Saturday, February 28, 2009


Ron Silliman pointed to these poems by Mike Smith, Anagrams of America, some striking poems made as anagrams of existing texts, landmarks of the American canon.

Anagrammatical recycling has been done relatively rarely with musical sources, perhaps due to the close association between tonal function and form and the prevailing aesthetic which maintains this association.  If I understand correctly (I know it only by reputation), Christopher Hobb's The Remorseless Lamb (1970) is a random anagram of Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze, the four voices present in any measure of Hobb's piece coming from four different places in the source.   Re-combining materials from existing sources is, of course, a strategy in algorithmic composition, the projects of David Cope, for example, but I am unaware of any such example that uses the complete rearrangement of a single source.  There are clearly rich possibilities to explore.  

Friday, February 27, 2009

Landmarks (40)

Claudio Monteverdi: Lamento d'Arianna ("Lasciatemi morire") (1623).  The only surviving music from Monteverdi's second opera, L'Arianna, the Lamento is sung by Ariadne, distraught at being abandoned by Theseus on Naxos.  This lament is composed with such mastery and emotional power that the possibility that L'Arianna was Monteverdi's best opera is a matter of lament in itself. 

Ariadne sings here in pain, anger, and despair, but ultimately confirms her love for Theseus ("it's my tongue that's spoken, not my heart").   It survives, presumably close to the original operatic version,  as a solo aria with continuo (published in 1623) as well as in two arrangements by the composer, the first, the dramatic center of the Sixth Book of Madrigals (1614),  is startling at all moments in its transfer from monody to an ensemble of five voices (to risk a bit of psychologizing,  when the text is sung by an ensemble, it is as if we were no longer listening to Ariadne's voice, but thrust directly into her head, raging with pain and conflict), while the second recycles the music of the monody but sets a new, sacred Latin text, "Pianto della Madonna" for the collection of Selva morale e spirituale (1641)  in which the Virgin laments her abandonment by her son, interesting for both the implied synchretism between the mythical and religious figures as for the implied equation of two very different kinds of loss.  (Or are they so different? Men leaving women is as old a story as any.)

I have a weakness for, no, I am totally lost to the lament style, and I am constantly astonished to encounter the style as it branched out into strikingly different contexts: as Purcell's Dido sings over and against the regularity of the ground bass, for example, or in Heinrich Isaac's devastating choral setting of Poliziano's lament on the death of Lorenzo de' Medici, "Quis dabit Capite meo aquam? The essence of the style, as far as I am concerned, is its very free voice leading  — that is to say, free in the treatment of the approach to and resolution (or lack thereof) of dissonance —  with a rather wide open tonal vocabulary,  features which were, and are, essential to opera.


Thursday, February 26, 2009


Some news travels slowly. I just learned today, from the new issue of MusikTexte, that the European Commission announced in July of last year that it had lifted two monopolies which had been exercised by European collecting societies: the membership clause, in which members of one organization were prevented from choosing or moving to another, and the territorial restrictions, which prevented individual societies from issuing royalties outside their domestic territories. The collection of licenses for music is in serious transition and it is difficult to guess how this particular decision will play out. On the one hand, I like the idea that an organization with muscle, like Germany's GEMA, will be able, in priciple at least, to start collecting license fees in those countries in which the local collecting society is ineffective (some societies are notoriously ineffective at collecting and forwarding royalties for members of foreign societies, despite cooperation agreeements to the contrary). On the other hand, the experience of the United States, which has three competing collecting societies (ASCAP, BMI and SESAC) but is still unable to provide blanket coverage or collect fees at the level of Germany's GEMA, is not particularly encouraging.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Roots, Trunk and Branches

A composer's catalog ought to be straightforward, just a list of pieces, just the facts, Ma'am.  And for a small handful of composers with only a small handful of pieces (e.g. Ruggles, Varese, Webern, Evangelisti), a straightforward list works fine, whether chronological, alphabetical, classified, or graded for performance difficulty, like beef graded for tenderness.  

