Monday, August 29, 2011

Christopher Shultis, Walking, Thinking, Musicking

I don't do review recordings here, but will, as an exception, make a recommendation: Devisadero, music by Christopher Shultis (various artists, 2011, Navona Records). This is music for wind ensemble, large and small, a set of songs, and a sequence of piano pieces. This is music about the New Mexican desert, but especially about walking through that desert, and I take it here that walking is not hiking with its suggestion of sport, but something more like Wandern, in which the environment provides deep accompaniment and encouragement to thinking and here, thinking-through-music. The album (can we use that word again, in the spirit of those 19th century sheet music collections?) is also a beautifully made whole, with the texts (not just prose) and images closely connected to the music.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Nocturnal: Risks & Benefits

Here's a new thesis about Mozart's death: that he died of too little sunlight, and thus, too little vitamin D. Here's a 2007 post meditating on the nocturnal life of composers:

The working habits of the wild composer are as diverse as the music. Some, especially those pedagogically engaged, are early risers and writers, often finding their muse well before a proper breakfast has been hunted and/or gathered. Others keep strict bankers' hours and, when fortunate, their muses are equally punctual. But concerts and theatrical events in the western tradition are generally evening events (any doubt? is there anything worse than a concert in Darmstadt on a Summer's afternoon?) and many composers, like their concertizing colleagues, shift their timeclocks appropriately, four or more hours forward. After a concert, often the first item of discussion among the empty stomached participants is locating a local restaurant with late hours. (The comedian Don Novello once did a TV promo for the San Francisco Art Institute, identifying the artist's late waking hour as an advantage over other professions, like medicine or the law). None other than J.S. Bach, during his mature years, would adjourn each evening to compose, alone but for the bottle of Weinbrand which he emptied each night. My evidence is only personal and anecdotal, but I am convinced that the ratio of the truly nocturnal to the more-or-less diurnal among composers is higher than that among the population at large. I count myself in that number.

Whatever the immediate causes -- refuge from a necessary day job, or the business of family life, insomnia, or plain choice, working at night has its advantages. You are composing at an edge of consciousness, between waking and dreaming, often the ideal state of mind for imagining a new music. It is the more quiet half of the day, and the less social, less interrupted by the rhythms and counter-rhythms of the modern day. It is a time of day in which natural sounds tend to dominate the mechanical. Growing up in the overgrown desert of Southern California, the night was charged by the increase in moisture in the air and sounds traveled differently at night, with choruses of crickets joined by the doppler-shifted moans of passing AT&SF trains or speeding cars on Route 66 with all the green lights lit. But I digress.

Whether rising early or late, the composers I've known tend to be nappers. Some have mastered the art of napping during the works of unfavored colleagues. Most are deep sleepers, indeed dreamers. Me, I'm far too evil to rest. Should you encounter a wild composer, he or she may very well want to follow you home. This is not always advised, but if you do choose the companionship of a composer, feed them well (or let him or her feed you well, as we are often good in the kitchen), find them a comfortable place to nap, and never introduce her or him to a loan officer. In return, your composer, when correctly domesticated, will provide you with hours of entertainment and perhaps even a bit of affection in return.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Anonymous Takes Down GEMA for a Day & Why I Don't Like Spotify

Although I'm a GEMA member, and in general appreciate the fact that GEMA does about as good a job as any organization in collecting licenses fees for performances, broadcasts, and recordings, I have to admit to taking some pleasure in Anonymous's take-down of the GEMA website today, if just as a reminder of GEMA's inability to deal — technically, legally, economically — with the internet and as yet another marker of the screwed-up state of musical rights (protection, longevity & orphaning, compensaton).


I was recently astonished to learn that someone had written a blog item identifying pieces from this blog's Landmarks list available in recorded form on Spotify. While I appreciate the research effort here, the compensation model for anyone involved in the production of recorded music at Spotify is just not a good one and if you respect musicians, please don't use Spotify. I realize that more and more people simply expect to get recorded music for free (& I'm personally indebted to countless recordings borrowed from libraries or heard on radio, back when there was interesting music on radio in SoCal, so I know the feeling, but those recordings were purchased by the libraries and those radio stations reported and paid license fees for those broadcasts), and I recognize that the wind is blowing in a direction in which, ultimately, only live performances will generate real income streams for most musicians, BUT, the Spotify model in which a composer gets paid only fractions of a cent (dollar or euro) for a streamed listening is — above and beyond the insult — simply not a sustainable one. Brian Brandt's (of Mode Records) article on this topic is well worth reading.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Need a Venue? Learn the secret handshake...

