Friday, January 29, 2010

A Note On Composing While Under Constant Surveillance

Since Lucky has found permanent day-lodging for himself underneath my composing desk,  I've finally begun to understand Gertrude Stein's famous counter to Descartes:

"I am I because my little dog knows me, but perhaps he does not and if he did I would not be I."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Wild tones

A few years ago, having become frustrated with my own over-slow tempi and clumsy tone while reading through Stravinsky's Sonata, I just had to hear the piece played once well and at tempo.  I  forced myself to listen to one recording after another.  I was mostly disappointed by the performances, but one recording stood out, and — to me — it was a complete surprise.   It was that of pianist Earl Wild, who has just died at the age of 94.  

I was surprised becaused Wild's name was not one that someone involved in new music would immediately think of, moreover it was a name that I associated with the showy virtuoso end of the big-name classical music establishment, not territory where musical sensitivity is always valued, but that association was a mistake on my part.  Sure, he was a flamboyant stage presence and sure, he was a Liszt specialist, but he was a Liszt specialist who could handle all of Liszt, which means not just the fireworks, but also the reveries, lugubrious gondolas, and bird songs.  To handle such a range, a pianist needs not only fluency and velocity in passages of great density, volume, and complexity, but has to give those dense sections a coherent composite form and clear harmonic rhythm, and has also to be able to make single, isolated tones come alive in sparse textures at minimal dynamics, being sensitive to how each new attack influences the instrument's ensemble sound, gathered and developing under keys held open or the pedal, a near-impossible balancing act. 

What has that got to do with performance practice for Stravinsky?  The default setting for Stravinsky performance is usually "dry", but for me, Wild's recording and the experience of hearing works by Jo Kondo — whose own musical identity was very much shaped by Stravinsky — being recorded by the ensemble L'Art pour l'Art under the composer's supervision absolutely were convincing arguments that the quality in question was discretion not dryness, that single tones could and should be shaped and allowed to blossom and resonate.   (As Kondo put it “I am interested in words more than in sentences, in sentences more than in paragraphs, in paragraphs more than in a whole page. Thus, it could be said that in music I am more concerned with each sound than with the phrases they create.”)  Wild's Liszt-grown technique turns out to have been perfect for this style, giving elegant harmonic shape to passages of great velocity as well as bringing out the internal activity of individual tones.  

Wild was probably the last survivor of the great house pianists from the days when American radio stations took live classical music seriously.  His initial popularity was no doubt due to his recording of Rhapsody in Blue, but his association with American music of the mid-20th century was broader than that and, if the evidence of a Sonata which shares the Stravinsky recording means anything, he was no slouch as a composer for the piano himself, not just turning out the kitsch required for television appearances and I have also read that he was also an active transcriber, a serious musical activity in its own right, also with a Lisztian origin.  It will be interesting to hear if other pianists now  take up Wild's music.

(BTW: This chat (on YouTube) with Wild is a blast; you'll never think of knitting the same way again.)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Temporary Notes (16)

In some music, of a certain vintage — the precise vintage we'll leave to musicologists to fight out — the notational convention was that if one voice had eighth-note triplets, a simultaneous voice sounding quarter + eighth triplets could be written out as dotted-eighth + sixteenth.  At some point — again, musicologists: have at it, this is your job, not mine — this convention gave way to a more logically consistant — if less stylish — reading of both triplets and dotted note values, so that the same notated rhythmic ensemble would have the sixteenth following the dotted eighth played one twelfth of a quarter note later than the last note in the triplet.  As a piece of practical advice, consider this: Unless you specify the earlier convention in your scores, which may be musically useful, players will now expect the later reading. 

Now a piece of aesthetic advice. As always, YMMV:  be careful when superimposing additive and divisive note values. While such combinations may be useful — as a written-out rubato (a la Skryabin/Messiaen/Wyschnegradsky/Boulez), for example, or as transitional figures within some larger rhythmic process, or for adding to the contrast and independence of lines in ensemble counterpoint — there is risk, in just plopping some dotted-somethings on top of tuplets, of the combination coming out a bit clunky (see above).  I don't have anything against clunky as a possible musical topic, but you don't always want clunky and it's often easy to confuse facile clunkiness with something more interesting.   

In The Movement

A pair of sentences in a blog item by William Keckler stood out this morning:

I find it interesting that today's literary movements don't even have to be formalistically inventive. It's all done through the miracle of social networking.

