Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Antin on Cage: "Preposterous and Wonderful"

I've recommended some talks by David Antin previously, but overlooked this Q&A session following his "line music counterpoint disjunction and the measure of mind".  About a third of the way into this recording, Antin gives the most concise and on-target critique of Cage's working methods — both his question about the division of labors (here, between composition and listening) and the use of chance and indeterminacy — that I have encountered.  (The talk itself, and several others, all worth your while, can be found here.)

Friday, November 26, 2010


A friend and I were recently talking about John Cage and his close relationships to important contemporary innovators in other art forms (Cunningham, of course, but also several generations of visual artists (Duchamp and Miro to Tobey and Graves to Rauschenberg and Johns to Anastasi and Bradshaw), and writers (from Jackson Mac Low to Chris Mann) as well as some major unclassifiables (like Fuller, MacLuhan or N.O. Brown) and how these relationships gave a wonderful charge — without superficially or arbitrarily mixing ideas, forms, media — to his own work.  

While almost every composer I know among my contemporaries has some non-trivial, indeed deep and productive, interests in the extra-musical,  few, if any, composers working today can claim a wealth or variety similar to that enjoyed by Cage.  In part, this is because of a simple management issue: there's so much going on, in music alone, that it's tough to have any overview here, let alone to have real bearings out there in literature and/or dance and/or visual arts and/or film etc..  Also, in part, it is due to a certain insularity among musicians reinforced by the market pressure of such quantity and diversity within our discipline; perhaps because we need to continuously woo and cultivate performers and presenters, our social networks tend to be rather musician-centric. 

I was lucky, as an undergraduate, to be in an arts-themed liberal arts college where more of my friends happened to have been writers or visual artists than fellow or sister music majors.**   To this day,  I can recall, almost word-for-word, the conversation of so many late nights spent in dorm lounges or all-night diners arguing over a novel (the term of art back then was "lit wanking") a gallery show gone well or a performance art event gone awry.  Today, I still have my own set of reference points among writers, visual artists, and film makers, even a dancer or two,  but I will confess that this is, with some small additions, close to the list I had when I was still a student, and among those artists still kicking about, most of them are of my teachers' generation rather than of my own.   This may just be part of aging, but I honestly think that I haven't done a good enough job of keeping up with my contemporaries outside of music.  A quick read-through of McSweeney's or n+1 * or a chance walk-through of an interesting gallery or keeping a handful of blogs under casual surveillance is not really keeping on top of things very far afield, let alone a real avant-garde.  I realized this perhaps most acutely when David Foster Wallace died, a writer from my own age cohort, and it struck me that the writers I was otherwise following most closely — Pynchon, Abish, Matthews — were dancing about 70, not my own age. My New Year's resolution is thus set:  I've got to make more time to pay more attention and to pay attention outside of my habitual interests.


* BTW: This article, picked up from n+1, about the divisions between the country mouse of academic creative writing and the town mouse of NYCentric writing is well worth a read; there are interesting parallels and contrasts to the relationship between academic and free-lance composing.  

Monday, November 22, 2010

Low rent, real return

This article, subtitled Much of what investment bankers do is socially worthless is well worth the read.  As new and experimental music all too frequently gets placed in a similar category (heck, by- the-book Marxists will dismiss it as superstructure — and an insignificant fraction thereof, at that — so we're pretty much used to getting disrespect from all sides), it's a bit refreshing to see the captains (and admirals, and commodores) of finance in the light of their costs and benefits to society.  On balance, I think, new and experimental music comes out looking pretty good in comparison: we produce something real, if a perishable good — sound waves do dissipate — and our rent is, in real terms, cheap.  But that small investment in a musical good has proven potential, if very tiny, to provide returns for centuries.  Next time you join some friends to sing some Josquin, just think: Wall Street, which of your recent investments is going to be paying off like this in 500 years?   

Saturday, November 20, 2010

I would prefer not...

Someone pointed me to this presentation by Lawrence Lessig, all about the present copyright mess and the use of existing materials in new creative work (in particular the question of fair use with creative methods based on recycling, parody, plundering, mashing, remixing and all that.) It's not a surprise that Lessig, a law professor, is addressing this as a primarily legal issue, and the fact that the everyday practices of a good portion of the population are not legal is a real problem, so Lessig's clear articulation of this problem is welcome.  (This topic is also fascinating as it is essentially a conflict between two liberal positions, the first which recognized that creators have a right to claim forms of meaningful ownership over their work, and the second which views access to forms of information as a universal and necessary — to the production of new work — right.)  