The factoid that Haydn and Mozart were members of Masonic Lodges suggests something about their liberal/enlightenment/secular associations in Josephine Vienna but probably doesn't influence the social lives of many composers nowadays. However, it might, in fact, suggest an interesting solution to the problem of finding a venue for performing your work. Many of the traditional "fraternal" societies, like the Masons, Foresters, Odd Fellows, Moose, Elks, Raccoons, Haymakers, Sons & Daughters of Lichtenstein etc., have been in continuous decline in membership for many years (here's a table for US Masonic lodges). Indeed, in many localities, they verge on extinction for lack of membership. But some of these groups have substantial lodge buildings, often with theatre-like facilities, and often in very convenient locations. And, as a bonus, they usually have their tax-exempt status all worked out, sometimes offer decent insurance policies, and may even have some endowment funds. So here's the opportunity: if there's a moribund Lodge in your neighborhood, gather your musical friends together and for the price of membership (and, yes, all the — knock three times, don't forget your apron — ceremonial and charitable duties that entails), you may gain access to an useful space for presenting your music.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Closed <—> Variable<—> Open

As a follow-up to my last post, which touched on open forms, let me mention two interesting items well worth reading. Among many other things, these items made it clear that my casual appeal for open forms was really an appeal for a field of possibilities, including flexible forms situated between the poles of the closed and finite and the open and potentially infinite, as well as the fact that these qualities need not apply to all parameters in the same way. First, Renewable Music commenter Scott pointed to a fascinating article on "game mechanics" and the relationship of players to those mechanics, a nice parallel to musical questions of the relationship of the player or listener to musical structures and perhaps of special interest to composers concerned with sustaining interest over large-scale forms. Second, the new issue of MusikTexte just arrived and, among many good things, there is a German translation of an article, originally published in Perspectives of New Music (Vol. 46/1 (Winter 2008): 152-93), by the English composer James Saunders on Modular Music. Saunders covers a lot of ground, from the usual musical suspects (Stockhausen, Cage, Brown*) to IKEA furniture and the sculpture of Carl Andre or Dan Flavin, as well as his own music. It is fascinating how Saunders frames his discussion in the very modern terms of production and productivity: greater flexibility, reduced product development time, parallel development of products and product systems, reduction of production time. As a formal theory, Saunders concentrates on formal networks — how the various component parts (may) fit together — and this is truly exciting stuff and, to a large extent, independent of medium, genre or aesthetic. (For a great example of a networked narrative (and a real page-turner, so to speak), I recommend my former librettist, Edward Gorey's, masterpiece, The Raging Tide: or, The Black Doll's Imbroglio. Best page: "27. Figbash, Naeelah, and Skrump fell upon each other with loofahs. If you would love a romantic ending, turn to 30. If you would prefer an ironic one, turn to 29.") IN ANY CASE, let me append to this discussion the thought that an aspect of these forms in addition to their networked or network-able character — which is a topographical quality — regards the material, and particularly spatial or temporal, character of the parts and their relative, indeed proportional, similitude. What happens when an actual metric is assigned to an abstract network?** I suspect that the architect Le Cobusier, in his roundabout attempt to harmonize English and metric measurement systems via a projection onto the proportions of an idealized male (initally a 175 cm tall Frenchman, later a 6-foot tall Englishman) body (echoing, of course, Leonardo and, in turn, Vitruvius) into his Modulor system, came to address similar concerns. Le Corbusier was here, of course, working at his most inspired nuttiness (as were Leonardo, and, in turn, Vitruvius), but the notion of quantities and proportions directly derived from the human body does have some honest dignity to it and perhaps there's something useful to be recovered from it, in musical proportions.

[Please also see this earlier item on The Modular, among other things a paean to a childhood well spent among Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, Togl and Lego.]


