Cage and Earle Brown. And when one reads about Cunningham's 1953 dance Fragments, to Boulez's tape piece Deux Études, you get a sense of yet another set of connections at play (do those pieces even exist any more?).


Robert Bresson:

Someone who can work with the minimum can work with the most. One who can work with the most cannot, inevitably, work with the minimum.

(from Notes on the Cinematographer)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A quiet suggestion from Bali

This seems like a good, modest, grass roots project from Bali that musicians around the planet might well want to join:

The Bali Collaboration on Climate Change is inviting people to switch off electronic appliances for four hours, from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm on the 21st of March 2008 "as a first step towards WORLD SILENT DAY."

This is inspired by the traditional Nyepi or Silent day practiced by the Balinese for many centuries, in which, for 24 hours, people do not travel, work or light the lamps at night. One Silent Day in Bali is estimated to reduce at least 20,000 tons of CO2, the largest contributor of green house gas.

For more information, see

Monday, March 10, 2008

Bourland has Ives wrong

Roger Bourland repeats a commonplace about Ives, and one that is sorely wrong:

Charles Ives could have been even more formidable had he heard more of his music, especially the music he took chances with.

Ives heard all of his music, as many great composers hear his or her music: as ideal, imagined performances, but also through playing for himself, through scattered tryouts with other musicians, sharing the ears of trusted musicians and loved ones, as well as the occasional performance. Listening to recordings of Ives playing from scores and improvising at the keyboard is listening to an experienced musician translating from his imagination into immediate, physical, sounds, with all the license to play about the score that a composer/performer is allowed; reading the scores and sketches of Ives is an encounter with a musician going profoundly beyond the extemporaneous and negotiating the translation of the wildest musical thoughts into practical performance materials.

Did Ives' music suffer from not being immediately performed by real life musicians in concert halls? While audiences -- and subsequent music history -- may well have suffered from the absence of Ives' music, so much of the music, and especially that in which Ives is "taking chances", represented (and, to be honest, often still represents) such a challenge to musicianship that it is hard to believe that the situation could have been much different without Ives significantly altering, i.e. simplifying, his work to meet contemporary performance practice standards and rehearsal conditions. In his test-runs with New York theatre orchestras, Ives was arguably working with the most fluent and flexible musicians available at that time in the US, and his mature scoring techniques amply reflect this practical experience. Not only is Ives' sense of ensemble balance is especially remarkable for a composer supposedly underexperienced with real performing situations, but one can immediately recognize that Ives' sense of temporal proportions matured considerably, for example from the excessive Second Symphony to the economic Third and the masterful Fourth.

The interpretive problems with Ives' catalogue, the problems which would supposedly have been solved by more performances, are broadly the same as those with any other major art music composer: tempo, balance, expression. Ives did leave a mess of manuscripts, but given his unanticipated and tragically curtailed composing career, one has to consider it our good fortune that he left so many rich ideas, even in partial or ambiguous form, than had he limited himself to leaving a far smaller number of pieces in perfected, clean-copied form. Even then, he did publish a substantial number of pieces in a form that he considered sufficiently finished, and it is clear from the 114 Songs, for example, that Ives recognized that musical works could exist in various degrees of performability -- from the immediately so, to songs that likely never find an ideal performance.

If Roger wants to support his claim -- and them's fightin' words to me, Doc Bourland -- then he's got to identify, concretely, what would have been different in Ives' music had it been more widely performed, and then to make the case that those differences would have been improvements, especially for the works which are more experimental in nature. Until then, we have the examples of works by Ives that are among the most performable and successful in the classical repertoire, including some works that were playable from the get-go (from The Unanswered Question to the extraordinary Second Orchestral Set) to works that we are still learning how to play (from the Concord Sonata to the Fourth Symphony).

We are still learning how to play (and to hear!) The Art of the Fugue and the Grosse Fuge, works which seriously tested the musical skills commonly available in their times as well as now, and we do not find them any less formidable for that fact. In fact, it is precisely the characteristic that these works share with much of Ives -- the unwillingness to accept the state of affairs as is, and the openness to a state of affairs that might be -- that continues to keep this music exciting, enriching, and, dare I say, still worth renewing our acquaintance.


