Monday, December 31, 2012

Composing Under Constraints & Musical Escapology

In one way or another, I've always composed under some set of constraints. I do so because the musical results have reliably both surprised and satisfied me, and have taken me through both comfort zones and previously unimagined places.  Many of these are tricks of the trade, widely shared in the community of composers; others may be uniquely mine.  Some are open and obvious, others are under the surface, some secrets, some puzzles, some cast away and irretrievably lost.  Working with a pre-compositional gamut of tones (sometimes a tuning) or noises is pretty common, as are using drones, ground basses (I'm very fond of ostinato basses but not so fond of repeated harmonic sequences), and hockets.  I like to take both random, constrained, and freely composed walks on pitch lattices, a practice related to an early, deep study of musical intonation.  I've used Hauer's harmonic band technique, through which any sequence of tones can be wrestled into a sequence of harmonies with smooth voice leading and often surprising local suggestions of globally a-functional tonalities. Formally, I like to use Gray Codes, Beckett Gray codes specifically, for example to control scoring patterns; this is an area where I'm probably a genuine pioneer.  I like borrowing forms from poetry, both in terms of metres and rhyme schemes (I would like to do more of the same with dance forms, perhaps especially because they're so out of favor.) I also like to use Square Root forms, following John Cage's model, but sometimes broken square root forms, in which some chunk of the pattern is missing, whether lost or intentional erased, as suggested by Lou Harrison. Harrison's phrase systems (described in his Music Primer, a beautiful small book rich in potent ideas (I received a copy as a 16th birthday present from the composer Douglas Leedy*))  are extremely useful, as are his interval and rhythm controls, the former of which anticipate Elliott Carter's methods. I like to cycle a rhythm within and through a sequence of measures and I also like increasing and decreasing series of icti over such sequences, and sometime I combine the two. I like logical sequences of numbers (here's my contribution to mathematics.)  I am also very fond of using perfect shuffles — yes, just like card shuffles — to order and reorder sequences of musical material; they are usefully rich in both familiarity and variety. And that's just from the top of my bag of tricks...

The question of whether a player or listener can or should dis- or recover these constraints and methods is unresolved, and usefully so, I think.  Not least because music works best when it works at several levels of entrance or retention: at the surface, for those just passing by, and deeper, ever deeper, for those with the time, skills, patience, imagination to go deep.  There is some music, like much of that of early Steve Reich or almost all of Tom Johnson's remarkable catalog, in which the methods are either immediately present or easy to puzzle out, but this does not make either the music or the method any less mysterious or profound for the accessibility. In such cases, knowing the local system simply makes the occasion more engaging, and ultimately removes distractions from attending intimately to either or both the underlying ideas and their physical expression in sequences of acoustic events. The flip of the coin comes with work like that of Milton Babbitt, in which aural recovery of the underlying array and the immediate rules for its projection into a score is really not on the agenda. The array itself insures a maximally even (or, by Jim Tenney's terms, ergodic**) distribution of event classes such that, statistically seen, any given sample of the surface should be more or less like any other, so that the extemporaneous process of composing out form the array is one of largely creating atypical events that defeat that evenness, emphasizing, for example, near similarities at the surface created by accident-like conjunctures found deep in the array. I would characterize this more as composing against the array rather than with it, and playing or listening to such pieces is definitely less about recovering the structure than enjoying the emergence of such playful anomalies.

I happen to find constraints like these advantageous; other composers disagree, and sometimes with something approaching anger.  Some advance the argument that composing with constraints is unnecessarily accepting unnecessary constraints on the musical results.  I would counter simply that this is mistakenly assuming that the imposition of constraints leads to a severely limited range of musical results.  In fact, in the huge vector space of possible musics, a reduction to a manageably smaller but still very large number (as with the 10^14 possible combinations that lead to my recent clarinet pieces***) is more than useful and with the huge variety of parameters, values, and contexts that can come into play for any given constraint, we are inevitably dealing in realms of finite, but still ridiculously large fields of possibilities. In any case, most anyone who claims to be composing without constraints is most likely doing exactly that — using a modality or tonality or a metre is a constraint, row tables and other pre-compositional means and tactics are constraints.  Hell, using five line-staved manuscript paper or just using a particular set of instruments and sticking with them is a constraint: be honest, how many times have you been listening to a string quartet when suddenly a Wagner tuba, a drum machine, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir enter in?

ALL THAT SAID, the ultimate utility of recognizing a constraint is that a situation or scenario is created with authentic opportunites, among them tensions or conflicts, built into it.  And once you begin working with such a situation or scenario, the possibility or option to resolve the tensions or conflicts, and take or refuse opportunites becomes a lively presence in the work, whether tantalizingly left unaccomplished or relievedly resolved, by escaping, whether gently or through brute force, whatever limits one imagined the constraints to have set. And the question of whether this escape act is, ultimately, compositional or in the hands/mouths and ears of performers is also — and usefully so — open.

And of course, this:  My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit.  — Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music

* About those phrase systems: I recall Brian Ferneyhough, at the chalkboard in Darmstadt, appearing to dazzle his audience with a series of transformations to a series of measures. He was practicing notihing more or less than a species of Lou's system.
** It one of those paradoxes that John Cage seemed to have understood remarkably well: maximum variety leads to maximum maximum leveling.
*** That piece is indebted to a collections of poems coming out of the Oulipo, that famous cabal of writers exploring techniques for potential literature.(1) I'm a long-time admirer of the group, and not only the technical output, but the actual literary output of several of its members, first Harry Mathews, then Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau, most recently Jacques Roubaud whose novel Mathematics: is a wonderful thing, very close to my own sympathies, full of amplifications and interpolations and built of a linear expression of a branching structure (parentheses, dots) which is so flexible that it seems obviously the ideal one for an intellectual autobiography. 
(1) I concur with Charles Shere about Daniel Levin Becker's Many Subtle Channels: Im Praise of Potential Literature; it should sit on everyone's little Intros-to-Oulipo shelf next to Mathews and Brotchie's The Oulipo Compendium and Motte's Oulipo: a Primer of Potential Literature).  As long as I'm at it, this year has been good for accounts of experimental literature in general, and I've enjoyed Charles Bernstein's Attack of the Difficult Poems, and really admire David Antin's  Radical Coherency.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

All The Music A Clarinetist Will Ever Need.

I've written a new set of pieces for solo clarinet, 100,000,000,000,000 of them, to be exact. It's an homage to Raymond Queneau and his Cent mille milliards de poèmes, with which my set of character pieces shares the same combinatorial flip-book structure, although Queneau's poems are French sonnets (abab abab cce dde in alexandrines) and mine are English sonnets (abab cdcd efef gg in a pentameter.)  The provisional score (provisional meaning I reserve the right to make changes) is available online and it's free to download, here.  The music is diverse — from ambiguously modal to not-quite-tonal to the ornithologically a-tonal to none-of-the-above — yet should have enough connecting features to render a useful percentage of the combinations sensibly unified, another useful percentage with satisfyingly broken continuities and the remaining pieces everywhere in-between.  While these pieces are intended for concert performance, either en-bloc or scattered through a program, played by any size or combination of clarinets, there is also a degree of progressive increases in technical challenges through the collection, so they may be useful for teaching as well.  A complete performance of 100,000,000,000,000 Pieces for Clarinet would take, non-stop at the given tempo with a few seconds in-between pieces, more than 285 million years, and as such now constitutes the vast bulk of the solo clarinet repertoire, which is an audacious little factoid.  I don't expect to hear all of them, but would enjoy hearing from any player who plays some selection of them!  Thanks to Taylan Susam for asking for the pieces and to Danyel Franque for advice on matters clarinetic.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Leonardo Music Journal CD

Just a note: I curated the CD accompanying the current issue of the Leonardo Music Journal, with the theme "Acoustics."   To be honest, when editor Nicolas Collins corralled me into this project, I had major reservations (which shouldn't be surprising, given my personal differences with sound recording as a medium for transmitting music), but in this instance these were overcome by a wide ranging suite of strong exploratory pieces by the composers Judy Dunaway, Miguel Frasconi, Hauke Harder, Chris Molla, Kiyomitsu Odai, and Ann Warde, all of whom I thank profusely for their music.  Leonardo Music Journal's web site is here

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Same and Different, again

ONE MORE THING about this fluid dynamic between identity and difference and the whole space of resemblance in-between those poles:  This can often depend upon a confusion of identities and I'm not altogether certain it's usually an honest confusion, instead it is often a voluntary entry into a contract to agree to mistake A for B.  One the one hand, this is just playing the game, agreeing, in musical terms, to hear a little more or a little less into the music so that two stretches of music fit into the same memory cache. On the other hand, this could be a little more ethically suspect, nefarious even, a suspension of honest estimation and judgment in favor of bending the evidence to suit the purpose of musical continuity or even unity, an act of some misplaced generosity, or even worse when a confusion of the kind is simply due to not listening and/or not remembering, which certainly happens much more than composers or performers ought be comfortable.