But not all catalog are so neat and compact, and not all pieces in catalogs were made equal or made even in the same order of magnitude and purpose.  Eventually a talented and/or lucky composer will have his South Pacific  (paraphrasing composer Ron Kuivila), the hit, or the ambitious, large-scale work intended for travel and —perhaps — destined for war horse status, but many of us will have many more, smaller pieces of less scope and ambition but made,  perhaps,  with just as much art, craft, and care as the big ones.  Add to this the backlog of juvenalia, incidental, and occasional works, some of which should stay cheerfully buried in a box in the back corner of Mom's guestroom closet, some of which was only intended for one-off usage, but others of which still carry sparks that might help recharge new work or even deserve an on-going performance life.  

In my own case, as I probably write 20 or more of these minor pieces for each attempt at a South Pacific, it would be nice to have a catalog format that more readily reflected this hierachy of roots, trunk, and branches.

(Here, incidentally, are scores to two recent branches, or even just twigs, from my catalog:  The Long March, a prose score for four melodicas, worked out during a music workshop with young people, and Written Off As A Scoundrel (& I Haven't Even Met The Wife), a small study for piano.)


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Self-Criticism (3)

Too much continuity.  Too few rests, breaks, openings, windows, white space, disconnects, junctures.  All too full.  Too motoric.  Carrying out processes to the bitter end.   Exhaustion of lists, sometimes even gray coded.  Excess baggage from a minimal youth?  The residue of too much time spent in the electronic studio, where pulling the plug was often a substitute for figuring out a form?


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Self-Criticism (2)

A piano is not a neutral instance; a score for piano is not written on a blank slate and cannot be arbitrarily transferred to other resources, without loss or accretion of information.  Such additions and losses may or may not be useful, interesting, or musical, but they are certainly compositionally provocative.  A score "reduced" from an ensemble of voices or instruments is not necessarily an interesting piano piece, but it may raise interesting musical issues which could lead to an interesting piano piece, particularily regarding questions of "orchestration" for the piano: registration, texture, polyphony, doublings, etc..

Curious thing, that the piano is often a default setting for composition. Yes, composers are often piano players, and yes, the piano can do some things very, if not uniquely, well  (e.g. attack dynamics, some polyphony).  But too often, we either forget or ignore the uniquity of the instrument, its unique specializations: its temperament and "stretching" of the tuning across the range of the instrument;  the radical timbral differences between registers;  the unmistakeable attack and decay; the various technical kludges that can be used to suggest — among other things — a physically impossible degree of sustain; the complex interactions among the ensemble of wires, particularly sympathetic vibration; the fact that most pianists play the instrument available for a concert — a found sound, if you will —, rather than bring their own, the one with which the relationship is most intimate.

But then again, having some form of a blank slate is VERY useful.  The "open score", for example, is  a way of gathering material while suspending judgement on the ultimate assignations of the material, keeping options open to both practical circumstances and ideals, exploring the plasticity of the material, allowing the material some productive promiscuity.   Blank & open, yes, but not yet necessarily a piano piece.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Self-Criticism (1)

"Some of the songs in this book... cannot be sung" — Charles Ives, "Postface to 114 Songs".

Not writing enough (i.e. almost no) songs.  Why?  A terrific fear of words  (sounds, meanings of words, appropriate scansion, emphasis) and not being, myself, a singer.  The last, in part, due to the highly gendered ideas about singing (i.e. boys don't, except rock stars) with which I grew up. But still no excuse.  

The still-precocious Mr. Muhly has a useful handle on songs (here, amid sensational footage), focusing rightly on their plasticity & transportability  (qualities common with currency — are songs the currency of dreamers?), their ability to survive intact in alternative arrangements.  (All Along the Watchtower, anyone?)  But still, the term "setting" is unnerving, as if one is taking words and putting them someplace so that they don't run away.  You see, I want words, like sounds, to run away, to go to all the places they can take us, and fixing them to tunes can often tie them down to one meaning rather than another, making an uneasy balance of gains and losses. Perhaps that's why the best songs are seldom settings of the best poems: the loss of textual ambiguity is made up for in the added value of the music, which might even add ambiguity of its own (are there better examples than Schumann's In Wunderschönen Monat Mai and Ives's The River?).  

Maybe the key is avoiding falling in love with a text.  The more I read of the Georgics, for example, Virgil's incredible didactic poem about fields and groves and cattle and wine and honeybees and nymphs and gods and Orpheus and everything and everyone else, the greater my trepidation of committing to one aspect and not others and of tearing into the poem with the brutality necessary to make a song.  I don't know a piece of music which contains as much of this world as this poem does, and I don't know that a piece of music can even have that ambition. And as much as I want to share my enthusiasm for these words, and am willing to be musically ambitous about it, the injury of the necessary excerpt is increasingly hard to accept.  Composers: love words, but not too much!   