However, in the larger debate, it's once again disappointing to find that the legal and economic issues continue to drown out an ethical issue which I would frame in the following way: an artist (composer, writer, choreographer, etc.) may often — not always, but often — identify with his or her creative work in a deeply personal way, and may view the manipulation of their work by others as hurtful or injurious, with this view completely independent from any question of whether or not she or he receives compensation in whatever form or amount.   Unless the work in question can be identified immediately as political in nature or the artist in question can be identified unambiguously as a public political person, I happen to believe that it is a matter of simple decency, of respect for the private dignity of the person who has created the work as well as for the integrity of the work itself, that the creator has the right to say "no, I would prefer than my work not be used in this manner."*  As long as a creative artist is still alive and kicking, and has not had the last chance to revise her or his work or put it into a final form, I believe that it is a real question of character, completely independent of legal or economic questions, on the part of the re-user, whether or not that preference is respected.   

I hope that it is clear here that I am distinguishing between an artist asserting such a right as a personal or aesthetic concern — which I support entirely even if I should loathe the work (or the person who made it) — and an assertion of rights for purely economic motives.  I well understand that, in the real world, it is not always possible to make such a distinction, but I'm not altogether certain that that should even be a primary concern.  Rather this: wouldn't it be a preferable state of affairs if an honest attempt to determine whether the original artist has a preference one way or another were a standard social convention?   


* an echo here of Melville's Bartleby is intentional.

Monday, November 15, 2010

In and out of the Studio

I've been in and out of electronic music studios since 1978, when I was part of an effort to lobby my school board to approve a course in electronic music, the first to be offered in California at the High School level.  (The course was approved when an elderly member of the board was assured that "no, we wouldn't be making disco music like those BeeGees.")  We had a very simple monophonic synthesizer, a few tape recorders, an 8 channel mixing board, and almost enough cable and mics to make interesting music.  We spliced a lot, a skill I still value highly (this post, for instance, is a product of splicing), but the most valuable experience was learning to listen closely to recorded sounds, to hear and become more articulate about each of the parameters represented, and then to imagine how these sounds could be presented in larger ensembles and continuities.  Later, in two different Universities, I got to work in two very different studios, each with its own distinct instrumentation, configuration, and attitude.  Such diversity — particularly with regard to attitude — still prevails when one compares electronic studios: a course at one school nowadays may be essentially a course in getting electronic mock-ups of a written-out instrumental scores, another school offers classical studio techniques, from splicing to modular synthesizers, another focuses on computer generated and processed sounds, another algorithmic composition, and still another will insist that every student learns to solder their own gadgets. This diversity is a very healthy situation, AFAIC.  

Since earning my academic traveling papers and being sent off into the real world, aside from hit-and-run visits to radio station recording studios here in Germany I haven't always had a real studio to call my own.  However, on the one hand, contemporary technology makes it possible to do a lot with a modest home studio, often built around just a desk- or laptop computer  (my earliest arrangement of the sort used a Atari ST, first with the Kuivila/Anderson programming language FORMULA, and later to drive a Rayna Synthesizer, with its 59 very accurately tuned oscillators.)  On the other hand, the experience of working in the studio can be said to have penetrated musical technique to such a deep level that the actual question of whether a piece uses electronic resources or not is often besides the point.  I love that anecdote about early-on in the San Francisco Tape Music Center, when Sender and Subotnick, then designing their first modular synthesizer, sat down with a copy of the score to Le Marteau, just to make sure that the synthesizer would be able to do everything described therein.    

This fluidity between electronic and acoustical resources is also a healthy situation, I think.  Example: I recently wrote a small piano piece that could be described as the output of a sequencer, a pair of filters and a couple of noise generators, or it could be described in terms of a primitive serial technique influence by chance operations.  Either process could have led to the same piece. Fluid. Another example of such fluidity could be found in an assignment I gave to some high school-age students in a composition workshop.  Some of them were working with instruments and notation on manuscript paper, others with synthesis programs, both live (pd) and generating fixed sound files (CSound).  For the assignment, we first learned something about cetacean audio communication (kids love whales, dolphins, and porpoises), and then each was required to make a small piece using three kinds of sounds available to these animals — frequency modulated whistles, burst-pulsed sounds, and clicks. They had to do some analysis — figure out what the salient qualities of these sounds were —, then some synthesis — how to emulate such sounds, or sounds with similar structural or formal qualities whether with electronics, instruments, or voices —, and finally, to devise some musical structure which accommodates all of these sounds, perhaps creating meaningful relationships between them, perhaps leaving them as highly differentiated streams of events in a polyphonic environment. All of the finished pieces offered interesting solutions, the best of them made some real music, and — once again surprising the old appropriate technologists that I am — it soon became clear that there was no inherent advantage or disadvantage to the particular technology chosen; that was a non-issue.  A healthy and fluid situation.

