Wednesday, March 31, 2010

P is for Presence

P was first going to be for Passacaglia, because I like writing them and they have a profound and useful relationship to other self-contextualizing musical processes (canons and loops or delay lines, for example), but as a description of my own work, it could as well have been Ground (but not, AFAIC, Ciaconne, which is another story altogether)  which would not have made it an honest stakeholder for P in this alphabet.  I then thought that P might stand for Pattern.  This sent me on a research trip, through Thompson's On Growth and Form and Alexander's A Pattern Language and through numerous but not-tawdry-enough-to-keep-this-poor-soul-engaged mathematical accounts of Pattern.   I soon realized that I know next-to-naught about Pattern.  Pattern is a very important topic and I should learn more but someone else had better handle it, perhaps in an alphabet of their own.  And then again, P could have been for Process.  Back in the days in which the label "minimal/ist/ism" had not yet so firmly been attached by the interests that be, process music (as in Steve Reich's Music as a Gradual Process, an essay and an idea that still captures ears and imaginations)  was, along with systems music and pattern music, one of the terms of art for the reduced means and media side of the radical music.  The notion of a musical process, suggests something mechanical — one of my own works-in-progress has the title Six Simple Machines — and something that is done, in a planned, ordered, timed, and measured way, to material.  Also, we usefully distinguish between closed- and open-ended processes. But no,  with patience and systemic clarity presently out of compositional fashion, this is not the moment for an alphabet with P for Process.  So, instead, this is P for Presence: too often, says I, composers get sucked up into the attractive pull of conventional musical movement and continuity while forgetting the equally powerful potential of musical sounds to establish striking, if not unique, presences in real acoustical spaces as well as the equally real — if more elusive — spaces associated with individual memory and experience of sounds.  The act of specifying this sound, at this point in time, on this instrument or voice, in this particular space can be daunting, as if one were blindly throwing a dart in a vector space of too many dimensions and unimaginable depth.  (I suspect that Luigi Nono's electroacoustic works, for example, were progressively weighed down by near-despair at the over-abundance of possible statisfactory realizations, creating a de facto indeterminacy that would have been anathematic to a dialectical materialist like Nono.)  The challenge of timing and spacing tones or arranging voices or instruments just so, and paying attention to the resonances of sympathetic bodies or room acoustics while balancing these concerns with the interests of continuity comes damn close to a decent job description for a composer.  Presence is also about ensuring that musical work is available; it is played, heard, and perhaps an object of contemplation; it might be recorded or broadcast; it is a part of and a response to a location and individuals or a community within that location; it is of a moment, it may mark a historical moment, it may anticipate moments to come. Finally, presence is not a property of the work itself, but of my/your/his/his/our/their relationship to the work, a sometimes violent break with absence, with quiet.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

O is for Ordinary

The radical music has often been focused on the extremes — of pitch, duration, amplitude, perception, attention, memory, from the micro, minimal and miniature to the macro, maximum, and epic — but it has also always been just as much about the familiar, the middle, the ordinary. When Stravinsky reduced his written-out dynamics to piano and forte in the Octet, he was at once pointing to older repertoire for which such a binary pair sufficed but also indicating that there was a lot more music to be found within those familiar confines.  Or this: that sudden all-white-key-dominant-something-without-a-tonic-in-earshot-chord in Cage's Water Music.   Or this: those wonderful and wonderfully disconcerting post-Boulangerie pieces of Glass: Music in Parallel Motion, Music in Contrary Motion, Music in Fifths... all the way through Another Look at Harmony.  


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

It rises.

Aside from my dips into the early music world, where an A of 415 or 466 Hz is common (and, conveniently, about a half-step down or up from 440), my A of reference has always been 440. But now, with instrumentalists-in-training in the household, we can put off no longer raising the living room piano to the 443 which is now basically standard for strings and winds in much of Europe  That's a bit less than 12 cents, but still a noticeable difference.  In general, I dislike pitch inflation of this sort, which is generally promoted as being done in the name of increased "brilliance,"  an effect I find slight and even then not in balance with the cost of extra strain in upper registers for singers or brass, but if the rest of the band or orchestra is tuning up to 443, you're more or less stuck with the increase.

One great additional practical disadvantage of this comes, of course, with existing works involving combinations of instruments and electronics or using tuned percussion.  When electronic patches can be reset for live electronics or if works made in recorded media can be recreated at the higher standard without altering tempi, okay, a lot of work, but it can be done; but other classics of electronics may not be retunable and may instead require that instrumentalists tune down to the older standard.  As for mallet percussion, the tradition was to tune the bars slightly high to the standard (say 442), which tend to float down under the heat of stage lighting), and now, I suppose, it can require an even higher tuning.  A lot of unecessary bother, AFAIC.