It appears that yet another critic has either skipped a concert, or dashed out in the middle of a concert, or, and let's be charitable, although the chances be slim, simply made a mess of a review. The paper has not responded with an explanation or formal correction, but has instead allowed the online copy to "correct itself", albeit over several stumbling revisions which have been duly noted by readers. While the substance of the matter is trivial, or at least trivial to all of us outside of opera culture, the Parterre Box blog gets the journalism right:

True, Holland’s gaffe is not so grave as to bamboozle a nation into a bloody and futile war, but, on the other hand, Judith Miller never mistook Saddam Hussein for Valerie Plame.

I believe that the standard for critics is well-established: you can't write a review of a concert you haven't physically attended for the complete duration. It's possible to get around this -- by previewing a concert, or by being upfront if you chose to duck out early or for an emergency at some point -- but the standard is so well-known and prior examples of critics getting fired for this are equally well-known that it is a bit of a shock to encounter it once again. The biggest problem here with the uncommented online corrections is that, for everyone aware of the corrections, the credibility of the entire review, and with it, the reviewer, must be called into question until an explanation comes.

On the lighter side, I'm sure that we'll soon be treated to an entertaining new item by A.C. Douglas in praise of Mr. Holland, which should be further evidence that Douglas's blog is, in fact, parody.

Update: the most recent Times correction reads: "Correction: March 11, 2008
A music review on Saturday about the Opera Orchestra of New York, at Carnegie Hall, misidentified the singer who performed a duet with Aprile Millo. The singer was Stephen Gaertner, not Dolora Zajick. The review also misidentified the work they performed. It was “Mira, di acerbe lagrime” from Verdi’s “Trovatore,” not a duet from Bellini’s “Norma.” (The errors resulted from the reviewer’s confusion over his notes.)" This reads as if a very tolerant editor is at work -- can you really imagine that after having heard a male-female duet, one would not question notes which change the gender of one of the singers?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Music Historians Write About The Music They Have Not The Music They'd Like To Have

The most provocative observation of the day is not Morag Grant describing Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise as "the Donald Rumsfeld view of music history" (thanks to On An Overgrown Path for catching the link) but rather another observation, by my daughter, that if Stravinsky had been a Simpson's character, he'd have written The Four Fingers.

As for The Rest Is Noise, I think the BBC reviewers sounded a bit silly as it began with a complaint about the under-covered English repertoire, when the book did in fact put a major focus on at least one English composer (Britten) and the book as a whole is less a reassessment of trans-Atlantic currents than a reassessment of the art/entertainment boundary, which necessarily places more emphasis on American repertoire. But any review which begins with a catalogue of topics believed to have been under- or un-addressed is going to be silly anyway: you can't reduce a review to a list of grievances. A book like The Rest is Noise is a personal survey, not a comprehensive survey, and critique has to be located in the strength of the narrative presented, not in the tales left untold. I do think that there are serious questions to ask about Ross's narrative, and while Ross deserves praise, for example, for his assessment of Sibelius, a composer with genuinely radical musical ideas which have been neglected by most musical histories, the emphasis on Britten and Copland is -- to my ears, at least -- a conservative move, and one that does not focus on the potential for music to live in human history as neither accompaniment nor lament to political and social history but rather as an experience which changes over time in its own terms. Britten and Copland, accomplished as they were, and certainly illustrative of particular elements of cultural and political history, were not, in the end, composers of music which challenge, indeed change, the way we listen. But I suppose that's the criteria I use in composing my own narrative (such as it is, scattered through my music and writings), and being able to recognize that is a perfect illustration of how valuable a book like Ross's can be.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Unanswered Questions

If you're just present, hanging around the internet, people come to you with all sorts of questions. Here are a few recent, genuine, questions from emails for which I have no answers, or at least no smart or snappy answers:

1. Is cryptography applicable to composition?

2. Is contemporary opera a queer genre?

3. What is the viscosity of the void?

4. Is it more progressive to compose with or without a system?

5. Do you clap if you like the politics but hate the music?

Actually, I do have an answer for one question:

6. Who is the first postmodern composer?

That'd be Telemann.