Thursday, February 19, 2009

New Music & Philosophers

Philosophers have only sporadically paid serious attention to the new music of their time  (let's count the names: Plato... Boethius... Rousseau... Nietzsche... Adorno...).  Even when they've paid attention, it can often be a decidedly uneven bundle of ideas and words.  Nevertheless, I'm always prepared to at least consider the ideas and words of someone prepared to take music seriously and I often get some compositional kick-back from the effort, if only to negate an idea that strikes me as profoundly off from my own experience.  (Interestingly, philosophy more in an Anglo-American positivist mode about music tends to yields results which are easy to agree with, but difficult, as a practicing musician or composer to do anything useful with).  Two more recent thinkers-about-music-now have useful web presences: the late Daniel Charles (mostly in French),  here and the very much still-with-us-and-at-us Heinz-Klaus Metzger (in German) here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Feed & Fuel

It's reasonable to suppose that, beyond the wars and the financial crisis, the abiding contribution of the Bush years will be the total coupling of food and energy prices.  In the abstract, this makes sense, as proteins, grains and fat are just fuel for animals and the production and delivery of foodstuffs necessarily includes the expenditure of other forms of energy, so the volatility of one will have to track that of the other.  But the logic of the equation doesn't make it any less painful to economically weaker parties, whether as consumers or producers.   Here in Europe, for example, the butter price has moved in similar motion with the oil price,  with consumers hurt both at the peak prices of last summer and the reduced pocketbook of the moment while small farmers who geared up for the high export demand for China and India are now faced with surpluses and trying to stem increasing loss margins.  If you add in the connection between the nature of our food supply and the resultant medical costs directly associated with food content and quality, it starts to become clear that getting energy policy right means getting food and health policy right as well.  It's a not a matter of fixing something, but fixing everything.

An activity like new music (or dance or poetry)  isn't significant to the markets described above, although the people who make this music are irretrievably stuck inside them, so we tend to do what the system orders rather than actively resist.  But wouldn't it be more useful, to ourselves, our work, and possibly the larger system itself, to find better ways of working in the margins, the statistical insignificant underground?  Often times, the smallest irritation (like a grain of sand in the wrong place in your left shoe) can become an agent of real change.  Yes, this is the case for a vanguard or an elite, if you will, but when the whole is not functioning well, it's high time for experimentation in the parts, even the smallest parts.  

The slow, seasonal & local food movement may well be the best model for us.  In my recent trip to California, I was struck simultaneously by the huge number of fast-food restaurants, the ever-larger size of American bodies and the still-large auto sizes (people are stuck with big cars cause they can't sell them or get financing on new, smaller, ones) on one hand and the near-absence of home fruit and vegetable gardens and reduced produce sections in groceries (not to mention home solar heating or energy generation;  even worse is the news that the series of food contamination scares have driven people towards more consumption of processed foods rather than frech) on the other.  The phenomena are directly related to one another.  More garden production is not going to feed the masses more healthily and economically, but it is an irritant, a positive one, that can lead to mass producers improving both the quality and variety of their foods.  

I believe that the same goes for music.  If more new, local, and live music were introduced into life at the local level, starting from homes, schools, churches, and in community and civic functions, this would lead to a net increase in variety and quality as well as break the hold that large institutional publishers (and institutional censors, like UIL described in a recent post) and their house composers exercise over repertoire.  Moreover, the creation of bonds between creative artists and their communities can be part of a community's identity, an a more interesting part of the identity than, say, the architectural variety of local strip malls. 

See also this old post about composers and localities.


Earned Income

"You can make a million dollars in America," says Jim Teal, a former waiter at a high-end Raleigh steakhouse who now stays home with his 2-year-old daughter because business has dried up. "But if you're making hundreds of millions, you've screwed someone over."  (From here).