With all the chatter about social networking among musicians these days, of course the first thing I did upon reading this passage was to substitute the word "musical" for "literary" and let it churn around in my brain a bit, to see if I end up with butter.  

Yes, social networking promise greater opportunities for making contacts — let's not call them "friends", buckos, as that word can still be saved for something more special — and for sharing stuff (music in some form or another, pretty pictures, tech talk, news, recipes, gossip...) and even making real public musical events happen.  But when these networks actually go into operation, all of the delights and dangers of ordinary social interaction come into play, and not all people, musicians included, like to play nice.  Familial disfunctionality, denunciations, banning, and shunning, and — ultimately — collapse of the hive tend to follow.  My impression is that this is especially the case in musical networks because (a) we have trouble being upfront about our preferences, genres or programs, our "formal inventions" and (b) we have trouble distinguishing between shop talk among musicians and our conversations with a lay audience.  We think of ourselves as open and idealistic folk, but our ideals are not always well-nourished in completely open environments; they are often fragile or not yet ripe and require some shelter in order to develop and gather some robustness.  It is quite easy to image that a social network initiated around ideas about experimental, non-amplified, scored concert music will have trouble keeping focus if the membership of the group is overwhelmed by new members with preferences increasingly tangential to these.  This is not an elitist observation.  As Ives knows, there is no significant economic or political power exercised in such a community, the creation of communities based around  alternative configurations of interests are not restricted by the existence of this one, and jeez! have table manners really declined to the point where no one learns how and when to politely and usefully join a conversation?

No, social networking is not a miracle. It is a tool and is only a useful tool when it is appropriate to the task and its proper and effective usage is understood and trained.  And, while there is a real charge to conversation and exchange with musicians with different interests — personally, I learn a lot for film composers, or band composers, or circuit-bending composers —,  the absence of a shared program of "formal invention" is not going to lead to a sustained conversation, whether about technique, aesthetics, or the everyday business of getting commissions and gigs. 

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Do you remember?

... if you should see him once, you would forget what he looked like, but if you should see him twice you would forget to forget what he looked like, and that would be quite fatal. — from Tajar Tales by Jane Shaw Ward

He thought he saw an Elephant,
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
"At length I realise," he said,
"The bitterness of Life!"
— from Lewis Carroll, The Mad Gardner's Song

Combating insomnia (again) last night, I turned on the tube and watched a bad movie. It was about five men who wake up, in various states of physical injury and/or bondage, in an industrial building apparently sealed off from the external world. None of the men knows his own identity and no one can remember how they ended up there and in the particular configuration in which they woke. A tank of gas, with a verbose warning message on the side, mentioning a "loss of memory" risk, was the device used to explain this group amnesia.

How convenient for an author to be able to control the memory of her or his characters so precisely and uniformly! All composers have got to be envious of such a state of affairs. Music — and not only tonal music — is so much about memory and fading memory and tricks of memory and the play of expectations and conjectures which musical memory invites. Every composition is, in its audition, subject to all of the individual variations in capacity and agility that each individual listener, at any particular moment of listening, brings to the experience. Some of my colleagues talk about composing for an ideal listener, presumably with a perfect memory. I think that's silly: aside from those pieces you reserve for your most private audiences, you have to compose for audiences who will bring totally unpredictable combinations of memory and forgetfulness to their experience of music. I'm not entirely certain of my logic here, but I suspect that the optimal response of a composer to this diversity is to go to one of the extremes: either that of minimal contrast and extreme continuity or that of maximal variety and eventfulness.

In any case, I can't remember, for the life of me, how that dreadful movie turned out.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Slimy tunes

Here's another free idea for composers adapted from natural science:  it turns out that slime molds can discover efficient paths through complex networks, subway systems, for example (read here, in German).  How about using slime mold paths to design melodies?  Melodies have at least two dimensions of movement (in absolute pitch and in pitch relative to harmonic references), so there is some similarity to networks like subways.  How important an efficient path may be, however, may vary with your aesthetic purposes.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Only in it for the money

It seems that the sounds of spoken numerals affects the perception of price. (Read here.)  Morton Feldman talked about using instruments in a similar way, getting really expensive sounds out of really expensive instruments, by starting a vibrato on a cello, for example, before beginning to bow, or having a certain touch at the piano, and only on a certain class of piano.  The other side of the coin — as it were — was Feldman's disdain for instruments he considered "cheaper" in quality, the recorder for instance (a judgment I don't share).   I think it will be interesting to hear how well Feldman's instrumental value judgments hold up, if some of his preferences — for that vibrato, or the use of tuba, glockenspiel, or vibraphone with the motor on — acquire a dated quality.  In any case, this research is certainly compositionally suggestive for the composer who wants to lend her or his music a certain aura of value.   