Trade Secrets

Paul Bailey writes:
composers are a strange bunch. i can hang out with my mused friends and we swap our successes and failures, but i have found that composers are not really type of people to hang out and talk shop. we like to dish on the politics and philosophy that surround art music, but i think its like we each think we are guarding the secrets to our own personal alchemy and are afraid to expose our process to to the masses for fear that me might get called out for being a fraud. its too bad, the sharing of ideas, strategies, techniques and “best practices” is a great way to pass on the tools of our craft, yet the most common transmission of this information is only to our private students and not to each other.
One reason we don't trade our trade secrets is that they're not really so secret -- for anyone with well-trained ears, the code to a piece of music is open, and every composer with adequate ears engages in music-industrial espionage at every opportunity. Another reason is that for any given musical surface, there are a sufficiently large number of alternative methods for generating that surface with no one methods necessarily better than any other. Another reason is that there is some prejudice out there against talking too concretely about the nuts and bolts of music, for fear of "destroying the magic"; one wants the musical end product to speak for itself and not for the technical legerdemain behind it. There is a not-so-small contingent of musicians for whom music which is accompanied by extensive technical discourse is somewhat suspect. (One of the reasons that old volumes of Perspectives of New Music are filled with discussion of that particular repertoire is simply that it was a repertoire which was amenable to such discussion). Another reason is that the more technical the discussion is, the more it feels like work. When accountants or dentists get together over beer, do they really want to chat about tax returns or tooth decay? When a composer has put down a manuscript paper or closed a notation file for the day, the mind, eyes, and ears are often ready for anything but more shop talk. Another reason is that talking in an engaging way about compositional technique is very rare. Sure, there are good historical repertoire-based harmony and orchestration teachers (I'm a damn good counterpoint teacher myself), but pre-compositional, or speculative theory is something altogether different

That said, there are a precious handful of composers who write or talk brilliantly and usefully about compositional technique. Get yourself first, children, to Lou Harrison's Music Primer, or to the Andriessen & Schoenberger The Apollonian Clockwork. John Cage's analytical half of the Virgil Thomson life and works is a remarkably clear and under-appreciated book. Henry Cowell's New Musical Resources remains, well, new and resourceful. I also turn for compositional instruction to sources outside of music: anything by or about artist Robert Irwin, for example, Paul Klee's fantastic little Pedagogical Sketchbook, or Robert Bresson's Notes on the Cinematographer. The best compositional lesson I ever had was either an afternoon spent posing for the painter Stanley Goldstein or learning to cook sambar with the vina virtuoso K.S. Subramanian.

And as to the statement that "composers are a strange bunch": you'll find no argument on the facts here. But as strange as we are, we also have to get our cars to the mechanic, buy groceries, fox leaky faucets, peel potatoes, shuttle the kids to school (and all the places they go after school), and pretty much all of the other mundane tasks of modern life. I sometimes wonder if that wouldn't be a better -- and more poetic -- point of departure for discussing contemporary composers than beginning with our eccentricities. In fact, I probably could tell you more about my composing if we started talking about cooking, or paramutual thoroughbred betting, or mumblety-peg -- things I like to do and do well -- rather than going right to my favorite voice leadings or scoring patterns or why I prefer to do chance operations with a poker deck instead of yarrow rods.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A WINTER ALBUM is closed, A SPRING ALBUM is opening

A WINTER ALBUM of new small pieces for piano is now finished. The last piece to join is Bhisma Xenotechnites' 88 more, more or less for 4 players or more, up to a dozen or so, at 1 piano. It's a companion piece to Douglas Leedy's well-known 88 is great for piano, 18 hands. The entire album of 15 pieces is online here. Many thanks to all of the composers who participated

The next project, methinks, should be A SPRING ALBUM of small pieces for percussion, solo or in small ensembles. The instrumentation is free, but there is probably a performance advantage to those composers using modest and/or variable resources. Deadline for receipt of pdf files: May 1st, 2008.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Land of Enchantment

I don't make it home to the US often, so I'm happy to write that I'll be in Albuquerque from the 30th of March to the 2nd of April for the John Donald Robb Composers' Symposium at the University of New Mexico (the program is here). Making the even more happy is the fact that the headlining composer will be Gordon Mumma. Since I haven't spent much time in Universities either since grabbing my academic traveling papers and, well, traveling, figuring out the right decorum to take for a visit to a University has been a bit of a puzzle. On reflection, I suppose it's probably best to take the advice David Tudor gave John Cage upon receiving an invitation to a University and act "like a hit and run driver".