And this, too: Isn't this confusion often really, truly implausible?  There is a huge tradition in myth and literature of assumed and mistaken identities: think of Twelfth Night, or the Martin Guerre story, or any of those Hollywood films in which a thin layer of shiny latex turns person M into person N, or that classic hard-boiled detective formula in which person X mistakes person Y for person Z.   Of course the purpose of these mistaken identities is to set a target for the story which follows, and that target is the removal of the disguise, the restoration of proper identities. In some of these cases, one can well imagine that the mistaken identity is accepted knowingly (i.e maybe Martin Guerre was a creep and a lousy provider, so if this guy was affable enough and able to do the job well, well then Mrs Guerre was happy to play along) but in others, it can't really work unless there's some form of mass hysteria about (which might well be the case in Twelfth Night.) The frequency of these stories does make one wonder, however, if there wasn't once some time in which people regularly slipped into other identities and got away with it, people just accepting that you were who you said you were, even if you looked and sounded somewhat or even substantially different from how you used to look and sound (modern identity theft, which is an almost exclusively electronic information-based phenomena, is something altogether different, without any need for physical resemblance, indeed any physical presence, at all.)

So, in that space between a theme and its last variation or an exposition and its recapitulation, or along the hiccuping returns of a rondo, what is the nature of our confusion?  Do we enter in playfully, voluntary participant in a game with evolving rules, parameters, and other constraints?  Will identities be satisfactorily resolved in the end, like the denouement in a mystery, or can we satisfyingly be left without resolution?  Or do we simply all go a little bit mad when listening closely to music?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Same and Different

One of the qualities I value most in music is that it works for us as wholes which are marked by continuities and contrasts, and this despite the fact that we have such a weak and fluid notion of identity and difference in musical materials. The "same" audible stuff can be heard completely differently in alternative contexts; even fa plain & simple vanilla repetition, made by just shoving a bit of music a little further along in time, creates contrast by both the experience of that time shift and through the formation of a connection to the original statement.  At the same time, musical coherence depends upon being able to connect or hear relatedness between stretches of music although they many vary in detail or in substance. (All of this depends upon the related faculties of memory and forgetting, but that's a topic for another day, another day.)

I've been finishing up two pieces in which everything depends upon this fluidity between the musically same and different.  The first, a series of divisions or variations over a ground bass, is more straightforward due to the historical precedents, although my belatedness in working to a familiar ostinato (La Follia) places perhaps special pressures on the side of making differences, if not innovation altogether.  The second, 100,000,000,000,000 Pieces for Clarinet is more ambitious.  It also has a historical model, but the model, indeed its very form, is not a piece of music but rather a collection of sonnets of the same size and similar name by Raymond Queneau.  The unique problem here is that I have to write pieces with some certainly as to their balance between coherence and contrast, although I will never be able to hear the vast majority of the pieces in their entirety (indeed, at the given tempo, if played non-stop, a performance of all of the pieces would last more than 285 million years) composing only the pool of 140 ordered segments from which all of the pieces are assembled.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Origin of Table Manners

(This is the third in a series of items which begun with The Raw and The Cooked and continued with From Honey to Ashes).

When a rule of etiquette first appears in the historical record, it enters as a corrective, not yet a norm: an instruction to use a knife and a fork indicated that people were eating without the use of knives and forks; an injunction against unpleasant noises indicates that meals were once taken in the company of conspicuous sounds.

It's actually the other way 'round with composing.  Our rules of etiquette, found in treatises by Fux and Morley and Schenker and Hindemith and dozens of MacHoses and others even more deserving of obscurity, have to be read — if read at all — as invitations to misbehave: every rule represents a path not taken, but damn likely a path worth revisiting if we are at all to move forward.  The etiquette for table manners is all about ever-more narrowing the range of possible behaviors; the etiquette of composition, in contrast, is all about expanding the range of possible behaviors; the composer's task is to make a convincing case, within a piece of music, for doing something that was previously forbidden.


In the back of a used book shop I recently came across a copy of Heinz-Klaus Metzger's translation of Ernst Krenek's deceptively titled Studies in Counterpoint, a pamphlet from 1940 which was probably the most widely read introduction to 12-tone technique in the '40s and '50. (I had actually read the English original, from a copy borrowed from Claremont Public Library when I was in Junior High, and even produced a set of small pieces, "inventions" as Krenek styled them, which my band director seriously didn't like, preferring that I learn figured bass from his well-worn copy of the dreaded (but, to its credit, proto-algorithmic) MacHose.  Probably just as well.)

I believe that Krenek's little book was very important in transmitting just enough practical information about Schoenbergian technique into the community of working commercial composers that at least some aspects of the technique became permanent staples of the film music menu.  Suspense? Angst?  Krenek's little book had a usable formula for accompanying scenes of extreme emotional content.

Revisiting the Krenek after all these years is, as one might expect, a curious experience. To be honest, part of the curiosity comes from the vague familiarity of reading a book I encountered in English as a teenager now in German and with a more substantial exposure to the repertoire behind me.  But the larger curiosity comes from the sense that there is now nothing particularly urgent about  the 12-tone or serial projects and there is now substantial and useful distance in any re-reading.  In particular, it has become clear that Krenek was working at a now-distant juncture between method and style and that many of the "rules" he presents  (restricting the repetition of pitch classes to the same octave, for example), can emerge, with the benefits of hindsight, as much less essential  — when not altogether unnecessary — and deconstructing (if you'll pardon my po-mo) the theory to recover the underlying style (or vice versa) is not uninteresting and — may be/kind of/sort of/possibly/absolutely not — of compositional interest.


In contrast, Henry Brant's Textures and Timbres: An Orchestrator's Handbook needs no deconstruction as he is absolutely upfront and candid about the nature and limits of his project, which is restricted to balancing and mixing instruments.  His recipes for homogenous and well-balanced combinations can be used as is, or, perhaps more productively, as negative examples.  For me, the greatest utility of these recipes often comes less in following them exactly than in figuring out where they can be varied, whether substantially or in detail. So I have a bunch of bletting medlars in my kitchen, but no useful medlar recipes.... haul out the old copy of The Joy of Cooking and I look for variations:  medlar in place of pumpkin in pie, in place of banana in nut bread, and in place of persimmon in pudding.  Likewise, Brant's cookbook provides similar openings for innovation in the orchestra.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Discipline and Belief

So, I've initiated a project — the details of which will be hush-hush until the end of January — which involves at least 18 composers and an equal number of ground basses.  For my own contribution, I decided to compose first and notate later, getting the music I wanted in my ear, mind, hands, and tongue (it's wind music) before committing it to paper or monitor, as a way of increasing discipline in a musical environment that is, for me, both so rich and so familiar that going on auto pilot and just writing something out was simply too easy. (Sounding easy, which I might want, is not the same as composed easy, which I don't necessarily want.)  At the same time, knowing that I was going to commit some notes to paper put a powerful  — and powerfully useful — constraint on my paper- and screenless composing, in that I was not going to accept just some more noodling-around-out-of-habit improvisation.  When it came time to notate, this discipline had turned into a serious commitment to each note, a need, even, to believe in each note before drawing it on a page or clicking it into the data file.  Perhaps most symptomatic of this is the fact that I couldn't bring myself to copy and paste anything, not even the repetitions of the ground bass.  If that ostinato is going to remain obstinate, then I damn well want to mean it, and if that ground bass starts to get a little less grounded, then I'm taking full responsibility.

Thursday, November 08, 2012


Christopher Shultis has a terrific post about interpreting John Cage's work for amplified plant materials, including a pod rattle and, typically, cacti, Child of Tree, here.  "Interpreting", in this context, means not (or, at least not in a conventional sense) following a score and eliciting some expressive content, but, on the basis of a set of verbal remarks, assembling the instrumentation and amplification, developing playing techniques, and devising a playing score, a project which begins with an apparently very open situation and develops, through practice, into a distinctive musical work with real constraints and recognizable features.  Above and beyond the attractive richness and gentleness of the piece for listeners I don't think that it can be emphasized enough how much Child of Tree is enhanced by the project-like character of its score, drawing players into discovery of its qualities, extents and limits.