Friday, November 12, 2010

MB on TV

Composer Laura Karpman has completed the late Robert Hilferty's Milton Babbitt: Portrait of a Serial Composer video documentary. It's viewable on line here. It nicely ties in all of the odd connections that make Babbitt such an improbable and interesting figure — from his childhood in Jackson, Miss., to Princeton and the merry old RCA Synthesizer, to teaching Stephen Sondheim or Stanley Jordan — and, with the old battle lines within the East coast avant-garde somewhat forgotten, I think it's become much easier to separate Babbitt's music from that of his camp followers and recognize how good he is when he's at the top of his game, which, in his case, is talking about music as well as musicking proper. BTW, the best parts of the video, for me, are of Babbitt holding forth before family and friends in a Chinese restaurant; it's in these moments that the film really becomes something close to ethnographic film recording a micro-musical culture that is quite exotic to my own (as a Californian, the East coast Chinese restaurant is something very different from the Californian Chinese restaurant, but that's something for quite another blog item.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Knowing enough

These videos of some very cool solo viola studies composed and played by Garth Knox are vivid illustrations of what a virtuoso performer with some serious compositional chops can do. I look forward to hearing more from Knox in forms beyond the technical etude.

The rich diversity of composed music is due in part to the wide range of experience and imagination that each individual composer is able to bring to writing for particular instruments, voices or ensembles.  Of those composers who write particularly well for instruments (let's be honest: not all do), many are generalists, with broad knowledge of each of the instruments they compose for, while others are themselves are more specialized — often as both performers and composers — on particular instruments.  I don't think either generalists or specialists have an edge here, but rather that our musical lives are livelier because we have both.  We benefit from the virtuoso pianist- or violinist- or percussionist-composers, but also from someone like Berlioz, whose own instrumental skills (he played flute, flageolet, guitar, and timpani) were not necessarily prerequisite or even terribly relevant to his own virtuosic writing for orchestra. Likewise, we benefit from having both a Mahler — whose scores were micro-managed with technical details — and a Sibelius — who managed to create large works of comparable detail and complexity with an efficient minimum of notation.   

For the generalists, not knowing many specifics about the techniques which may be brought into play in order for players to realize their scores, can often be an efficient and profitably open situation, an invitation for players to bring their own experience more closely into the rehearsal process.  Some generalists make a point of not knowing too much about instruments, on the principle that knowing too much usually means knowing overly restrictive limitations or settling into stereotypical writing for an instrument. The obvious risk of not knowing too much is not knowing enough and then writing something that is impossible or simply dull for an instrument.  On the other hand, some generalists are practically encylopedists when it comes to technical matters, adding very fine details and specifications in their scores.  As admirable as this is, it can also carry a bit of a risk. For example, a fingering for a particular tone may work on one mark and model of an instrument but not on another.  For myself, although I'm perfectly capable of adding complete bowings, fingerings, breath marks and more to my scores, I hope that I am able to restrain myself somewhat in recognition of the limitations in my knowledge.  My bowings or fingerings may well "work" reliably enough, but I gladly differ to the expertise of players whose experience and imagination can be drawn upon to often offer better solutions. 

And then there are the specialists.  A composition grounded in a performer/composer's own virtuoso playing technique is a legitimate and honorable genre.  (I am a particular afficionado of the earliest virtuoso literature, for recorder, cornetto, viol, and virginal.)  In many cases, the particular mechanics of a given instrument may be such that that the generalist may be wise to defer to the specialists altogether.  For example, writing for the accordion — in any one of its daunting number of variant forms —  means either writing in a very general, even basic, way for the instrument (which I have done), or making a commitment to working very closely with a particular player and a particular instrument (which I have not yet done (never say never.)) Likewise, I am very hesitant to write specific woodwind multiphonics, unless the project is writing for a particular player on a particular instrument.  I might also consider using a notation which was open to a variety of multiphonic solutions within some specified characteristics.  