The studios of composers, writers, artists and the like are fascinating.  The re-created studio of Arnold Schoenberg in the former Schoenberg Institute in Los Angeles was full of sweet details, and the Bartok house in Budapest was one of my favorite places in that town.  (Bartok had a smallish Bösendorfer in the house, with a surprisingly gentle action,  it was impossible to get louder than a typical Steinway's mezzo forte!)  But I'm partial to the most modest spaces.  Lou Harrison, for example, built two interesting houses, but most of his composing was actually done in a small camping trailer away from the house.  And  here is an interactive page dedicated to Roald Dahl's garden hut in Buckinghamshire.   

Sunday, February 15, 2009


The power of the Texas Board of Education over the content in school textbooks is well-known.  Given the large size of the Texan schoolbook market, publishers go out of their way to modify their books in order to satisfy the criteria of the censors there, which maked the Texan standards effective in much of the rest of the country.  Periodically, this errupts into controversies over Texan Board of Ed. members cutting something out of, or getting something else stuck into, textbooks, sometimes leading to serious reductions in the quality of those books.

Now, I'm a bit shocked to learn that the University Insterscholastic League in Texas — which, although "voluntary" in membership, effectively controls athletic, academic, and musical competitions among public schools throughout the state — maintains a list of "Prescribed Music" for in-state competitions by bands, orchestras, solo vocalists and choirs.  Sheet music publishers take listing by the UIL seriously as without it, sheet music sales to schools in Texas, one of the largest markets in the US, will be limited.  

Above and beyond the issue of whether musical competition organized along the lines of sporting events is a good idea,  a list like this is really problematic.  It's one thing to provide the service to school music teachers of grading pieces according to difficulty or of assessing the physical qualities of the performance materials or even for an organization of music teachers to share recommendations, but to make a "Prescribed" list for competitions, with exceptions allowed only under strict limitations (the work must be approved in advance, can only be a single item on the program, and cannot be the first in a school's program) , is controlling students' access to information, which is nothing other than censorship.  Yes, I think it's a problem if a choir director has to apply for exceptional permission to have his choir sing the Machaut Messe, (Texas-born) Pauline Oliveros's Sound Patterns, or any Monteverdi madrigal other than the four which publishers happened to have submitted to the list.

Musical works composed for school ensembles are not likely to be libelous, obscene, incite to violence, treat currently controversial topics in education (like maybe I should write an Evolution March or a Fantasy on Intelligent Design?) , or otherwise corrupt the nation's youth. So one has to wonder what the rationale for censorship here must be.  One appears to be to keep the competition repertoire well-within the "classical" or "serious" music domain, particularly against the great pressure to perform more popular, "entertainment" repertoire.   I understand this problem and I recognize the difficulty of precisely defining the aesthetic, technical, and stylistic qualities one wants to hear, but the difficulty of making that definition is not an excuse for making a list like this, for there is really no educationally or musically valid reason to exclude (or contribute to the exclusion) of work which would meet those qualities, so one should be obliged to do the heavy lifting and try to make definitions rather than simply point at works (in the Potter Stewart manner of identifying pornography).  Otherwise, one has to suppose that the basic function of the list is the preservation of market position for those in the know about UIL, a trade secret held tightly by publishers and a handful composers more tightly connected to school music networks.  Indeed, the criteria listed in the application for the substitution of an unlisted work for band (read it here) is strongly biases towards composers and publishers with established relationships to the UIL system.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


A real composer's life being half excess and half picayune score corrections, it's come to my attention that my biography has recently been lacking in the excess side.  Perhaps I need a vice?  (I mean, in addition to swearing, gambling, jaywalking...)  Otherwise, my life be boring, dull, if domestic bliss, neither the stuff of great biographies, like Anatole France's Gesualdo or Stendhal's Rossini nor equipped with the kind of indiscretions a Wagner or Thomson would omit from their autobiographies.   

(photo: my only cigarette, taken by Megan Simpson, ca. 1982)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Evermore onward with publishing

Composer Taylan Susam, in a comment to an earlier item here, pointed to a new site with downloadable new music scores, Upload .. Download .. Perform.   It's in a Wiki format and does not involve a sales component, which makes it an interesting alternative to both traditional publishing and the site I mentioned before,   The more alternatives, the better.