The experimental tradition offers a wealth of pieces which invite or even require that players go beyond the usual level of commitment, research, discovery, development and lots of rehearsal.  Pieces which require that players find or build new instruments or significantly alter or adapt existing instruments (or voices.)  Pieces which require players to realize, within composer-defined processes or rules, scores for their own specific use.  (In my experience, this is also very much like the experience of playing early music from original notation and/or with instruments with historically interrupted performance practice traditions.)  Project-like pieces can be found in the catalogs of composers like Cage, Harrison or Cowell, or cued pieces of Wolff, the acoustic explorations begun with Lucier, and very many pieces in the verbal score tradition.  (Yes it can also be a project if one decides to read Kant alongside Beethoven, the transcendentalists for Ives or Mallarmé with Boulez, and yes, many of Stockhausen's mid-career pieces were so thickly distinctive as to require a similar level of attention.)  I guess the word that belongs here is "engagement", though which the player and piece become intimate. And while audience may not be party to that intimacy, it's been my experience that audiences can reliably recognize an engaged performance as a qualitatively better performance. And while many a Cage work will ultimately require a kind of detachment in playing (or listening, for that matter), I suspect that you can only reach that detachment through deep and sustained engagement.       

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Signal & Noise

With the current election, many Americans are getting lessons in statistics these days, and the focus has obviously been on trying to elicit strong signals from noisy information sources.  Many composers also use statistical methods in our work, but it strikes me that the intention is subtly different, as it's more our interest to introduce noise into otherwise orderly circumstances.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Full Cage

There has been so much material about John Cage online of late that it is difficult to sort through it all. Let me just point to two very smart items, this, by conductor and percussionist Steven Schick, and this, by composer and critic Matthew Guerrieri. I'm singling these two out because they both focus on Cage's work in perhaps its most critical moment.  There is a tendency — due more to later Newmusicland politics than to the music itself in its own era — to disassociate Cage's project from the larger avant-garde musical project of the time, in particular accentuating the differences and distances from both the post-Schoenbergian American 12-toners and the European serialists.  Recovering those connections does not mean ignoring the differences (indeed, those differences — Cage and Eastern thought*, Babbitt and positivism, Boulez and French literature, Nono and romantic Marxism, Stockhausen and Hesse's Magister Ludi... — are the spice rack in the compositional kitchen) but helps place Cage's work in its own legitimate post-Schoenbergian context and helps to reestablish some of the sophistication, in terms of both complexity and plain musicality, of Cage's achievement that often gets lost in an emphasis on dimensions of Cage's work which are frequently misread as naive.  In a series of key works, in particular the landmarks Concert for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra and Music of Changes, Cage built upon his experience with rhythmic structures (used initially in works for percussion and the prepared piano) and modes of organizing and moving through collections of materials which clearly stem from Schoenbergian techniques, with an attitude towards gamuts of materials that equally clearly reflect the influence of his other principle teacher, Henry Cowell.  Cage's charts correspond directly to the row boxes or arrays of say, Milton Babbitt, and though very different in the character of the single elements, reflect as careful as compositional mind (being puzzled together under tight restrictions) and, often to my ears, through their exuberance and eccentricity, a more vivid musical imagination.  

* With Cage, the Hindu and Zen strains were rather recent additions to an already rich array of spices, including his Aunt Phoebe Harvey's rhythmic patterns, Cowell, Satie, literature including Stein or Joyce or Cummings, visual artists from Tobey and Graves to Duchamp, and of course, much experience in composing and performing music for dance.

Friday, October 12, 2012

On(e) Handedness

My counterpoint teacher in college was a Nadia Boulanger pupil and, more than once when having his students play exercises at the keyboard, would hear as the excuse for a weak performance that one hand was weaker than the other. He would, in turn, respond with a Boulanger anecdote, saying that when she heard that particular excuse she would raise both hands, palms forward to the student, and declare that, "for a musician, there was no difference between the two."   Well, then, I am a sorely deficient musician by Boulanger standards.

I've recently been reminded of how profoundly right-handed I am.  A small operation on my right index finger left me almost comically disabled for the past couple of weeks.  Aside from all of the inconveniences of eating and personal hygene with my right hand continuously held high and immobile, my daily sight reading were out of the question — lacking a supply of interesting music for piano left hand and right fist; the trombone, which would appear to be digitally insensitive didn't work out because my thumb was bandaged so that it couldn't grip any of the other fingers, so no slide  —, even modest work at the computer was a chore with it — though this may be as much due to stubborn character as the passing infirmity — a surprisingly difficult task to operate a mouse with the wrong fingers on those buttons. Everyday tasks, when suddenly done in the wrong hand, often had to be done twice or thrice to correct for the interference of habitual hand motions. My signature, done left-handed, was a infantile scrawl, refusing to seat itself with any discipline when required (a bank clerk laughed aloud at my left-handed attempt to draw money from my own account.) And, of course, blogging here took a holiday, as I had neither an index finger available to point (click, drag) to interesting reads elsewhere nor could I summon the patience to transcribe (hunt, peck) any of my usual manuscript marginalia, as I was not not putting note on paper or on the screen, making a composing holiday of it all as well.


With all due respect to Madame Boulanger, and as useful as it may be to have hands which can make music indistinguishably from each other — so that, for example, a musical line can pass smoothly between the hands —, there isn't actually very much music which depends, at a deep level, on the extreme case of absolute symmetry between the hands.  Most of the concrete examples are found in 20th century repertoire (think Webern, Bartok, for starters, Tom Johnson for another; inversion is very much a factor in earlier music, however, there it was typically restricted by the terms of the prevailing modality or tonality such that it was rarely exact intervallic inversion), but, to be honest, I'm not altogether certain that a performing style which smooths out the differences between left and right actually does these symmetries much service.  Music is just too closely tied to the essential asymmetries of passing time and a pitch spectrum which is defined by a relationship to that time.  Also this: the physical asymmetries of real people are interesting and attractive (nothing is quite as disturbing as a perfectly symmetrical face), and I suspect that when people make music, their natural asymmetries are often part of the charge of their performances.


These three items belong here, too, but I couldn't figure out quite how to fit them in:

(a) Charles Chase, who owned the Folk Music Center in Claremont, California, from whom I learned much about instruments and politics and poetry, was an occasional primitive sculptor. His major pieces were a steel man and woman (the man has a full body but the woman is represented by only a face, as he wanted to avoid the typical sexualized stereotypes of the female form), still on display out back behind the shop, and it had been his ambition to partner the two with a steel hand. He never made it, though, as it was, for him, the most difficult part of the human anatomy to represent.  He made hundred of sketches, but never found a satisfactory one that captured, in frozen form, the capacity of the hand for so many varied forms of motion.

(b) If I complain this much about one finger, imagine if it had been my thumb which was temporarily disabled instead! (BTW, it was Montaigne's (the first blogger, he was) essay Of Thumbs, taught me how great expository prose could be.)

(c) ...that convention of low-to-high in pitch, mapped to left-to-right on the standard keyboard... how peculiar it is to encounter a keyboard that does the opposite...


Friday, September 28, 2012

Idyll, interrupted.

David Foster Wallace had a technique (see, especially, the short story, Oblivion, in the like-named collection) in which the continuity of a passage is punctuated, no, broken, by a number of asides and would-be clarifications, housed between commas, m-dashes, parentheses, or square brackets which, ostensibly in the name of precision, sometimes do indeed have that effect, but just as often create contradictions (in the case of Oblivion, revealing more about the narrator than the narrator should have intended) which may be revealingly comic or tragic and — through their intervention in the nominally principle (i.e. those not comma-, m-dashed-, parenthese'ed-, or square-bracket-jacked) text — actually do the heavy labor in propelling the narrative forward.

As it happens, the short story of Wallace's in which this technique appeared to most acute (the fore-mentioned Oblivion) includes snoring (in the context of a married couple's dispute over whether or not the narrator (the husband) snores, thus disturbing the narrator's wife's sleep) as a topic.  Snoring is of course a form of disturbance or punctuation in a number of continuities: the smooth passage of air through the upper respiratory system, the steady supply of oxygen to organs requiring it, the unbroken sleep of the person snoring, the unbroken sleep of anyone sharing acoustically connected space with the person snoring, etc.. Now, snoring is not the only noise which can disturb sleep (we have a persistent problem with amorous alley cats on our street and sometimes air traffic gets routed our way) but it does have a unique capacity to disturb domestic bliss, with heavy snoring having the potential to drive otherwise happy couples into extreme solutions, from earplugs and steam-punkish breathing machines to separate beds, rooms, houses, even complete break-ups, giving it an emotional edge — which Wallace uses to devastating effect — that neither the sound of heavy machinery nor those of cats in heat usually have.  