Sunday, November 07, 2010

A Veritable Cornucopia

Some late, loose items:

(1) China Miéville has a new-ish blog, rejectamentalist manifesto.  It's aperiodic, often fragmental or pictoral, but reliably interesting.   The recent posts on the the UK coalition government's plans for cut-and-burn reductions in cultural and social spending are on the mark, and much of what is noted in the UK applies equally well to the Netherlands, the Republicans in the US, and the German coalition government.

(2) Here's a recent small item at The Eastside View, Charles Shere's blog, which is a model of engaging and useful critical writing: honestly sorting out opinion and taste from just-the-facts-ma'am reporting, making interesting connections, and not treating the musical as an autonomous category of cultural activity.  Charles, a fine composer as well as critic, is a treasure in the musical landscape. 

(3) Pliable notes that 95% of Gramophone magazine's readers are male.  Why is this the least surprising factoid of the week?  Gramophone is the UK classical music bidness's equivalent of a mixture of Sports Illustrated and Model Railroader.   It's about "industry" gossip, sport, and collecting, a particular constellation that is only sustainable in a high testosterone environment (one from which my better angels have protected me!)  Moreover, as the magazine's title honestly indicates, it's about recordings, commodified recording.  It's about buying, trading, and collecting recordings and it's about ranking them, like baseball statistics (and yes, as often fantasy as real.)  Boys with toys. The classical music live performance world, on the other hand, which includes everything from music education to professional performance and audition, is one in which participation, with exceptions for the recalcitrant fields of conducting, management, and a pair of European orchestras,  is no longer so decisively dominated by one gender or the other. Audiences for classical music concerts are often predominantly women and the most important figures introducing classical music to young people are women as well — music teachers, whether in school or privately.  That's the real news of the day, not the readership of a magazine devoted to a male hobby rapidly going the way of the dodo.  


Saturday, November 06, 2010

Follow the Money, Impending Firesale Edition

Always on the right path, Pliable has been following the story of EMI's descent.  With the latest successful claims by creditor Citigroup against EMI, what can we expect will happen to the back catalogue in classical music? I suspect that there is a real opportunity to be had here in picking up that catalogue at fire sale prices and immediately turning it into digital goods.  Sure, the amortization may be long-term — and in terms longer than any major financial concern is now willing to consider — but these goods are reliably durable audibles. (If the present UK coalition government really had their capitalist chops about them, they would find some way to claim these as assets of national interest, make the modest investment to create the platforms required to sell downloads, and then reinvest the income in contemporary music making. Unfortunately, I suspect that there are interests in the present government who actively hold any engagement by the state in culture in such low regard that they would just as soon lose money and let assets like these disappear into the portfolio of a creditor with no idea what the assets are, let alone what they might be worth, as actually exploit the potential of the assets.)

Friday, November 05, 2010

Signal, too.

