Monday, January 31, 2011

Innovation or Stagnation?

Marginal Revolution's Tyler Cowan has a nice post connecting some threads (including Paul Krugman) about stagnation in technical innovation, with the example of the kitchen, which has seen surprisingly little fundamental innovation since the microwave was introduced (a device whose application still remains controversial; but then again, I can recall, as a kid in SoCal the '60s that there were still a couple of houses that took ice deliveries for their wooden ice boxes, so even electrical refrigeration had its (non-Amish) detractors in recent memory. (And don't tell me about those fancy sous-vide machines; it's not a big deal to hot-wire your crock pot into a working sous-vide cooker.)

How about technical innovation in new music? While we once could have taken a David Foster Wallace turn and sold off each musical year to the highest bidding sponsor (1961: Year of the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer, 1967 Year of the Time Point, 1969 Year of the Moog, 1975 Year of the REMO Roto Tom, 1977 Year of Overtone Singing, 1979 Year of the Eventide Harmonizer, 1985 Year of Midi (or was it kelp trumpets or long string instruments or the virgin sample?), 'til somewhere in the 1990's we entered the era of Laptop Gazing, with which the pace of technical innovation seems to have become incremental rather than eventful, and even when eventful (like last summer's fit of stretching) it fatigues quickly. Has anyone noticed any innovation per se of late, or have we fallen into the routines of repertoire niches? If you've noticed innovation, what examples? What are the trends and tendencies? Or have composers simply become comfortable cooking in their old fashioned kitchens? If so, is this for better or worse?

In short, what's novel, lately, about The New Music?

Sunday, January 30, 2011


In memory of Milton Babbitt, here's a very accessible lecture by Emory University mathematician Ken Ono with some very recent results in partitions. The musical projection of possible partitions of a set — of pitches, or icti in a measure, or of instruments in an ensemble, for example — was very important to Babbitt, an interest I happen to share.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Piano and Violin: Blunt Instruments of Bourgeois Education

I agree with everything that the Tenured Radical, Claire Potter, has to say about the whole "Chinese Mother" child rearing topic, which has been put forth by Yale Professor Amy Chua in a book and a couple of well-placed advance publicity articles.

As a minor addition to this topic, I wish to note that Amy Chua places these two items at the end of her WSJ list of the things her daughters were never allowed to do:

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

So the "Chinese Mother" is not insisting on the q'in or the er-hu, but piano and violin. What is it about that pair of instruments? There is a long western tradition in which learning these two instruments — with perhaps the 'cello as a rather rare variation — is considered acceptable and desirable for bourgeois and upper class children. Children whose parents are determined to set on a path of upward mobility into or within these classes have been encouraged, when not forced, to take up one of these axes. The aim is for the ability to show discipline and training and, perhaps secondarily, to be able to demonstrate a form of virtuosity before private audiences. In rare cases, the aim is professionalism, but generally the goal is considered to be a form of cultivation, in this case closely identified with a particular repertoire, one centered in the Viennese classics and peppered with display pieces from neighboring repertoires. Further, those rare cases of paths to professional musical careers were almost exclusively male, and the cachet for a musically well-trained young woman was not infrequently, a higher value on the marriage market.

This amateur piano/violin tradition was already present in Beethoven's Vienna (think of the young women who were his piano students) and continued, at least until very recently, in Central Europe. (I witnessed the tail end of this in Budapest: violin, piano and the occasional 'cello were still the dominant instruments of urban upper class identification and aspirations, while the rest of the orchestra was filled by instrumentalists whose pedagogical traditions had, both historically and more recently, distinctively rural and military backgrounds.) These instruments were considered to be high culture-bearing; they had significant solo and repertoire by all of the important names and as people from outside of Europe wished to express an affinity for this prestigious tradition, these were obvious instruments of choice. We can still recognize this phenomena in the European immigrant communities in the Americas, through which the present conservatory and orchestral landscape was developed, but the recent waves of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese (both in home country and in places of immigration) enthusiasms for this repertoire are more marked in recent memory. The Suzuki-Yamaha divide between violin and piano pedagogy of the 1960's and 70's is now echoed in Prof. Chua's no-instrument-other-than-the-piano-or-violin ideology.