Monday, March 22, 2010

N is for Nature

I've been stuck in the middle of this alphabet for some days, trying to write something useful about music and nature.  Without much success, as it turns out, for the terms "nature" or "natural" seem mostly more distracting than useful.

Now, the time was when a Beethoven or an Ives could treat "nature" as a musical topic.  And whether in Beethoven's pastoral bird-song imitations or in Ives' transcendental contemplations of rocks and whatnot, we don't really buy such a distancing to the natural anymore or, likewise, a division of nature from culture and artifice.   Such a distinction hinges on a segregation of human activities from the rest of natural history that is unsustainable.  Yes, there is still a charge to be found from looking to natural phenomena for new musical resources and models, but there is no more illusion that our "acts of new music" are executed in a nature-free preserve.

In musical theory and aesthetics, the distinction of "the natural" from musical artifice has been a constant if complex background presence, for example in Rameau's fundamental bass or Schenker's "chord of nature".   In the twentieth century, we had the striking contrast between Schoenberg's offense at the notion of natural (i.e. non-tempered, just) intonation, writing in a 1934 letter to Joseph Yasser that to play in a natural  intonation was tantamount to "acting natural" in public, which Schoenberg rejected with a Apollonian self-denial and sublimation worthy of his rival Stravinsky, on the one hand, and Schoenberg's student, John Cage, on the other, who employed chance operations as a means of not imitating works of nature in its effects — animal song or stormy weather — but "imitating nature in its method of operation."   I can't help but recognize each of these models as having substantial deficits as science but also having, once, substantial appeal as impulses for making new music.

Since my teens, back in the lower Pleistocene, I have used just intonation in my music and the harmonic series (and, in many cases, a subharmonic series as well) has provided an important model for the spacing of tones, voice-leading, orchestration and, to some extent, rhythm.  In some circles, particularly among the new complexity folks, the use of just intonation or the harmonic series gets read as affirming a naively naturalist position, while others understand the whole-number world of just intonation as nothing but mystifying numerology.  While either of these views may well be held by other musicians, I don't believe that either characterizes my approach which might be described as "pragmatic" or "realist",  if you need to have a label.  This is because I've come 'round to thinking of the harmonic series and just intonation as, respectively, a point of reference and one possible — and acoustically vivid — solution to an optimization problem for pitch, timbre, and textural relationships in musical ensembles.  I hope that I am under no illusions about the aspirational quality of just intonation, as tuning is a transient activity, limited by our musical technologies, perceptual apparatus, and duration of the sample; a simple frequency ratio between tones is a target, and all of the space on either side of the target is also of potential musical utility.   Tones arranged in harmonic series-spaced configurations are useful, but so are subharmonic (or, if you like, chords in which all tones share a common overtone) or non-harmonic arrangements.  But in the end, it's simply a matter of taste: Working with voices and instruments with simple harmonic spectra, the reduced interference beating as one approaches — or these increased beating as one abandons — such targeted intervals is a concrete and sensually powerful quality and too useful musically for me to leave alone.

I am particularly influenced here by Javanese shadow theatre, in which the entire transition space of a shadow, from its sharply delineated image when the puppet is held against the screen to the blurred and increasingly amorphous shadow figure formed as the puppet moves away from the screen, is in play.  Anyone who has played central Javanese or Sundanese gamelan will recognize a similar transition in the irama system, in which changes in the density of musical events occur in counter-motion to changes in tempi, with moments of repose as tempo and density lock in ensemble clarity.   As a composer, I want to be have access to an entire universe of imagery, from total clarity to its apparent opposite,  in every parameter of music.    

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Shadow Diplomacy

Wayang kulit (Javanese shadow puppet) figures of Barack and Michelle Obama, commissioned by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono from wayang artist Ki Ledyar, pictured, of Yoyakarta, in advance of next week's state visit.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Desert Plants Renewed

Walter Zimmermann's Desert Plants: Conversations with 23 American Musicians, published 1976, long time out of print, is now accessible again on Walter's website, here

If you who don't know Desert Plants, you should.  It's a landmark both for American experimental music and for its account of a young West German composer discovering his own musical sensibility, grounded in a relationship to history and geography, through an encounter with a musical "other", in this case a collection of American musicians who, at the time, received almost as little attention at home as they did abroad.  While several of the musicians interviewed remain less well-known or well-known only in niches, with the passage of time the music of many of those included in Desert Plants has attained a prominence that sometimes makes it hard to recall how great a challenge their music posed to the then-establishment (and, to some extent, still-institutional) avant-gardes, American and European alike.