In principle, I'm on the "side of the noises" (as Cage put it), but I'm not altogether certain that that is actually saying anything particularly significant or interesting anymore.  I remember being thrilled to read, in the pre-Sokal-discount days of Social Text, the first excerpts of Attali's Bruits to appear in translation.  Attali's use of the Breughel Battle between Carnival and Lent remains a brilliant metaphor, AFAIC, but when I finally put paws on the whole little book of Noise, it was serious disappointment time, as he really took things no further than the equally deterministic schemes of either Weber or Adorno.  And, more critically, he seemed not to have anything particularly deep to say about how music is actually put together.*  (A more useful, it seems to me, treatment of the topic of noise, and largely because its discussion is not exclusively or even primarily about musical noise, is in Bart Kosko's Noise.)   An identification of one's own musicking with and/or as noise has some fashion currency now, particular among those using electronics (the more analog, hacked, and bent, the better) but also (as this thoughtful review of the recent anthology Noise & Capitalism, points out) among the so-called "free" improvisors (note that both areas of activity represent traditions with considerable vintage.)  Cage's "side of the noises" was a parallel/echo/extension of the "emancipation of the dissonance"; music history took sides decisively for both in the ultra-modern music which apex-ed in the early 1930s (Cowell, Varese, Antheil, Crawford, Wm. Russell, Brant, Ornstein, etc. in the US with similar cohorts elsewhere)  only to make an equally decisive u-turn away from noise and towards consonance in the strongly statist — whether left, right, authoritarian or consensual — era which followed and continued through the second world war. This shift, from noise to notnoise, from dissonance to consonance, was in the form of moves along a spectrum, stylistic shifts which still recognized the accumulated increase in variety of each spectrum.  And if you think about this, even casually, these processes have always marked music history — hunting horns, martial trumpets and drums, and tower trombone choirs once represented alien invasions of concerted music, noisy additions to the orchestra by members of guilds (foresters, soldiers, civil/religious servants) whose membership had not yet merged with the local musicians' union, and all of the audio special effects requisite to the opera stage were added to the back-of-the-pit toy box of the timpanist/proto-percussionist, a job category that only the last century universally regarded as the work of proper musicians; likewise, the category of the consonant gradually overtook that of the dissonant, embracing ever-denser harmonic configurations (in itself, a move along the spectrum towards noise)  as the distinction became one of formal context rather than abstract category. So now, having experienced all of that opening of the spectra of the acoustically possible, doesn't describing oneself as on the side of the noises or of the dissonances have more the tenor of a consumer choice than an authentically oppositional stance?  What is noisy or dissonant, any more, of a music made solely of noises or dissonances? 

* This is not unusual.  In my student days, and particularly in my Santa Cruz days,  "theory", as used in the humanities was all the rage, from structuralism forward, and I read as much as I could, especially when it seemed that something useful or relevant to music was supposed to be present.  Although I don't regret the reading (Debord, of course, the Deleuze of The Logic of Sense, too; I'll always have a soft spot for Barthes's Empire of Signs and Levi-Strauss was simply a pleasure to read) , as a working musician, I was usually disappointed, as the musical content was inevitably superficial.  The appropriation of musical forms in Levi-Strauss's analysis of myths, for example, should be enough to send anyone running ASAP to read their Tovey to see that there is a profound, accurate, and relevant tradition for writing about musical form and structure that has more to offer theory in other disciplines than they may have offer music. 


Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Comparing Notation/Engraving Programs for New Music

I propose the design of a comparison survey of the present music notation/engraving program landscape; should there be interest in such a project, this is an open invitation to make suggestions as to its form and content.

This is an interesting moment for notation software in that we are not limited to Finale and Sibelius, for — as good/bad/ugly/useful/useless as those two programs may be — no single program has (or even should have) universal functionality or flexibility and having the additional options provided alternative or auxiliary software is a very good thing. At the moment, there are some interesting new-ish programs available as free or commercial software and a couple of older programs with useful features have become available as legacy items.

The comparison ought to have two components, the first a comparison chart (this program can or cannot do this) with some evaluation (how easy or well the program does this or that) and the second, if possible, a comparison of output engraving from the individual programs based on a model piece, with a lot of hoops to jump through and hurdles to jump over, including both graphic-only output with graphic+ audio output.

Among the features that ought to be investigated are (1) complex rhythms, including nested tuplets, broken or partial tuplets, aligned and non-aligned polymeter scores, and non-measured or "spatial" notation (all of the above with and without playback); (2) microtonal accidentals, whether of a fixed set or of your own design, and playback; (3) continuous linear items like crescendi/diminuendi, portamenti/glissandi, accellerandi, and their playback; (4) house style capacity, including choice of fonts, symbols, and layout flexibility; (5) graphic capacity, including cutaway scores, insertion of graphics, export of graphics including ps and pdf formats; (6) playback capacity, including midi and audio commands, generation of midi and audio files; (7) input methods: text or command line, computer keyboard +/- keypad (and a description of the keyboard layout used), mouse/pen/joystick/etc., midi keyboard, midi or audio file, import from (and export to) other engraving software or earlier versions of the same software; (8) general interface and workflow design.

Any additions, corrections or suggestions about this would be most appreciated, as would any suggestions for a model piece.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Dead-Dropped Music?

Artist Aram Bartholl is embedding usb drives into walls, buildings and curbs for public but anonymous data up- and downloads. Not surprisingly, the comments focus in on the risks of acquiring viruses or having your equipment sabotaged, making this media equivalent of anonymous sex or sharing used needles; sad how modern public life gets stuck with such risks. In any case, it's certainly one way to try to get your music out there via sound files and sound-playing applications.