Monday, January 18, 2010

Not-so-casual Observation

Voice-against-voice counterpoint is very much like tying knots, specifically like tying ties.  Like a bit of two-voice modal counterpoint, which can only begin with unison, octaves, or fifths, a tie knot can only begin with the two ends outside-out or inside-out, that is to say, in the sartorial equivalent of perfect consonance.   Thomas Fink's Encyclopedia of Tie Knots is a very cool and quite useful site, and Fink's work on designing tie knots by random walks comes uncannily close to using random walks to generate counterpoint.  

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Despite the cliché of the genial composer slaving away alone in a lonely garret, many composers put their music together in more collaborative environments. Sometimes this can be a fairly egalitarian arrangement, as in the Cage/Harrison Double Music (see this item on co-composing); in other cases, a single composer is identified with the work to which other musicians contributed "work for hire." The advantages of working with such assistance can be great. Jean-Baptiste Lully was said to have composed the melody and bass line and then handed the materials on to a team of assistants who — in the manner of an assembly line — efficiently filled in the interior parts in the five-voiced string texture according to the master's specifications. Giacinto Scelsi recorded improvisations at the piano or an electronic ondioline and then hired musicians to "transcribe" the recordings into scores, work that was often highly imaginative in character.

(In many traditional music cultures, attribution to a single composer is generally unknown. In Central Java, for example, it was conventional to identify a composition with the ruler of the court with which the music was associated. I've often wondered if we are a not a bit hasty in automatically ascribing musical works in the early western canon to individuals rather than to those communities within which the individuals worked.)

Sometimes collaborative work can create controversies with regard to attribution. In Scelsi's case, one composer who had worked extensively for Scelsi as a transcriber came forward after Scelsi's death with the claim that he had been the composer of works published under Scelsi's name. However, the contractual relationship was clear — it was work for hire — and the work produced in that relationship could, in no way, confused with work the hired transcriber chose to present as his own; moreover the works in question were stylistically consistent with the work Scelsi produced with other assistants. The contribution of these assistants was not insignificant — indeed, in several cases, it approaches the virtuosic — but the constant element is clearly the conception and style of Scelsi himself.


A recent weekend read was Mike Barnes' s Captain Beefheart: The Biography, which interested me because of a personal geographical connection rather than a musical one.  It turns out that the book really ought to have carried the title The Magic Band: The Biography This is because the narrative is carried more by the description of the collaboration among various configurations of musicians and producers through which the music they made was produced than by the biography of the Captain, Don Van Vliet, himself. (Indeed, much of Van Vliet's biography — and certainly almost anything about his character — is obscure or speculative and not least because he's no longer talking, and when he was talking, he was notoriously vague and unreliable.) 

My knowledge of the workings of popular music is limited, but I suspect that collaborative composition of the sort practiced in the Magic Band is a standard practice: someone brings in some text or some riffs or licks or a fragment of a tune or a sequence of chords and songs get assembled, bricolage-ishly one might say, with each of the individual musicians contributing their own takes and turns on the material. In this case, the raw material was often taken from recordings of Van Vliet pounding out some patterns or fragments on the piano (or, sometimes, singing or even whistling them) and then, working with each of the musicians, gradually working this into functioning parts of a larger ensemble continuity.  In practice, one of the musicians usually functioned as a musical director for the band, transcribing recordings and coaching the other players, to which instruction Van Vliet would provide additional suggestions, singing, whistling, or offering metaphorical expressive notes.

However collaborative the enterprise was, and how limited Van Vliet's contribution was to many details, almost all aspects of idiomatic (and, when required, extra-idiomatic) instrumental technique, and much of the basic continuity, it is also perfectly clear that Van Vliet was the composer here: it was his aesthetic at work, he defined the style, he decided what went into a piece or was left out. Moreover, he was the constant factor in a band that otherwise had several complete turn-overs in membership and the music made by band members aside from their work with Van Vliet was (an is) distinct. Yes, he had plenty of help — and superb helpers, at that — but that doesn't diminish the compositional accomplishment.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Omnipresser is your friend.