Now, as a composer who likes writing for the piano or violin from time to time, I appreciate the fact that we will have more pianists and violinists among us in the future. And, as I have noted often here, I strongly appreciate the fact that many of those violinists and pianists will be best-meaning-of-the-word-amateurs. But I do wish to add two caveats. The first is that the orchestra (professional or amateur) relatively rarely uses pianos and though there can be many violins, we need violas and bassoons and horns as well. A world full of "Chinese Mothered" violinists and pianists will be a world in which violists, bassoonists and horn players will be valued more highly. (The "Chinese Mother" appears not always to be wise about economics.) The second caveat is that I want to work with and listen to musicians who are not only mechanically competent, but are honestly interested in the music and, generally speaking, cheerful rather than fearful about music-making. Unfortunately the tactical application of fear appears to be a major element of Prof. Chua's pedagogy; in all my experience of music, I have never seen any necessity for fear as an element in its production.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

From rules to practice

The typographic "rule" that one should not (that is, never) separate two sentences with more than a single space (as opposed to the "rule" that one should (that is, always) separate two sentences with two spaces) has received some on-line attention of late. (For example here, with countless arguments for and against scattered through the 'sphere.) While the issue here is, ultimately, trivial, the exercise, Ithinks, is a useful one, a reminder of how often we confuse habitual practice with compulsion or necessity. Classical musicians, for example, get trained in the "common practice", a body of technique roughly identifiable with German/Austrian practice from the middle of the eighteenth century onward for some century and a half or so. While this is a remarkable slice of repertoire and the pedagogical tradition which has grown around it is remarkable in its own way, I think that that technique only really becomes its most exciting when one teases, no digs into, the edges of that repertoire, or — better yet — entertains the possible insights and advantages of traditions which are, with regard to the common line, heterodox. My favorite example of such an uncommon practice comes in works of Berlioz (a composer who, if I weren't avoiding the ten best/ ten most influential business would have a lock on a place in either list) who had absorbed the alternative tonal practices of the revolutionary era composers as well as aspects of text setting in French to derive a tonal practice that in terms of voice leading, harmonic rhythm, metric stress etc. continues to place the common practice in vivid relief. Resolve a 4/2 dominant to the 5/3 tonic? Sure. Use a mediant as a substitute for a dominant? Why not? Sustain passages with only the voicing of a chord changing? Of course! The compositional space between rules closely cut to a particular era's local tradition and all the possible resettings of the parameters in such rules is huge and — pace Schoenberg — that's where there's still plenty of good music to be made.

Friday, January 14, 2011

You're the top, or at least among the top ten...

The musical blogoplan is currently under a wave of ten-best- and ten-most-influential-lists, with regard to composers and recordings. I think that best composer lists are pretty much beside the point, as composers are all uneven in the quality of their production and it's the individual piece that counts with the composer, at best, as a kind of brand name, and then more for stylistic than qualitative consistency. These exercises are useful, however, as a modest measure of the sympathies and passions of the moment and can often be useful, too, for clarifying, for example, the distinction between "best" and "most influential" or between an abstract ideal of a work of music and a single representation of the work in recorded form. Thus, Carlos Kleiber's recordings of Beethoven Five and Seven definitely make my best list (and this would be a best list that is far from limited to dead-white-European-male-made classical music) , but I'm not altogether sure that they have been particularly influential, indeed, I suspect that the performances are so good that they are close-to inimitable.

From the lists I've perused at late, it's been most interesting to see how list makers will hedge on the question of influence by including a Wagner or a Schoenberg with a huge caveat about not actually liking the man and/or the music but acknowledging the achievement. Influence is a tough topic and, to be absolutely honest, it forces us to wrestle with some strange notions. For example, weren't Fux (author of Gradus ad Parnassus, the theory textbook of generations of student musicians) and, more locally, Gedalge (designer of the French conservatory "school fugue"), in their bureaucratically pedagogical ways, more directly influential on subsequent generations of musicians than some of the big names? Influence is often a question of on whom, where, and when. Bach, as unavoidably important as he appears now, was an obscure local figure whose complete output was only slowly re-discovered, and even then through the lens of very different performance styles. Or how about that mighty influence that Wagner is supposed to have had? A post-Wagnerian music drama never really established itself, unless we count the Märchenoper of Humperdinck and Siegfried Wagner or the pair of Richard Strauss Einaktors, and Wagner's most radical chromatic tonal practice was not, in practice, that distinctive from late Verdi. Moreover, the developing variations and complex metric ideas of Brahms (i.e. "Brahms the progressive") were arguably the most forward looking technical ideas of their time. No, the lasting influence really comes from that force field of technique in which Wagner, Verdi and Brahms were all working, and eliding any one of those names would come at an unacceptable loss of musical substance. And, of course, once we've eaten up three slots in our top ten like that, it starts to become clear that any meaningful list is not going to be satisfactory with only ten names!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Elisabeth Klein on studying with Bartók