* If I were writing a larger article on a similar theme, I might have begin with Satie (especially Parade and its cinematic Entr'acte) and generic silent movie music, then moved on to Henry Cowell's Mosaic Quartet and Lou Harrison's "Theatre Kits" as early examples of modular musics. I might have also included Morton Feldman's prescient Intermission 6 instead of Stockhausen's similarly variable piano piece and would have pulled out a number of modular examples from the 1960's radical west coast repertoire. Heck, I might have even started with Javanese gendhing lampah, flexible-length forms, based on a common underlying tonal pattern but elaborated with contrasting tempi and moods, and flexibly connectable as accompaniment to theatre and dance or attachable to or bridging fixed-length and -form compositions. But then again, that would have been an altogether different article, wouldn't it have?

** This question is also relevant to the theory of melodic contours.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Out of the Open

Since I've spent a good part of the summer working with pieces from the 1960s in "open" forms — modular, with multiple and/or flexible orderings of the component parts — I've been puzzling over how little current music takes advantage of such features. I also find it particularly surprising in that similarly open forms are abundant in contemporary game playing, whether narrative, competitive or constructive in character. But then again, I know next to nothing about games not played with a poker deck, a croquet mallet, a pocket knife, or a pony. I do, however, have contemporary role-play gaming to thank for the widespread availability of non-cubical dice: although my favored instrument for chance operations remains a deck of card, these dice are very useful for chance operations on the fly.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Of late...

Here are three of my recent scores, downloadable for your perusal or playing pleasure:

Field & Stream, for five computers.

Among the Wires, an Illusion Space, piano solo for Alvin Lucier on his 80th.

A Map Drawn from Memory, portrait of Nanne Meyer in two parts, a small piano piece.

These are small pieces, two of them occasional, so I won't say much about them, but that Field & Stream came out of work with some young people, writing for an increasingly common ensemble (i.e. laptops) but not to be in the business of writing software or patches or collecting samples, but rather to compose a structure (another Beckett-Gray code piece BTW) for musicians who do all of those things well and not to get in the way of their individual approaches. And it's about sounds of water: rain, river, ocean, drippage & drainage. Among the Wires, an Illusion Space, is a study in acoustical beating and microtones for an unprepared piano, featuring near-unison harmonics, and is a direct homage to the music of its dedicee. I think of it as a kind of electronic music without electronics. And A Map Drawn from Memory was simply through-composed, after seeing a gallery exhibition by Nanne Meyer.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Return to (the) SOURCE

The new anthology SOURCE: Music of the Avant-garde, 1966-1973, edited by Larry Austin and Douglas Kahn has arrived (UC Press, 2011*) and a revisit to that eponymous journal is well worth it, if only for a bit of time travel into that lively era**. The anthology has a good smattering of the content of the eleven published issues, including scores, articles, questionnaires, photo-documentation, and transcribed interviews/conversations. It is not as visually striking as the orginal multi-colored, multi-textured spiral bound original volumes, but I suppose that's just another example of how all the advantages of current technology and publishing don't necessarily add up to affordable production at the quality and variety of times past. But, all-in-all, the book is delightful and it is constantly striking how prescient Austin and his editorial brethren were in identifying music to which attention ought be paid, from Cage and Feldman to Steve Reich and Daniel Lentz to Harry Partch, Robert Ashley, and Pauline Oliveros, to new instrument builders acoustic and electric, indeterminate scores, theatre pieces, environmental musics, political musics, etc..

My major quarrel with the publication is the low ratio of whole scores to everything else; in the end, the music itself, as represented by the scores, was the main attraction and many of the most extraordinary of them really did get played with some frequency and had a real lasting impact, thus not emphasizing them risks giving undue weight to the persistent myth that the avant-garde music of the time didn't have any traction in the concert hall or effect on music today. The scores that were included reflect the editors' own tastes (and, one imagines, some complicated practical questions about space and publishing rights), and I can't argue with that, but a few personal favorites were among the missing: Daniel Lentz's gorgeous music-theatre scores, Slonimsky's Minitudes, Leedy's usable music I for very small instruments with holes, and the photo spread of Robert Erickson's homemade instruments for Cardenitas.


* For the record, I was not sent a review copy; I bought the book myself.

** Best line-of-the-times in the book: Terry Riley, when asked if his music had been used for political or social ends, replies "You mean the big politics in the sky? No, i don't think so." Second best line, Pauline Oliveros quoting Loren Rush: "the reason for studying counterpoint is that you may have to teach it some day." (I happen to disagree with that, profoundly disagree, in fact, but that takes nothing away from the fact that it's still funny.)