The topic, snoring, reminded me of a musical episode of extreme continuity interrupted by snoring.  Years ago, in Los Angeles, my father took me to a USC football game in the Coliseum and afterwards, we went to the premiere performance of Morton Feldman's Piano and String quartet in the L.A. County Museum of Art, as part of the New Music America Festival. We happened to sit in the same row as the composer, who, with his entourage, was about 10 seats away from us.  As you can imagine, we had had our share of sun and noise during that game, and, if you know the Feldman — or most any other late-ish work by the composer — it had an extreme continuity which my father appeared to enjoy, but in combination also happened to put him to straight to sleep.  Now, sleeping during a concert is not a sin in my book, but should sleeping included snoring, it can become a disturbance for others in the audience, a violation of a basic social contract, as far as I'm concerned. And my father was a known snorer.  So, I would periodically jab him to keep him from falling into a phase of sleep in which snoring might start, signaled by jaw or head or both dropping down and either constricting the passage of air through some passages or encouraging the passage through others such as to force air in or out in a conspicuously noise way.  Despite my periodic jabbing — and how could I be expected to do more? I was, after all, listening to the first performance of one of the most gorgeous pieces in the western chamber music repertoire —  unmistakable snoring started. (This topic ALSO happens to have resonated me personally because I went through a brief period of snoring, which accompanied a freakishly sudden reduction of vision.   I wasn't particularly concerned about the snoring, as it was usually correctable by turning my body sharply port side, which I would do when my all-so-patient and tolerant wife would nudge me out of my snoredom, but I was worried about my eyesight.  A couple of eye doctors and a neurologist and some very expensive scans couldn't really explain the vision problem, but an ear, nose, and throat specialist suggested removing a cyst that had formed in a sinus cavity abutting the eyes or the optic nerve (if you're really interested, I'll get the scan out and check exactly where.) The ENT specialist's intuition proved correct and my vision was basically restored to its normal level of correctable myopia.  As a bonus — to both myself and my wife — the snoring stopped and  I became able to sleep, for the first time in memory, on my back, as well as port and starboard sides.  And, as another bonus, I guess, when I woke up from anaesthesia, the specialist reported that all had gone well with the cyst and that, while he was at it, he had repaired my broken nose.  I replied that I had never broken my nose, and he answered that yes, in fact, I had broken my nose, not a great break but a break all the same, but many people who had had physically rambunctious childhoods and youths had broken bones without ever knowing it.  Think of it: maybe 40 years obliviously spent in the mistaken conviction that my nose had never been injured, suddenly shattered.)  But to my relief, the snoring that interrupted that marvelous continuity of delicately semi-consonant chords played by Aki Takahasi and the Kronos Quartet did not come from my father, seated to my jab-able left, but — some 10 seats to our right — from the dozing composer himself.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

From a Diary: I:xxx

Tonality is a normative order.

The musical utility of schizophrenia

I was recently roped into playing trombone for small local music-making and, out of practice, grabbed the nearest sheet music which happened to be Telemann's set of 12 Fantasies for transverse flute without bass accompaniment. Not really trombone music, but they're great fun all the same, just add the right clefs and key signatures to get a working transposition, and you're ready to go.  While I was at it, I found that couple of them made even better recorder pieces, and I've enjoyed playing them with tenor, voice flute, and altos in f and g, each with optimal transpositions of their own. One of the interesting features about the set is that it includes movements which are polyphonic, including fugues and a passacaglia.  Now, putting multiple voices (in this case, two) together in a composition for a monophonic instrument requires a minor amount of technical legerdemain, involving some omissions in one or another voice, careful use of registers, and some arpeggiation of vertical sonorities.  In playing such a piece, I find it very useful to sort out, roughly, the separate voices and sometimes this reveals interesting ambiguities — for example, is a set of running eighths alternating between registers arpeggiation of an implied series of quarters or is it syncopation?  (The illustration at right, click to enlarge, is Telemann's single line score above two lines with my provisional division of the voices in the Fugue in the 5th Fantasie, with details — elided notes, for example — just beginning to emerge in my analysis.) Issues like this are hard to resolve, and personally, I like to err on the side of preserving an ambiguity rather than settling matters altogether, so playing, for me, involves creating a dynamic balance between the segregation and integration of the two voices.


With a piece like the Telemann, or any other example of Baroque or classical counterpoint which takes advantage of perceptual streaming, this balance between independence and distinctiveness of voices is of course constrained by the tonal system, and distinctions are maximized only to create tonally proposal dissonances (which always resolve) and complementary figuration. At the same time, the tonal system offers a reservoir of ways to fill-in the pitch space — i.e. scales and chords — (and, in so doing, filling in the rhythmic space as well) that make analog polyphony in non-tonal environments necessarily a different beast. To my ears, a significant development in this practice occurs only with Ives (and with Brant, as a successor to Ives) in the use of  simultaneous but highly contrasting streams, not note-against-note counterpoint, but style against style.  I think Cage caught some of this, if accidentally, with Music of Changes, in that his source materials were already highly distinctive in character but the instrumental parts to the Concert for Piano and Orchestra,  Atlas Eclipticalis and his Music for Piano series fail to become contrapuntally interesting, in part, by leaving individual notes on the page of an individual part entirely unconnected whether in a referential or a spontaneous melodic or harmonic context.  Cage really resolves this, as far as I'm concerned, with his 30 Pieces for String Quartet, in which his precomposition of five different "types of music" which can appear in a part, alone or in combination, creates a reservoir of  material with distinctive but non-hierarchical characters that can fill in pitch space and musical time with a capacity similar to the (hierarchical) materials of a tonal system yet without appeal to historical or novel styles as with Ives (or Brant.)  

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Josephine Miles

Ron Silliman, whose blog has become my one stop shop for contemporary and experimental poetry, points to a recorded 1954 talk by poet Josephine Miles on teaching poetry.  Miles was an important figure in the Bay Area, and was, from her tenured chair (later University Professorship) at UCB, the academic point of contrast or even pendant to Robert Duncan (on one hand) and the Beats (on another).  But when she was kind enough to give me a few minutes, a very long time ago when I was a Santa Cruz undergrad, it was to ask her about her Los Angeles High School classmate, John Cage.  She recalled that he had wanted to become a minister and had excelled at oratory, with his high-pitched voice well-suited for public speaking (which makes sense for a time when the microphone was not yet ubiquitous to the pulpit.)  In this talk, Miles recalls a high school class on the Aeneid, in which the text was read and not analysed, as a critical experience in her life. I doubt that Cage was in that class, as Cage had Greek and not Latin in High School, but taking pleasure in the uninterpreted experience of a work is certainly close to Cage's thinking, for example his work with texts by Joyce or Thoreau, so I do wonder if he had the same classics teacher for a similar course in translating a major Greek text. I don't know how much more the connection between the two can illuminate the very different work, the very different poetics in particular of the two. (Indeed, I can't imagine a greater difference from Cage than in Miles'  identification of poetry as an "art of making sense.")  In any case, it is an unexplored part of the biography of both artists. And it is interesting in this talk on teaching poetic composition, that Miles focuses on the making of questions rather than the production of answers, a similar focus to that of Cage, and I wonder if it might have been a shared teacher at LA High who pointed them in this direction.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Some Listening

Here are a couple of recordings that have landed my way of late and I'd like to share, showing some nice extremes of style and means*:

* I don't go out of my way for recordings, preferring live music, but recordings are almost unavoidable — they just show up, it seems, like door-to-door salespeople, missionaries, and those scented pine tree-shaped plastic things that hang in car windows — and of course they are useful, both for music intended idiomatically for recorded media as well as for documentary evidence (pharmikoi though they be) of events I cannot attend. And, at the moment, since my right forefinger is on holiday, recordings make up for some of my current awkwardnesses with my daily harpsichord or piano sight-readings  

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Friday, August 31, 2012

Rules: morals, games, music

A thoughtful post (here) by physicist Sean Carroll on the rules of morality and games.  His argument that rules of these sorts are not based on the laws of the universe nor handed from some deity but are nevertheless not arbitrary, invented and refined over time by real, fallible human beings is usefully applicable to music as well, with musical repertoires and styles hewing closely to the received rules but receiving a shock of  invention from time-to-time with extensions and refinements of the rule.