(This too: we urgently need a high quality Wiki to replace harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration textbooks.  Essentially, these books house a definition of terms and notation, a relatively small set of principles or "rules" derived from practice, and perhaps some more personal aesthetic observations; a large number of examples from real repertoire illustrating the principals and "rules";and some exercises illustrating the same.  Perfect for a Wiki, which when done well, could accomodate a variety of theoretical approaches and teaching styles, include a wider variety of examples than any single textbook out there, and do it for free, which in these times, with extreme pressures on student pocketbooks, is definitely a good thing. (See also this thread from Crooked Timber on the economics of textbooks.  Sure, the few professors in on the textbook racket may feel a pinch, but it's an acceptable pinch if it can help make college more affordable)). 

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Before things get any uglier...

"Government sponsorship of art is ugly. Absence of government sponsorship of art is even uglier." — Ad Reinhardt

Refute or support in $800,000,000,000 or less.

Executive Compensation

With all the talk about reigning in executive compensation for corporation heads, are we going to see some downward movement in compensation for the small class of big name conductors, soloists, vocalists, and managers?  I'm all in favor of better compensation for musicians in general but, in a time of budget cuts all-around,  leverage continues to be executed in favor of those hired for prestige or as promising box office draws, with the vast majority of musicians, the locals that provide the basis and continuity in our musical lives,  increasingly direct targets of belt-cutting.   A flatter system of compensation is in order.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Seeing, Hearing, Reading Writings

Why do I get so much more of a charge (that is, an impulse to make more music) these days from reading visual artists write about their work than musicians writing about music?  Duchamp, naturally, Robert Irwin, necessarily (the new edition of Weschler's amazing book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees), Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook, with continued pleasure, Ad Reinhardt's Art as Art...  Although I see poorly and have no talents for producing objects which one might look at, these ideas shock and provoke my acoustical imagination.  They make me want to make noises both gentle and rough, to challenge the nature and limits of my hearing.  

Reading  Ad Reinhardt, for example, is not a matter of simple agreement but is just as often a matter of productive disagreement.   The consequent development of his work and ideas is a model, his ethical stance is admirable, and I agree with his insistance that artwork is not political (other than the fact of its existence in a polity which would rather not have it, or worse, ignore it) but that artists should be politically engaged simply because, as people living in societies, politics is a practical necessity in order to make lives better. But I disagree profoundly with Reinhardt's insistance on painting as THE Art as Art.  Music can do that just as well. Or rather, listening more critically to my most recent work, music should be able to do that just as well.   

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Music Publishing Moves On is a new distribution site for new music scores that seems to be doing things right. The model here contrasts with the recent experiment by UE of placing a study score online and anticipating earnings via parts rentals and the traditional publisher's share of royalties.  Composers at ThatNewMusicWebsite will keep all of their royalties and get a large share of sales, but are responsible for preparing their materials themselves, an arrangement which seems a good fit to present web technology.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Rozart, Rose Art, Ade!

Lisa Hirsch reports that Brandeis University has decided to close the Rose Art Museum. Above and beyond its importance for the visual arts, the Rose was the site for the premiere of John Cage's Rozart Mix (1965), one of the most exuberant of Cage's happening-like works, requested from Cage while Alvin Lucier was on the Brandeis faculty and premiered on an evening concert which also included the first performance of Lucier's Music for Solo Performer, a work involving enormously amplified brainwaves.

Cage's verbal score requires a large number of tape loops (Cage suggests 88 loops — the same number of keys on a standard piano), each composed of thousands of small pieces spliced together in all possible physical orientations, using any sound sources, but largely speech, played back on a large number of tape machines. Whenever a loop breaks during a performance, Cage instructs that it be repaired and then stored away, not to be reused, a bit of discipline with a zen-like flavor. Anticipating the Rose performance, Cage imagined the possibility of loops stretching over the water fountains, and perhaps requiring some amount of wading.

I had a small part in the preparations for one performance of Rozart Mix, at Wesleyan in 1987, under the supervision of Lucier, Chris Schiff and with the participation of Cage in both some of the splicing and the performance, where he sat cheerfully in the middle of 12 tape machines, each of which was run by pairs of young people with good haircuts. As is too often the case, this electronic music event was largely the labor of males, but the evening splicing and pasta sessions at Lucier's house redeemed themselves somewhat in that they took on some of the spirit and character of a quilting bee. I like to think of this as our Dr. Chicago-meets-Judy-Chicago moment.