Saturday, August 06, 2011

More from the Lost & Found Dept.

Barney Childs, Keet Seel (1970) for mixed chorus (ACA).

I knew Childs (1926-2000) slightly, as he taught in Redlands, not so far as the crow flies from where I lived in Southern California but a bit out of the way for a teenager limited to bicycle transport, and in retrospect I wish that I could have known him better, as he was the more experimental and interesting of the local composers (who included Gail Kubik and Karl Kohn.)

Childs's academic background — via Deep Springs College, Oxford (as a Rhodes scholar) and Stanford — was in English literature and it seems his initial ambitions were mostly as a poet. He was largely self-taught as a composer, but could count Aaron Copland and Leonard Ratner among his teachers and kept an open ear out from the useful distance of the desert, to whatever was going on at the moment in new music. Childs is probably best known for his solo instrumental works (especially the Sonatas for Trombone and Bass alone and Mr T., His Fancy for bass, and a large number of woodwind pieces, many of them written for clarinetist Philip Rehfeld) and the extravagantly extended-technique and partly indeterminate ensemble work Jack's New Bag, which was published in an issue of Source: Music of the Avant-Garde. Material Press, my own publishing project, carries Childs' Eighth Quartet it its catalog. When last we spoke, at a Bertram Turetsky recital at New Music America in L.A. too many years ago, Childs pointed to his Four Pieces for Six Winds and his setting (for voices, wind ensemble and big band) of Whitman's When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd as his major works, but I've only had the fortune to hear the first (which features a desert-still gamut study as a slow movement) and recordings appear not to be available of either of these.

I happened to pick up a copy of Child's Keet Seel for mixed chorus recently and have spent some time working with the score, in part writing a large section of the piece out in a notation program, so I could figure out how the opening, a passage of some mensural complexity, works. In this opening, a small gamut of pitches are used (entering, in order: soprano only on e', alto moving from e' to g' and then a', tenor on d' and c', and last bass on b and a.) Through non-aligned repeat signs, the simple melodicles get combined and re-combined to create and sustain more of a tonal color than a tonality, a not-yet-functional harmony, as we put it in these parts. But what is most remarkable, compositionally, is how Childs sustains both rhythmic interest and a steady ensemble density gently shifting only in details while sticking to a very clear syllabic text setting when the mensural system would tend to invite more happenstance than continuity. The rest of the piece alternate between more declamatory/soloistic sections and further textural sections, sometimes overlapping ("shingling" is the term of art, I believe) to create clusters, sometimes suggesting a diatonic tonality otherwise clustering chromatically. The text, by Childs himself — though later augmented by snippets of Donne, Shakespeare and George Herbert, seems more about sound and rhythm than semantics, just words to float in and out of the quiet ensemble texture and is eventually — and most mysteriously — interrupted by large spread-out divisi chords loudly singing the name of Keet Seel, that Anasazi cliff dwelling in Arizona's Navajo National Monument. What does this mean? It's music of the desert, but also music which recalls English choral traditions. The non-functional shifts between harmonies and the fragmented and disparate text should make for something less than coherent, but it all comes together with a peculiar, but clearly musical, force.

This is music — challenging music — that is worth renewed attention by a gifted choir.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Hearing —> Changing

I just reread Charles Shere's fine book Thinking Sound Music: The Life and Works of Robert Erickson. His final paragraph, on Erickson's final, enigmatic composition, Music for Trumpet, Strings, and Timpani is wonderful writing and absolutely on point:

Music for Trumpet, Strings, and Timpani is cheerful and outgoing. It makes no attempt to investigate new territory; it is unconcerned with introspection or dark contemplations; it makes few demands of its performers (trumpet part aside). It is engaging and straightforward, as if to close a distinguished , inventive , and finally profound catalogue of over seventy compositions on a note of modest triumph. Music can be complex or simple, expressive or neutral, eventful or calm. It can contemplate things dark or transcendental. It can grieve or rejoice. It is profound solitude or communal cooperativeness. It is everything to its composer, at work on it; to the audience, it might mean anything. In the end — in Music for Trumpet, Strings, and Timpani — it is a diversion, notes on paper, then in the air, then gone; six minutes of entertainment at the end of a program. The music is heard; the audience applauds; the performers are content. The music, for the moment, is over. Hearing it changed the way we knew our world.