Now music does play against a certain immutable physical and physiological background — sensory consonance and dissonance, for example, with fairly clear correlates in physical and neurological domains — but the evidence presented by the diversity of existing musical repertoires suggests that there are plenty of alternative strategies for optimizing local musical rules to take into consideration these aspects to a greater or lesser (including no) degree. And yet, for all this diversity, there is a remarkable consistency to our ability to order an acoustical performance into broader or narrower categories of the musical and, within those categories, remark on the degree to which they follow or avoid the known rules.

Personally, what interests me most in music — "interests" here meaning "provokes my ear and aural imagination" — are those repertoires, forms, styles, pieces, parts of pieces, and moments of music in which it is thrillingly unclear whether the music is breaking the rules or discovering a new configuration or reading of those rules.  It is thrilling in the way a Rene Thom-style catastrophe or biphurcation is thrilling, a sudden and major shift due to a small change in circumstances. It is thrilling in the same way that a Wittgensteinian language game can be when suddenly, after an extended conversation, it becomes clear to both speakers that they weren't talking about the same thing at all.

From a Diary: I:xxix

An unplanned pause (caesura/gap/absence/rest/fermata/tacet...) due to an out-of-service right hand (a small operation on the index finger is scheduled, annoying and inconvenient but not serious). Ironically appropriate to the moment, I suppose, as I had planned, drafted, edited, tossed out, redrafted, and retossed a long item about John Cage's music today, as a way of filling in this curious gap between the 20th anniversary of his death and the 100th of his birth. I tried to write about my unsettling over Cage performance and reception today, the sense that there are very many very fine and spirited performances of the works and that it is very good for music in general that Cage's music has become an institutional concern and is now played at Juilliard or the Proms, representing an opening for music rather than closure and, in the best circumstances, changing the institution more than the institution changes the music, but with the reservation that many Cage performances are (and always have been) less about the music itself than about the institution or persons presenting the music. But trying to write that item coincided with the discovery that my right hand didn't want to play along, forcing me to type this with my left hand, which was both an invitation to write less rather than more and a reminder of how profoundly right-handed I am. And that was a (useful, like a kick in the pants) reminder that my musical work is not always a balancing act between ear and mind, but a triangulation between ear, mind, and the habits and capacities of my hands. A leap of an octave, for example, is imagined simultaneously as an auditory experience, a mental structure, and a physical exertion, and all three experiences reinforce one another, making each more rather than less vibrant. Lou Harrison, a very physical person (crashing down after executing three perfect pirouettes, Mr Harrison shouted "Why don't they make ballet for fat men anymore?"), criticized Cage, his lifelong friend, as being incapable of moving to music (and thus one source for the Cage/Cunningham separation of dance from music.)  But I think Harrison got Cage wrong here, because Cage, in recognition and affirmation rather than denial of the physicality of sound, found that it was not necessary to identify the physicality of music with that of dance through closely tied, even mimetic movement rather that independence (from dance or decor or film etc.) created space useful for a deeper and more engaged experience, and one which was framed (by a shared time structure, for example), not mediated by parallel activities. The line from this to both La Monte Young's idea of getting inside a sound or the social/political music-making of Christian Wolff is direct and the famous tacet piece (4'33") an example of such (in this case, time-structured) framing at a minimum.  And stop.

Friday, August 10, 2012

How it looks, how it sounds

The popular musician Beck has just released his new album. Not as a cd, nor as downloadable files. As sheet music. (To be published in cooperation with McSweeney's.)  Yep, interpretable sheet music. Notated music is the new vanguard.


Composer Richard Winslow's law:  if you want to repeat some music precisely, you ought to transmit it orally, while if you want to guarantee that the music will change over time, you should write it down.


The recent news of a shakeup at the owner of notation program Sibelius and a possible buy-out of the company which produces Finale has caused some anxiety over the future of both programs.  (If one of the companies goes under, for example, how will owners of the software be able to register their programs when moving to new computers?)  It has also caused some useful meditation over the nature of musical notation in general and engraving in particular.  What are the advantages and disadvantages of music notated by hand or engraved?  What do we really want in a notation program?  Should a program try to accommodate as many different repertoires as possible, or should it be specialized?  Should a program try to do both notation and sequencing well, or should its emphasis be on notational graphics alone?  Have the open source alternatives matured enough to bring the era of commercial engraving programs to a close?

I'm something of a broken record on this, but my opinion remains that having a diversity of notation options is a very good thing for music (and don't let any music professor tell you otherwise!), being able to notate by hand is a useful and often beautiful skill (in my experience, the best computer-based engravers have excellent manuscript skills), the free and open source alternatives (Lilly Pond and MuseScore in particularly) have improved very much, and we still need a good graphics-only program to supplement programs in which playback and a fairly rigid notational structure trump graphic freedom.  (Let me also add that learning to notate music well, whether by hand or with machine assistance, is something that is best done through a combination of self-instruction and feedback from real musicians and benefits tremendously from a musician's own experience playing from notation. It does not require a semester-long college course.) 


Some people are seriously picayune about notation, I'm only somewhat so. But there are a few basics I find important: avoid collisions of items on the page; try to have few and, when then, good page turns in a movement; be critical of the default formatting settings in your software; try for a layout that uses space optimally (neither crowded nor too widely scattered); and try to make your scores look as if the music in them is important to you, give them a distinctive look, your own house style.  Have a distinctive layout or print on exquisite paper, bind your scores with silver thread, add illustrations, or create/choose fonts that fit your musical aesthetic.  The potential effect of a font on your scores reception or performance is, granted, a subtle one, but real and meaningful musical differences are usually subtle, and an additional visual charge can only help emphasize these differences.   Errol Morris (the best blogger of 'em all) recently wrote:  we may be at the mercy of fonts in ways that we are only dimly beginning to recognize. An effect — subtle, almost indiscernible, but irrefutably there. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2012


Linguist Mark Liberman of Language Log has a great post about the anatomy of vocalizing, here., including a link to John Fink's video "Glottal Opera."   This is vivid stuff; I don't think I'll ever look at a singer in the same way again.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Two Outside the Guild

Two names recently surfaced on my monitor belonging to figures who were well-represented early on in recorded electronic music, but who were not particularly close to the world of professional composers and have slipped into some obscurity.

The first name, Ilhan Mimaroglu, appeared, sadly, in an obituary (here) had academic compositional credentials but was best-know professionally for his work as a jazz producer (primarily with Charles Mingus) for Atlantic records, which distributed his own music label, Finnadar, which provided Mimaroglu the opportunity to curate a series including his own electronic and acoustic music alongside work, much of it experimental, from Cowell and Varese to Cage, Rzewski and Hays.

The second name is that of Tod Dockstader who is still alive, but no longer able to be active and to whom a new blog has been dedicated, here.  Dockstader did not have formal musical credentials, but was a professional sound engineer, a career he had entered via animation, and eventually established an educational film production company. Both Mimaroglu and Dockstader, cut off from the local academic studio (due to lack of credentials, work with jazz musicians or in commercial recording), made concrete and electronic music in the down-time in commercial audio or film studios.  Dockstadter responded to this in part by insisting on the description of his work as "organized sound" rather than as music.

Personally, I am not close to the work of either man, but then again, I'm basically indifferent (okay, I like "Philomel") to the whole corpus of music produced in the Columbia-Princeton studio, and the fact that these two were able produce significant bodies of lively music (or organized sound, if you have to) completely outside that establishment was an important precedent, alongside the music of Richard Maxfield (much also made in commercial studio down time), the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in Ann Arbor and The San Francisco Tape Music Center, for the lively independent scene today.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Landmarks (48)

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber:   15 Sonatas for violin and continuo with a closing Passacaglia for solo violin, known as the "Mystery", "Rosary" or "Copper-Engraving" Sonatas (ca 1676).

With a single manuscript source, rediscovered in 1905, we do not know the composer's intended title for the sequence of sonatas other than a prefacing remark that  he had "consecrated the whole to the honour of the XV Sacred Mysteries"; we know next to nothing about the circumstances of the composition of the individual sonatas and do not know if they had been composed together as a set or had been gathered together later by the composer.  In any case, the manuscript gathers them in a sequence mirroring a sequence of devotional prayers to the rosary, here in three sets of five sonatas, each of the fifteen sonatas in a different scordatura (the first sonata and the closing passacaglia use the standard tuning in fifths.)

These pieces are famous for this uniquely rich scordatura scheme and, combined with the somewhat forbidding notational convention for scordatura playing, this has given the sonatas something of a reputation for technical complexity requiring forbidding virtuosity.  While this is indeed music for a virtuoso and  the composition of the entire sequence certainly reflects an agile compositional mind, the balance between technical demand, compositional technique and immediate musical expression is here never settled on the technical side.