As a student of electronic music in Santa Cruz in the early 80s — that strange moment when analog technology was being eased out and the digital replacements (but not substitutes) were not quite on line — one of the most powerful devices in the studio was the Omnipressor, an audio compression device with some intriguing capacities, one of which was an extreme knob setting of infinite compression.  As you might imagine, we got a lot of mileage out of infinite compression, which could be used for the feedback equivalent of perpetual motion.  Too much mileage, actually, as within a brief period of time, the use of the Omnipresser to create continuities and saturated sound textures became a studio cliché.  As someone soon joked: the Omnipresser is your friend, but don't let it get too friendly.

I've written about the dangers of the over-use of audio compression before (read here and here and here).  Gordon Mumma has passed along a useful NPR report on the prevalent flattening of dynamic levels in commercial music production, here.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Sensory Overload

The kids and I got a dog for Christmas, a handsome rescue dog from Hungary, a mix, but mostly Russell terrier. Now each day includes a couple of long walks with Lucky through fields or along the river, and when outside the dog really comes alive, with his hunting instinct very much intact. One quickly realises, especially out-of-doors, in the snowy landscapes of the moment, that what appears almost empty to our senses must, at times, be overwhelming to an animal so attuned to scent and sound and the slightest movements at a distance. Each time he locates a rabbit inside a mess of bushes or across a field, the human advantage in intellectual capacity is bested by his command of a set of perceptual cues that are totally lost to us.


I suspect, when we look (better: listen) back to music of the 20th century, we will be increasingly struck by the dynamic of competing approaches to the synthesis of musical experiences, one designed to focus and the other to overwhelm both the sense of hearing and the capacity for musical cognition. It was a century that began, after all, with both Satie and Richard Strauss. With Schönberg alone, one has both approaches with the contrast between the over-fullness of pieces like the Gurre-Lieder or Erwartung and the concentration of the miniatures (one reason for the sensory timidity of the twelve-tone music — in comparison with extremism of the works preceding — is, perhaps, that the composer has held these two extreme tendencies in a somewhat stubborn check). In the late 20th century, some will locate the vital contrast between complexity and minimalism, but I find instead that the radical music was always as interested in complexity as in facilitating audition, making it possible (as La Monte Young put it) to get "inside" a sound, as well as to generate complex surfaces or continuities through the application of clear processes.


I try to keep an open ear toward research in the psychophysics (and, increasingly, neuroscience) of music, but try not to take the research as prescriptive or limiting when thinking about composition. Our perceptual and cognitive apparatus is, indeed, limiting, a bottleneck on what sounds, and what characteristics of those sounds, we may take in, and how we take them in. But new music — whether new in Euripides's Athens, or new in the Ars Nova, or new in the late Beethoven quartets, or new in Die Neue Musik or Ultramodernism of the 1920s, or new in the west coast radical music and its repercussions, or new in the so-called new complexity — has always been about hearing more rather than less. The late Maryanne Amacher experimented with bypassing the ears (or, as she called it, "cochlear listening") in favor of more direct contact with the cognitive organs (or "post-cochlear listening"). Very interesting stuff, but direct electrical stimulation of my brain is not yet how I wish to encounter music; I think there's still plenty of music to be heard the old fashioned way, with air and ears, and I'm optimistic that inventive composers and musicians are sure to come up with way of presenting sounds that can prove the pessimism of the psychoacousticians wrong. Just a walk with Lucky is a reminder of how much more I have to learn about listening.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Kids' stuff

My daughter has been enjoying The Composer is Dead, the narrator and orchestra piece by Lemony Snicket and composer Nathaniel Stookey (the book is illustrated by Carson Ellis and includes a recording by the San Francisco Symphony).  It's fun and a light but welcome addition to the dreaded childrens'-intro-to-the-orchestra genre, giving some long-needed competition to Saint-Saëns's Carnival (best with the Ogdon Nash rhymes), Prokofiev's ad for the NRA, the Poulenc/Francaix Babar, and, of course, Britten's Variations on a Tune from Abdelazar that was doing just fine before Ben got a hold of it.  