Here's an interview, by John Moseley, with the pianist Elisabeth Klein (1911-2004). While there is much personal detail here, the most interesting elements of the interview are for me to be found in the description of Bartók's preferred playing style which, although considered anti-romantic (catch words, here: dry, strictly rhythmic, no pedal) in its time, was very much a transitional style which still retained considerable rubato and a dynamic profile which was far from rigidly stratified.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Place in the Sun

I've just returned from a trip to the US, more familiar than professional, with more time spent in small towns than big cities, and more time than either in some of those now-ubiquitous communities that are in the nebulous somewhere in-between. We don't really have adequately descriptive names to fit the Rancho Cucamongas of this day and age, places with substantial population (comparable, for example, to that of Mozart's Vienna, and larger than most of the towns Bach lived in) but not yet much there, there (as Stein famously said of Oakland). Where are the great novels about such places? Who are the great composers in these places? Really talented, imaginative people come of of these places, but they don't tend to stay, making their careers if they can instead in the big cities, competing against fellow asylum seekers for the few available places in the sun. And that strikes me as a major opportunity that we ought not let go. Because there is poetry in these places, and both substance and potential in the locales and letting that go — ceding it to the anti-intellectual, anti-diversity, anti-cultural economic elite, the one with the real temporal power, the one that is steadily making over the US into a land of interchangeable strip malls filled with the same coast-to-coast chains of minimum wage-staffed shops and fast food joints — is a tragic mistake.

Mumma in MusikTexte

The current issue of MusikTexte has a feature suite of articles (in German) on composer Gordon Mumma. Among the contributions is an item by Chris Brown (who teaches at Mills College) discussing Mumma as a teacher. Mumma was (and is) the teacher who was most consequential to my work, a valued extra set of critically acute ears, a walking compendium of technicalia and music-historial realia, and a constant source of questions and encouragement (emphasis on the "courage" part) to push the conceptual envelope on one's ideas and practice. His own compositions for both electronic and acoustic media are elegant in both form and detail and continue to provide both pleasure for the own sake and as rich models for new music; they should be better-known and I can recommend these articles as well as Daan Vandewalle's recent recording of works for piano by Mumma.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Sonic obsessions, revisted (7)

I spent part of the morning of this last day of 2010 recording sounds from the San Antonio Creek, which flows down the south side of Southern California's Mt San Antonio (usually called Mt Baldy.) There's been enough rain and snowfall so far this year that the creek is full enough to get a decent roar from the falls down to the modest rapids below where white water pours over granite. This little stream is probably the body of water I know best, having lived for some time up in Baldy village as a kid and then moving down the mountain to a house on the San Bernadino/Los Angeles County line which was actually set along the old creekbed of the San Antonio which had long been diverted, first as water was drawn for citrus groves in the late 19th and early 20th century, and then, finally, as a concrete flood control channel was dug some half a mile to the East. The rivers and creeks of Southern California have been almost erased, and its almost spooky to consider that in the mid-19th century both the Los Angeles and the San Gabriel were navigable, with a ferry delivering those who arrived at the harbor of San Pedro to the City of the Angels. Stream and creeks and the faster-moving rivers are acoustically the most interesting waterways, with every obstacle — rocks and fallen trees, beaver dams etc — making fine articulations, sudden accelerandi, surprising sprites of sound. And this, too: We were at the Getty Center in Malibu a few days ago, focusing as one inevitably does, on Robert Irwin's Central Garden. Though artificial, it was the central stream which registered most for me, and registered mostly as an acoustical experience, with the shapes of the riverbed carefully composed to deliver something very special.