What the scordatura achieves is, first of all, a unique resonance for each movement, bright and tending to the sharp side in the first five sonatas, depicting joyous mysteries form the early life of Christ, the second set of five depict sorrowful mysteries place the instrument in a darker tessitura, the extraordinary eleventh sonata, depicting the resurrection, uses the most radically retuning, crossing the second and third strings in the peg box and between the bridge and tailpiece and then tuning the strings g - g' - d' - d", perhaps the best projecting collection of tones on a fiddle but here with octaves available on neighboring strings, and the remaining four sonatas return to bright, sharp-keyed tunings, contributing to the cathartic nature of hearing the whole sequence of sonatas in order.  (The dramatic effect is real; the regret that Biber's opera Alessandro in Pietra (1689) has not survived is heavier because of this.)  Biber does take some advantage of the possibilities for novel chordal arrangements produced by the scordaturas, but tone color appears, to my ears at least, to be the immediate concern. The closing Passacaglia, without continuo, must be heard as a very individual reflection on the preceding and is justifiably regarded as the most significant movement for solo violin prior to Bach's Chaconne.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Just another ordinary piece of music: let it go.

I'm a hard critic of my own work.  Over the past few weeks I wrote a solo viola piece, in three movements, sonata-is, even.  It's workmanlike, crafty, even, in the Hindemithian sense, but not much more. (Part of the problem may have come from composing directly into a notation program, which can encourage making music that behaves like known music.) I like the second (slow, to a mutating ground*)

and third movements (fast, in square-root form) well enough and have some substantial doubts about the first, and while the whole might be useful for teaching purposes, to be honest, the piece doesn't add up to a compelling and memorable concert piece.  The question is does it not yet add up, or will it never add up?  And: is the amount of work required to make it work worth it?   My sense is that I didn't go into the piece with a distinct and clear enough idea to make a compelling piece, and what turned out instead was more a piece of habit than of invention, just more repertoire.  And — as far as I'm concerned — we're served so much repertoire these days, that just more repertoire is not much needed.  Nevertheless I do still have an ambition to make a solo viola piece, just so long as it does something more than than the habitual or the ordinary. The work done in the first movement will be let go completely, some of the other movements may get salvaged (but not necessarily for this piece) and I'll start again from the scratch, looking, listening for a musical idea that is more convincing, more urgent.

* I'm from California, a place where the ground is known to move, so if my ground basses are instable, changing over time in a certain way, I'm excused.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

From a Diary: I:xxviii

Logistics. Spent the last week painting a room and laying a parquet floor in it. Had the vague and hopelessly optimistic idea that patterns of interlocking oak might inspire me much as Anatolian rugs inspired Feldman and all those Feldmanistas.  But not to be: this particular room had to be painted and this particular floor had to be cleared of its old covering and set with the new flooring while all of the major pieces of furniture were still in the room; they could be moved about within the room, but they could not exit, for there was no external space available in which to exile them, or, in the case of a large wrought iron bed frame, there was no way to physically remove the frame from the room except out the balcony window, through which it had once entered.  Not having a crane available, the bed frame had to stay, but somewhat more compactly, on its side, amply padded so that it might be rotated.  Flooring is not supposed to be done this way, it needs to settle in all directions, so it wants a room emptied of everything. That being impossible, it became a logistical game of some complexity, doing the room in three parts and, with each new part, reassigning the bulky furniture parts so that their weight was distributed so as better to assist the settling of the parquet.  Too, as the tasks changed, from stage to stage, the tools and supplies required changed as well, and an additional logistical feature was insuring that the required tools were in place and the tools no longer required had been returned to their proper place in the workbench so that they might readily be retrieved.  It's all a bit like one of those toy puzzles in which tiles (numbered or lettered) are slid about within a frame,  all movement  made possible by adjacency to the single empty space in the frame. Composing has logistical dimensions, assigning forces, materials, within a piece, but also more practically, in the organizing ones work ahead, to make a plan that will sustain an environment still ripe for invention.  (I admire composers who have their logistics down. Cage and Stockhausen were incredibly disciplined about working to a plan.  Henry Brant's "prose reports" were precomposition designs that removed doubt from composition itself.  Babbitt, to his credit, was a composer with no logistical anxiety, and could compose to full score without sketching. In his mature output, all he really needed was an array (these being complicated to make, he often reused the same arrays and also used arrays composed by others) and a set of rules about how parameters projected the "lynes" of those arrays. The rest was extemporaneous invention, a bit like playing from a figured bass or a lead sheet.   But the real logistical heroes of music-making are the librarians and contractors or personnel managers who make sure that players are in place at the right time and place and with the correct playing materials, and while all musicians have logistical tasks (string and brass players not forgetting to bring mutes, or all the doubling instruments a woodwind player has to bring, whether owned or borrowed), it's the percussionists who have really to have logistics down to an art form, as their entire menagerie of noise makers gets plundered a different way in every piece.   

Sunday, July 15, 2012

From a Diary: I:xxvii

David Antin: "the problem of architecture is not how to make it, but how to get rid of it.”   Consider the qualities of permanence, ephemerality, decay (and/or metamorphosis), sustainability, and renewal as potential fields of creative activity.  That old saw about "architecture as frozen music" misses on both counts: music doesn't move (except in some psychological sense), but is itself movement, just molecules of air pushed about and dissipating, ephemera (sound → echo → memory forgetting); architecture, on the other hand, while slow-moving, is never frozen, it is planned and built over time, and when "finished", it is never done with decay and renovation, wrecking and restoration,  ruins and excavations etc., if they are "machines for living" (Le Corbusier), they cannot be immobile.  People, things, critters, water, energy, waste, gas, information, dust, memories: they constantly move in and out, some small or large part of the building constantly moving in and out with all the traffic. The landscape around is constantly changing, even the earth below is always in shift.  Your house is like a river, you never step over the same threshold. My own caution — when not resistance — to recording is in large part a positive embrace of music as ephemera, finding joy in the life and disappearance of each sound in a particular time and place ("live" music, of course, and also this: I often can recall playing recordings in particular times and places, but not necessarily the particular music which was represented on those records (lesson: recordings can be used in ephemeral performances)). But this caution also comes from the sense that a recording, as a storage process for musical sound, has something in common with a mortgage, a means of financing the purchase of a "real" property (ownable stuff that doesn't move: German: Immobilien, French immobiliers), suspending full ownership until a debt is paid (and, as recent history amply illustrates, many debts are never paid); a mortgage is, literally, a dead pledge or dead wage. N.O. Brown:  "The dynamics of capitalism is postponement of enjoyment to the constantly postponed future." 

Monday, July 09, 2012

Between Style and Invention

Horizontal, nursing a summer cold, I've plowed my way through Daniel Heartz's Music in European Capitals: The Galant Style, 1720-1780.  It has a lot of contextual data (especially of the who-met-whom-and-when-and-where-they-met variety) and usefully covers repertoire and composers and locales that have been slighted by the standard classical musical history survey course (which tends to jump straight from Sebastian Bach to Haydn).  Useful, but jeez, it is anything but a pleasure to read, with too little analysis of the music itself and an organization by capital cities and then by composers which often requires the author to do some awkward jumping.  (Fortunately, we have Robert Gjerdingen's delightful Music in the Galant Style to make up for some of the theoretical deficits.) Moreover, it's in a graceless writing style that refuses to invite the reader into repertoire that is often, very much inviting, especially when one considers a cast of composers including Vivaldi, Pergolesi, the younger Scarlatti, Sammartini, Hasse, the Bachs CPE and JC, and Boccherini.  In order to make the book more useful and engaging, I found myself reading it via the index, selecting a person or topic of interest and chasing it through the book, even if this meant redundant readings.