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Left out of the conversation

I've really been enjoying spending some lazy breakfasts pouring over the San Francisco Panorama edition of McSweeney's.   It is an encouraging affirmation of the potential for print media to be more that it has been, and to do so in times when electronic media increasingly dominate and most of the traditional newspapers are teetering on abysses, both financial and in content.  As a print enthusiast, this is great stuff, great reads by some good writers, a beautiful layout, and, personally, a chance to be nostalgic about one of my favorite cities* and definitely my favorite State (of mind as well as of the Union).  

My own particular print commitments are to the musical score on paper (as a composer and a publisher), and to smart coverage of new music in print media.  Unfortunately, Volume 1, Number 1 of the Panorama doesn't cover new music, which isn't much of a surprise given, for example, the near-absence contemporary E-Musik in the German-language equivalent Die Zeit.  By and large, composers of new music have been left out of the "public intellectual" conversation; while not all composers are interested in (or, let's face it, even suited for) such dialogue, I do believe that there are some among us who might very usefully contribute.  But maybe we can still hope for more in Panorama Volume 1, Number 2?


* Two odd factoids about me and San Francisco: my wife was born there, making it, AFAIC, a place where good things happen; and once, when walking through the Mission, in search of the perfect Salvadoran meal, I got lost, hopelessly lost I thought, only to turn a block, glance up at the street sign, and discover that I was on Lucky St.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Found useful

Here's a video (hat tip Ron Silliman) of David Antin "talking on Kathy Acker".  Acker was a writer whose work I could never read easily (Blood and Guts in High School, for example, totally defeated me, and I'm a fairly robust reader).   Indeed, her raw materials were probably chosen as precisely the stuff to keep someone like me uneasy.  Nevertheless, Antin's talk is a small & useful general meditation on "found" materials, and the utility of formal rules for shaping them into new work.   I particularly like this passage — about 11 minutes in — which seems relevant to the question of how well a working artist should "know" other work, which points to a responsibility altogether different from that of a scholar:

"All the works (...) I'm sure Kathy looked at.  Some, she looked at the spine; some she read thoroughly; some she encountered rather, rather glancingly.  But she encountered them in the way a real poet would: as usefully as possible."

Friday, January 01, 2010

Landmarks (44)

Cornelius Cardew: Autumn '60 for orchestra (1960).  

Let's toss our notions about an "orchestra", a "score", an individual instrumental "part", as well as the division of labor between composers and performers (and, among performers, between players and conductors) up in the air and listen to what happens when they come down again in new configurations:  Autumn '60 is a delightful example of such an exercise.  

Autumn '60 is "for orchestra", but the identity of that orchestra is variable.  Although most performances have probably been for chamber groups, the score is as usable, potentially, by a single soloist on a lonely woodblock as by an orchestra of late romantic scale and proportions.   

The score, which all players receive, features a system with two staves, the upper consisting of one to seven conventional markings — clefs, notes (which are limited to f, gb, ab, bb, and db), articulations, ornaments, instrument names, dynamics, etc. — assigned to the quarter note beats of simple meters, from which individual players are to extract their own parts and enter into the lower staff.  

The process of part extraction appears, at first, to be rather open, but it gradually reveals itself to be in many ways quite constrained, in particular through the instruction to  "ignore any two of the indications for any particular beat" as well as those combinations of notation which lead to an instruction to "play nothing", each of which might serve to create a kind of negative space around the material identity of the piece.*  

The degree of cooperation in part preparation between the players is not specified; indeed, the parts may be extracted in complete independence, and further independence is introduced by the interventions of a conductor, who also uses the score to prepare a part, in which details of form, tempo, rubato, ensemble composition and texture, and even additional degrees of performer liberty may be introduced.

There were certainly more radically indeterminate pieces in the late 1950's and early 1960's, but I find that Cardew was perhaps uniquely sensitive, here and in his Octet '61, to the wealth of possibilities in subtly moving the traditional lines of demarcation identified above.  Need I add that Autumn '60 is also  great fun to play?  Rehearsing, in particular, is a necessarily and satisfyingly engaging process, a reminder of how collaborative an enterprise music can be.  


* In the pair of performances of Autumn '60 in which I took part, there was a marked sense of a tonal identity, arising methought, from an interplay between asserted and negated elements not at all unlike that found either in classical tonality or the use of complementary sets in some atonal music; this is a nice reminder that one asserts a tonal center, for example, as much through its presence as through its strategic and tactical absence.