(For the record, my opinion here is completely biased.  I was fortunate to find a copy of Desert Plants around '78 or '79 while still in High School and many of the interviews — and the music those interviews drove me to — registered like lightning, a real source of inspiration, no, better: posture, funky typos and all, alongside Cage's writings, Lou Harrison's Music Primer,  Nyman's Experimental Music and Peter Garland's magazine Soundings.  When, with my wife, I moved to Frankfurt a decade later — knowing vaguely that Frankfurt was a town in which new music was taken seriously (you know: Adorno, for better or worse and all that) — I had no idea where the Walter Zimmermann of Desert Plants might be living, but I called the only Walter Zimmermann in the Frankfurt phone book and it turned out to be the right one.  Since then, Walter has become a mentor and friend, an encouraging and nurturing presence,  and his music, alongside his sensitivity, ethical stance, musical/cultural/culinary appetite and fine sense of adventure as well as moral support, has been a constant gift.)



Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Inevitable Applause-Between-Movements Post

How come the topic of concert-going etiquette — and applause, in particular — is always framed as a zero sum game?  It's as if our choice is either black ties and perfect decorum and funereal silence between and during movements or it's dress-down with cheering, beer, and popcorn like at a hockey game.  Doesn't that leave out the greater part of the field of both real and possible listening environments?  Even sporting events offer such a real range, with expected and tolerated behavior gauged to the particular features of the individual sport.  Just consider the contrast in dynamics and decorum between a snooker match and a pro football game, with golf, tennis, cricket, baseball, basketball, hockey and European or Latin American soccer lined-up, more or less, on the continuum in-between.   If a maximum of control over ambient and audience noise is what you or the music requires, there is always the privacy of your own home, whether making the music yourself or listening via loudspeakers or headphones (BTW: the explosion in individual headphone audition since the advent of the Walkman is a seriously under-explored topic of both musical and anthropological significance: dissertation, anyone?) and, in more social concert environments, it should always be possible for performers to simply signal to an audience — in the manner of golfers — that quiet is now required* and, otherwise, it ought to be standard procedure that performers and audiences come to an informal contract about the nature of their interaction, with all the direct and indirect signs and instructions that civil assemblies can use. Yes, I maintain — hope against hope, perhaps, but you've got to have your utopias, friends — that there has to be time and place for the quiet of Webern or Morton Feldman, with minimal noise from audiences or air-conditioning, but that doesn't mean discounting everything from there up to the stadium-sized monster truck show.  


*One of the points continually thrown into these arguments about concert behavior is historical audience behavior.  The evidence, however, is far from uniform and thus gets used to justify both churchly quiet and rousing ribaldry.   Like all other aspects of historically-informed performance practice, the real topic underlying the discourse is contemporary performance practice.  Above and beyond the fact that historical audiences were probably located on ranges from lousy to wonderful very much like our own, why should we be settled with only one or two possibilities? 


Saturday, March 06, 2010

M is for Medium

Voices, instruments, resonators, amplifiers, processors, mixers, loudspeakers, air, architecture, ambient noise, ears (auricles, canals, membranes, cavities, fluids, ossicles, cochleas, nerves), brains, bodies.*    

Memory, imagination, notation, recording, training, practice, habit, preference, style, ideology, belief, taste, commitment.  

Authority, institution, impressario, arranger, librarian, contractor, section leader, conductor, manager, bookkeeper, banker, producer, presenter, sound designer, editor, publisher, copyright holder, licensor, lawmaker, lawyer, broadcasting authority, censor.** 


*Not to mention bone conduction, cochlear bypasses and direct electrical stimulation of the brain with transduced acoustical signals;  Maryanne Amacher advocated a "post-cochlear listening".

**Not to mention parents, teachers, scholars, reviewers, critics, polemnicists.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

L is for Line

An active line on a walk: so begins Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook.  I want to write a counterpoint book that begins the same way.  The musicians' convention is that line = melody. Everything becomes melodic: Christian Wolff  (see Wolff's Lines).  So great is our rage for connecting single sounds into lines that "pointillist" or "punctual" music is inevitably heard a melodic.  Connect the dots.   Fellini's lines, beginning somewhere unlikely, ending up somewhere else improbably.  A line can describe a journey, movement from here to there.  Or a thread, a path taken or a map to be followed. La Monte Young: Draw a straight line and follow it.  Straight lines, wandering lines. The long line, a center of attention continuing through a large work, can defeat — push into the background — the most animated ensemble polyphony.  


Musical lines differ from graphic lines in that they are embedded in time, which moves only one way. (Which is often reflected in local stylistic conventions, for example that of common practice harmony in which I -> IV, V, IV -> I, V, V -> I, but V does not -> IV. )  On a graphic surface, one can move in any direction, but in music you can't go backwards in time; musical reiteration, repetition, and recapitulation are replicative operations, not exact returns, and music benefits from the way in which memory (fragile memory) plays with the substance of those replications.