As the Lattice of Coincidence sometimes permits, just as I was tracing the history of the violin concerto through Heartz's index, I noticed that Charles Shere blogged about his own violin concerto, beginning with the words:  "I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED eccentric violin concertos, by which I mean those somehow standing aside from the standard repertory." What was striking to me about this confession, in the context of reading the Heartz, was that even though we now look at much of the repertoire described in normative, even dull, terms — especially the work of composers who turned out dozens of concerti, symphonies, and sonatas — this was the very era in which these very forms were new and only in the process of establishing their conventions, and despite the enormous amount of imitation that took place — thus creating repertoires — and despite the familiarity of those conventions to us now*, this is music which was filled with eccentricities and often even the formal identification by title — as a concerto, sonata, symphony or quartet —  was not yet fixed.  Thus even those most famous concerti of Vivaldi, The Seasons, have an additive, block-by-block construction that borders on Stravinskyan assertion and push the available varieties of scoring patterns to their limit**, and the "Prussian" Sonatas of CPE Bach are harmonically and texturally experimental in ways that still surprise the ears.  For Vivaldi in the solo concerto and Bach in the keyboard sonata, the terms of art were simply not yet set and listening to their works can still provide fascinating occasions to reconsider the necessary balance between eccentricity and standard form, between invention and style, that makes a piece of music stand out among others.
* To be honest, this familiarity is only partially the case. My honest assumption is that very few musicians and listeners really have anything approaching the intimate familiarity with  the galant style that allows one to recognize and interpret its figures, to improvise or criticize ornamentation within the style, or to extemporate and form expectations within its harmonic language.  It is a repertoire that is superficially very familiar, but very foreign in any detail, much the opposite of the learned style which contrasted and, for a time, competed with it, perhaps — and now I'm taking a wild theoretical leap here — because the learned style had a fractal dimension the galant syle resisted.
** That said, it's astonishing how much repertoire is based on two scoring patterns, the first with the violins in unison, viola harmonizing and a bass (cello) line, the second (often when a vocalist enters in opera) with the violins divided and the viola doubling the bass (cello) at the octave above.  A texture with four independent voices is rare and Haydn's — to our ears — modest innovation of the violins in octaves, must have sounded revolutionary.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Composing a Storm

A summer's evening of thunder and lightning is appropriate accompaniment to my current musical sketching. I'm considering a music-theatre piece and before I commit myself, I want to see if I'm able to compose a storm.  Some models are obvious:  Monteverdi's concitato style, Haydn's Chaos, the former more for the internal, personal, mental agitation of strong weather, the latter for the external qualities.  Some may be less so, for example, Berlioz's "intermittent sounds" which gets at the essential aperiodicity of a storm.  Storms have defeated composers:  Cage was never able to finish his "Atlas Borealis with Ten Thunderclaps" setting of those 100-letter words (once 101 letters) in Finnegans Wake, but some of the ideas went into the Thoreauvian Lecture on the Weather, with recorded weather sounds by Maryanne Amacher, a mixed success at best.  Ligeti abandoned his plans to write an opera out of The Tempest, apparently stuck on the storm, for which he planned to use some computer assistance to compose out the non-linearities of a storm. (As the tempest in the play is raised by Prospero's magic, its particular mix of nature and artifice has a particular envy and attraction for composers, with our own nature/artifice balancing act.)


When I went to grad school in '83, I took the train across the US, leaving from Pomona, California and getting off three days later in Meriden, Connecticut, with transfers in Chicago, New York, and New Haven. I remember it as a staggeringly hot summer and lugging my belonging through those big humid train stations was a shock as I'd never experienced summer outside of the dry Southwest. Although the train went through some of the most amazing landscapes in Arizona and New Mexico, the highpoint of the train ride was nighttime in Kansas, where electrical storms were present, crashing, thundering, illuminating in every direction on that great flat space.  Equal parts composition and chaos. Even the most ambitious composer has to be intimidated by the weather.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Latest Sins & Fibs

Norman Lebrecht is raising alarms about the future of Sibelius music engraving software. Sibelius's parent company, Avid is, indeed, reorganizing and selling off other portions of its business, but, I've been in contact with the public relations office at Avid and they indicated they are committed to retaining the product  with aspects of the Sibelius unit being reorganized.  The full statement is: "Yes, Sibelius is staying with Avid and is an important part of our business going forward. We are happy with Sibelius' business. We're not commenting yet on details of the reorg out of respect to affected employees."  As I learn more about the reorganization — the questions are obvious: does this mean moving development or service outside of the UK? first among them) — I'll try to post what I learn here.


I've been using computers to notate music for about 25 years. From time to time on this blog, I've given updates on my notation software practices. I have six or seven notation programs on my computer and regularly use three or four of them.  The free and open source program MuseScore continues to improve and already offers output good enough for most users. It would be an excellent program for most University music students, for example, and an especially welcome one, given the high costs of education today. But for the most sophisticated professional applications, the two most-widely used programs remain Finale and Sibelius. For many users, Fin and Sib have approximately equal capacity and the choice between the two is going to be based on which one has a more comfortable input and editing style, which is essentially a personal choice.  In general, I believe that Finale has a steeper learning curve, but it is ultimately more flexible (in terms of entry and editing methods) and powerful (in terms of the variety of outputs possible.) But this edge has been slight and many users do find using Sibelius to be more intuitive. Up until the lastest round of version upgrades, I have kept both the latest Finale and Sibelius on my two notating machines, and I have been happy to have had and used both, alongside some other programs (including my beloved orphan Graphire Music Studio and the very interesting Harmony Assistant; for kicks, I also recently took another spin with Berlioz, a program emulated the traditional engraving process.)  However, with the recent upgrades, I decided to go with Finale 2012 and not with Sibelius 7.  Finale 2012 offered one essential new feature (unicode support) and the firm which owns Finale, MakeMusic, has wisely acquired the sample company Garritan and has promised to not offer an upgrade in 2013, getting (finally!) out of the annual upgrade-by-small-increments cycle.  As to Sibelius 7, they introduced some new interface features, in particular the so-called ribbon, which they have indicated that they are absolutely committed to, but happen to make the product all but unusable for a myopic old composer like myself. So I've skipped Sibelius 7; when I have work I have to do in Sib, I'll use Sib 6, otherwise, most of my work will be done in Fin 2012. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Downloading: Big Business, Just Not For Musicians

The business of downloading music made plain by David Lowery (him of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker fame). Bottom line: money is being made, just not by the people who made the music, and you're paying for it on all sorts of ways, just not to the people who made the music.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Shere Songs & Such

I've quickly become very fond of these two sets of songs by Charles Shere, to texts by Carl Rakosi (here) and Lou Harrison (here).  The Rakosi-text'd pair are for mezzo accompanied by violin and percussion, the Harrison set of four for tenor and accordion.  (It's always useful to have some art song repertoire accompanied by instruments other than the piano!)  Both sets are recognizably within that uncanny valley in which Mr Shere's music seems to reside, composed intuitively in that space where the modern and anti-modern as well as the plain and the artful are superimposed.  Playing through Shere's music, as I am like to do (his Sonata ii: Compositio ut explicatio is another long-term tenant of my piano top), I've often had both (a)  the sensation of being unsure whether it belongs more to the 'teens and twenties of Stein and Duchamp and both the musical ultramodernists and Virgil Thomson (at his naughtiest) or to a somewhat more recent — and distinctively Californian — vintage, and (b) the certainty that any such distinction is, in the end, unimportant.  This is deceptively simple music, the materials edging on the commonplace, but I'd reckon that the algorithm required to re-write them would almost certainly be at least as long than the pieces themselves; this is a complexity of an uncanny and irretrievable compositional context.

Mr Shere was, for many years, also a critic, and an important one, and I am a constant reader of his two blogs, The Eastside View, which is mostly travel and cultural writing, an natural extension of his critical activities, and Eating Every Day, a faithful journal by perhaps the best-fed composer around (and one with an enviable personal and professional connection to that center of Californian cuisine, Chez Panisse), with some of his best writing around some deep aesthetic issues — quality, locality, tradition and innovation among them.  These two sets of small songs are definitely of a piece with that writing.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Loose Ends

Are you composing?  What are you up to?  In principal, yes, but there are all these loose ends... There are always several projects on my desk, in various stages of progress.  Some are compositional projects, others pre-compositional or even theoretical.  One compositional project is, in principle, finished, a piece with a very large number of possible realizations through combinatorial excess, but I've decided not to let it go until I've played through a number of those realizations to my own satisfaction, which has meant picking up the clarinet for the first time in decades and seeing if the music lies under the fingers well.  One "theoretical" project was a fictional reconstruction of tonality in which, depending upon the number of active voices, everything depended upon minimal voice leadings from the three perfectly even divisions of the octave.  My constraints turned out not to be limiting enough and the whole system fell apart under the sheer number of possible voice leadings.  Another theoretical adventure treated moves across tonal manifolds (or lattices) as optimal transportation problems, which still seems to me to be a good idea, but the math required to be comfortable with the optimal transportation literature is still beyond me.*  Such projects, even if they ultimately fall apart on you, at least keep the mind nimble and very often help, if only in details, in getting work done. (Learning about Gray Codes (and Beckett Grays in particular), for example, even though I can't really follow the mathematical literature, has provided me with a really useful formal resource which I've used in at least a dozen pieces to date, sometimes overtly, for instance to control the scoring patterns in a piece, more often hidden (you hide, they seek.)) One larger project of the past three or four years has been a search for a libretto; texts have been read and re-read, considered and re-considered as musical material, and even some sketches have been made: divisions into scenes and acts and songs and not-quite-songs, and voice types and instrumental resources. But most ideas eventually get tossed for one reason or another. I've wanted to work with an existing text in the public domain, to avoid the complications of securing rights (the librettist for my puppet opera passed away before the music was finished and working with his estate has not been particularly easy.) But existing texts have their own problems, not least because setting something dramatic to music usually requires a massive reduction in the volume of a text, to a fraction, say a third or less, of the original. Maybe one reason why literary masterpieces seldom recommend themselves to setting to music is that they are just damn hard to slim down — you want to save all your favorite lines, even when they get in the way of wherever the music needs to go.  I've made the problem harder in that I'm determined to do something comic rather than historical or tragic, and comic dialog has to move along and that I have some fairly experimental musical ambitions that I'd like to try as well.  I'm now fairly certain about the source text I'll use and have already edited the text for the first act and started sketching a pair of scenes to use as a trial balloon. Following loose ends keeps you busy and also keeps you looking forward: composing is always about the next piece.

