Thursday, February 17, 2011

Some Lumber Drop

This has been a week of trial balloons, testing ideas for pieces, some of which have clear premises and some promise, while others are pure speculation. For example: a topical libretto about a pair of spinster sisters, living together but unable to live together, each of whom decides to off the other in slow motion, one feeding the other cans of light chunk tuna, the other overdosing the other on celery sticks, intending a steady accumulation of enough mercury or pesticide, respectively, to do the trick. [Idea discarded for resembling but not improving on Dashiell Hammett's short story Flypaper as well as for the difficulty of sustaining a joke in comic opera.] Or: a perspective piece for live electronics. [Idea discarded for never seeming to gel into anything other than just another guy with a laptop moving patches and buttons and sliders around.] The one idea floated this week which still seems airborn involves perfect card shuffles, but then again, I'm always a sucker for a good card trick...


I don't spend much time with recordings of music intended for live performance (I prefer playing music myself, then listening to live music, then score reading, and then recordings) but I couldn't help listening to a lot of Berlioz this week. Les Troyens is really the center of the Berlioz experience and I get more enthusiastic each time I hear it, a strange and sometimes unwieldy piece on a strange and unwieldy theme. (But then again, that could be said for Benevenuto Cellini, Beatrice and Benedict, and the non-opera/non-symphony that is Damnation of Faust. ) Berlioz was the major innovator of the mature 19th century, but he doesn't get a lot of respect. I think that this is due to a number of unsustainable prejudices: against his heterodox (= non German, post-Revolutionary) tonal practice, against a diction and phraseology based on French, and against a composer for whom instrumentation and orchestration are as important as any other dimension of the work. This prejudice has, methinks, lead to an astonishing deafness to Berlioz's achievements as a contrapuntalist, particularly in his ability to use orchestration (and in some cases, physical space) to radically differentiate the lines of his counterpoint, and to his uncanny use of what he called "intermittent" sounds (yes, Virginia, I connect Berlioz to Cage.)


I have also listened to some new music online. An old favorite is RadiOM, but two interesting webcasts are David Weinstein's Experimental Composers (here) and Sam Harnett's Sound Off (here.)


Finally, with all of the recent remembrances of Milton Babbitt, hasn't it been interesting how people have danced around terms like "modernist" or "avant garde" and "academic" or "intellectual"? (For the record, I think it's reasonable to associate Babbitt with an edition of modernism and he was certainly an academic — and ultimately a conservatory academic at that — but I don't think that he was much of an avant gardist and any intellectual program he belonged to was more of the first half of the 20th century than the second half, with his principal music-theoretical innovations — arrays with particular properties — more or less complete around 1960-65 and his subsequent composition a kind of tactical improvisation, projecting particular features of the array onto the score's surface.) And while I can appreciate the desire, at this moment to emphasize the warm and cuddly aspects of the Milton Babbitt experience — the wit, the baseball, the beer, the pop songs — I honestly wish that someone from his team had come out and said, yeah, he was a ferocious advocate for his party. I think that not acknowledging that fails to account for a substantial part of his work parallel to his composing, which was his advocacy for professional composers and theorists in the academy. The legacy here is decidedly mixed — for one, the academic recognition of the professional music theorist has taken away many jobs that might have otherwise been given to composers; for another, composers and theorists in the academy have turned out to have a broader set of concerns than the particular theoretical and compositional directions Babbitt advocated; for a third, electronic music has certainly gone somewhere else, even though the technology today would have no problem with realizing Babbitt's particular needs — but, at the very least, this institutional work should be recognized, for better or worse, as a piece with his compositional activities.


steve said...

Two unrelated(?) things, Daniel:

First, a question. You mean perfect shuffle as in a Mongean shuffle? Can you talk a bit more about it out loud? (I, at least, am interested :-)

Second, I wanted to ask Babbitt something many times but couldn't figure out exactly how to word it such that he wouldn't be able to avoid the issue (and I wouldn't insult him). I've come to think of it as "Babbitt's Error." I think his basic premise re the relationship between composer and potential audience was right when he wrote Composer as Specialist. It's been born out by the fragmentation of the audience which continues non-stop. But the error I feel was in thinking the composer would fit -- let alone be welcomed with open arms -- into academia as well as not seeing clearly the implications to the fact, fortunate or not, that not all academic institutions are Princeton.

-- Steve Soderberg

Daniel Wolf said...


I use both Faro and Monge shuffles for decks of 32 or 52 cards (or notes, in this case). They are fascinating for use in creating melodic variations, as the original tune at one point is halved and superimposed on itself, and at another point retrograde. (I first saw a series of 12 perfect shuffles in my living room when I was 10 or so, by the magician Leo Behnke; David Feldman has also used perfect shuffles in pieces.)

As to Babbitt, I think the problem is not a fragmentation of audience but of music itself. He advocated for the "legitimacy" of only tonal music and 12-tone music and music history has certainly proved that to be both a limited point of view and one in which the question of audience was not always answered by the composer's strategic retreat. I think that limit also plays a role in the question of the composer in the University — musical composition, as a field of "research" has proven itself to be both much more diverse and no less intellectually rich than the Babbitt model.