* I came across optimal transportion problems through the work of mathematician Cédric Villani and then again, when Francis Spufford's remarkably odd novel Red Plenty, pointed in the direction of the mathematician and economist Leonid Kantorovich.  

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Future, Getting Old Fast

The future just ain't what it used to be, and when older visions of the future are more attractive then the present reality, our choice is either disappointed resignation or to do the hard labor of imagining an alternative. (Personally, I'm always disappointed when I go to an orchestral concert because the orchestra, in many ways, stopped developing technologically just before the suggestive bits of preposterous steam age technology could flourish as instrumental designs...  in my heart of hearts, with my own future of music being somewhat more retro and steampunkish than, say Stockhausen's or Varese's, I really want orchestral instruments to look like Ophicleides and Marxophones and Dr. Seuss's most preposterous horns and fiddles and harps.

I expect David Graeber new article in The Baffler, "Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit", is going to get a lot of attention and it should, not as a finished argument but rather as the beginning of an urgent discussion, around the currently twisted knot of economics, states and institutions, and the limits of imagination. His point of departure is the broad sense of stagnation we currently find ourselves in, particularly with regard to technologies and infrastructure other than information technology.  I believe (and have written about it here before) that this sense is shared in the musical world as well and is perhaps more acute due to the direct and sometimes vital connections between music transmission and information technology.  (Also see this post, from 2006, A Look Back at The Future.)

When Graeber writes that, for example:

"The growth of administrative work [in universities] has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of students’ jobs and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors; institutes; conference workshops; universities themselves (which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors); and so on.

As marketing overwhelms university life, it generates documents about fostering imagination and creativity that might just as well have been designed to strangle imagination and creativity in the cradle. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years."

Simply substitute the name of your favorite musical institution " for "university" in the above text, and you'll get a pretty good synopsis of my own diagnosis of music's ongoing difficulties.  Music (name your genre: classical, modern, contemporary, experimental, film, pop, rock, punk, folk, country...) is not dying, it will continue always, to change over time and survive in interesting ways, but its institutional support structure is under stress and, too often for the good of music, threatens to more often silence musical creation and performance than support it.  It is particularly painful to watch the musicians take the brunt of restructuring and even dismantling of opera houses and orchestras while the managers can command ever higher salaries and bonuses.

Graeber's conclusion should be particularly vivid to musicians:

To begin setting up domes on Mars, let alone to develop the means to figure out if there are alien civilizations to contact, we’re going to have to figure out a different economic system. Must the new system take the form of some massive new bureaucracy? Why do we assume it must? Only by breaking up existing bureaucratic structures can we begin. And if we’re going to invent robots that will do our laundry and tidy up the kitchen, then we’re going to have to make sure that whatever replaces capitalism is based on a far more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power—one that no longer contains either the super-rich or the desperately poor willing to do their housework. Only then will technology begin to be marshaled toward human needs. And this is the best reason to break free of the dead hand of the hedge fund managers and the CEOs—to free our fantasies from the screens in which such men have imprisoned them, to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Locating That Yankee Sound

THE ESTIMABLE Tim Rutherford-Johnson (aka The Rambler) reviews a performance by the Jack Quartet and writes of John Cage's String Quartet in Four Parts: "The JACKs’ version has a more sing-song, almost folky quality that highlights the Appalachian pastoral thread that runs through Cage’s music..." While that "Appalachian pastoral" phrase will probably be grocked without much of a second thought by readers familiar with the Cage quartet and some of the more famous items in the American mid-20th century repertoire as referring to a certain style of writing, mostly diatonic, sometimes pentatonic, and occasionally jerked about by some tactical chromaticism,  friendly to open fifths and milder clusters (those vertical structures just on either side of a simpler triadic harmony), with some emphasis on writing for strings (and for those strings some preferences for open strings, natural harmonics, and reduced or no vibrato), and featuring a lot of shared attacks in which one or more instrument quickly drops off allowing others to sustain. This style is exemplified by Copland's score to the Martha Graham ballet Appalachian Spring.  The funny thing about this label is, of course, that Copland's music isn't particularly Appalachian (he himself said that he thought neither of Appalachia nor of Spring while writing the score which had the working title of only Music for Martha) and the musical source material Copland actually quotes in the piece (most famously the tune "Simple Gifts"*) is Shaker, and though the Shakers had short-lived settlements in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, they were basically an upstate New York and New England sect. (The Cage Quartet does earn some additional affinity to the Copland in that each movement is associated with a season and a place, in this case the fourth movement, a Quodlibet in which the melodic materials shared throughout the quartet are most conjunct and lively, is  associated with Spring; unfortunately I can't remember where it's supposed to be Spring in Paris or America...)  BUT WHEREVER THE ORIGINS THERE IS INDEED this particular Americana style, with plenty of precedents (from the generation of Billings onward), which became a concert music staple with two pieces of music: Charles Ives's cowboy song Charlie Rutledge, which was premiered at a Copland-Sessions concert with Copland — then very much a francophile modernist — himself as pianist and Virgil Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune (1927-28) which was first known in its piano four-hands arrangement by John Kirkpatrick. (Of course there is that other Americana style, that initiated with Roy Harris who, like Copland and at Copland's enouragement, came through the Boulangerie, but whose music is characterized by a more lushly sustained melodic style, more in debt to Sibelius than to Stravinsky, for whose music Harris had little attraction, but that is another story.)
* The use of this particular tune has been much maligned, especially by those in the pro-complexity camp.  However, I'm not entirely convinced that the Shaker notion of "simple" here, in the context of a sublimating sacred dancing tune, can be readily mapped to our everyday contemporary use of the term. 

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Oliveros at 80

A moment, on her birthday, to recognize the breadth of Pauline Oliveros's work and the seriousness of her challenges to the received practice of composition:

from the early work in the studio, in particular that extraordinary series of works realized in real time to the life-long advocacy for the appropriate uses of technologies, both archaic and new, a composer as comfortable with the latest digital sound enhancers as with a conch shell;

the theatre pieces, which range from the vaudevillian to the ritual (and often making no distinction between the two: usefully reminding us that many clowns are sacred and many rituals are, usefully, hilarious);

the use of physical spaces as instruments and the exploration of those spaces as a composed task to performers (In Memoriam Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer); 

the ease of her negotiation between composition and improvisation, working with trained musicians and with heretofore non-musicians, as well as an ease with the format of a performance, not only in a concert hall, but out of doors, not only in a concert format, but in workshops and street festivals;

her fundamental challenge to the notion of a score as form and function, indeed to the entire masterpiece conception of scored composition, posed through the sonic meditation, her use of images (among them mandalas, electronic circuitry diagrams, and I Ching hexagrams) which do not resolve to linear presentations conventional to musical scores, and her advocacy for oral (in addition to written) transmission (I believe that the feminist dimension here is not negligible);

her invention of an alternative career path for the contemporary composer, negotiating institutions, often inventing her own:  first in a cooperative studio and then her rise, with only modest traveling papers, to tenure and full professorship in one of the more crusty and conspiratorial of musical-academic establishments, only to take the risk of giving it up for a life as an independent composer, creating her own foundation, coming back to the academy from time to time, but only on her own terms;

and yes, her life-long love affair with the accordion, an instrument which has too often faced music-institutional prejudice and has become an evolving technology for Oliveros, first getting re-tuned, in a gentle just intonation, and more recently digitized, and often fiercely so.

I'm prepared to be astonished by Pauline's music for the next 80 years!