Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Day of Exemption

As a freelance composer, I have a fairly casual relationship to weekends and holidays — yes, the kids are more likely to be underfoot and in need of parental tending, but otherwise I'm in no obligation to not work just because of the calendar.* But I do reserve a special status for one day, Leap Day, a day of catching up on lost time or accumulating some time on credit, a day which seems to me to allow some exemptions to routine, to invite, if not celebrate, the exceptional. Also, because its anniversaries get tucked away into some tiny curled-up dimension of Calabi-Yao spacetime (okay, they don't really do that, but they do get somewhat hidden by the ambiguity of having either or neither an anniversary every one AND/OR four years), there is both a certain freedom of operation and the luxury of a longer rhythm of recall. In any case, the extra day in the calendar is not one to be wasted. Here's a minor example: In one of my pieces, I included an alternative version of one movement, to be played in place of the standard version only in Leap Years, and also an alternative version of that, to be played only on Leap Days. (No, there is not an alternative for Leap Seconds, but that would be taking things to an interesting, and minimal extreme.)


* I am also unable to manage composing within regular working hours, but my tendency towards ever later nights — being most lucid (if I'm ever lucid!) in the hours adjacent to midnight — has been tempting me towards adopting some kind of segmented sleeping schedule,** just to have some coordinates the family can predictably share with me. One of my teachers, La Monte Young, and his partner, the visual artist Marian Zazeela, have adopted various non-standard schedules over the years, usually with more than 24 hours in a day, and they have done this for decades with admirable discipline. But the constant cycling in and out of phase with the rest of the working world strikes me as having more practical disadvantages than is worth.

** Some historians believe that segmented sleep was in fact typical of the pre-industrial era, a first sleep with four or so hours down, then an hour or two of waking, followed by a second sleep til morning and a nap or siesta at midday. The insertion of that waking period between the two sleeps strikes me as sensible, real private time outside any institutional rhythm.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Genre death or just moving on?

Salon has an article about the "death of chick lit." I have a certain fascination with genre writing in fiction, less with genre as a commercial strategy and more with fiction that uses genres as surface topics — Joyce did it in Ulysses, Pynchon does it most brilliantly in Against the Day, China Mieville is perhaps the current reigning champ — but watching the product development and commercial markets in adventure, romance, westerns, space opera, fantasy, crime etc. rise and fall and sometimes return, even to challenge the "art" genres on their own terms is engaging on its own terms.

Music has its genre repertoires as well, and tracing them is of similar and probably more popular interest. Most musical production, the most popular music, is attached to genres with fairly hard boundaries between them. The kind of music I work with most — my own music, the music I discuss on this blog etc. — is marginal to this, when not essentially inaudible to audiences of critically mass. But for right and/or wrong, from this position of marginality, it's been a strategic conceit of serious/classical/avant-garde/modern/experimental music maker that we don't do genre proper, but rather reserve the right to use genre as a material and formal resource. Indeed the post-modernistas among us practically live off of genre-mining. But when our music does not refer to or otherwise partake of genres, we tend not to think of our output in any generic terms. The old masterpiece ethic of late classical composition is, in part, responsible for this with its insistence on total reinvention with each individual new work and a stubborn sensibility valuing the individual composer's brand identity and the consequent stylistic territoriality contributes to this as well. We think of our own musics, rightly and/or wrongly, as above, beyond, or aside from genre.

But the rest of the musical world sometimes pays attention and sometimes features of our music are appropriated as generic musical material. In some cases — Philip Glass's music is the best example — there is even a feedback loop at work in which the popular appropriation of elements of as figures and styles can be heard to affect subsequent music-making at the source. The imitations and parodies (in the old musical sense) of Glassiana in film and television theme music picked up on the tonal aspects of Glass's practice divorced from the acoustical residua and graffiti that made his music once so transcendent, and Glass himself gradually took a similar turn. In this manner, something very close to a musical genre has been developed and it is indeed now possible (it's happened to me, even) for a film producer to phone up a composer and ask for a package of themes and incidentals a la Glass. It has become a genre because it is recognizable, durable, divisible, and transportable (i.e. can be reproduced in varying musical contexts and functions) as such in the musical market place; a musical genre is thus, by definition, currency in the musical market.

Glass aside, as the serious/classical/avant-garde/modern/experimental is, in commercial market terms, marginal, if not dysfunctional or even failed, is it otherwise useful to talk in terms of genre? In fact, I think there are some niche markets in which it is useful, particularly as an historical aspect. The 12-tone or serial bebop piece, for example, had currency (in both senses) in a certain micro-market — largely academic — for a certain period of time. That era has long since ended* but some of those who had invested much in the technique and aesthetic managed — with a mixture of strategic reinvestments and tenured academic positions — to anchor themselves enough to sustain careers well into the next regime, if only as skilled artisans of an archaic practice, like mechanical watchmakers or specialists in the arcana of old computing systems.


* Free dissertation suggestion: The Break Down of Bretton Woods and the End of the Princetonian Twelve-Tone Ascendency.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Something borrowed?

I've noted here before my impression that the mainstream "contemporary (post-/ex-/pseudo-/semi-)classical" has gradually become — for better and/or worse — a repertoire music,* a status that in the 20th century was largely associated with genre musics. With this development, we can reckon with more examples of the current Osvaldo Golijov sharing/borrowing/stealing controversy. (This thread at Sequenza 21 is keeping up with the story.)

Now, one of the necessary conditions of the formation of a musical repertoire is that numerous musical elements will be shared. These shared elements can be more abstract or structural in character — certain preferred forms or ensembles, for example — or they can be more immediately material — scales and modes, figures, riffs, sequences, progressions, tunes, scoring patterns, rhythmic tricks, even a characteristic dynamic profile (see Mannheim School).

The identity of an individual work in a repertoire with considerable sharing is often a matter of degree, and the individual stylistic preferences of a composer — whether as an expression of individual personality or of a shared, received aesthetic, or of a market identity — can be heard as value settings for the nature and degree of sharing in each category of material. However, when a composer borrows larger stretches of material, and particularly stretches which are recognizable as products of the imagination and labor of other musicians, then there is a body of terms with which one can describe the work: arrangements, variations, parodies, pastiche, citations etc.. It's even possible to sell wholesale appropriations as conceptual works.

In all of these cases going beyond the everyday commerce in shared materials which is standard practice in any repertoire, the composer is obliged to acknowledge his or her borrowings. Now it may well be that Mr Golijov, under the pressure of a large backlog of commissions, made an arrangement of some sort with his alleged source for the commission that has come under scrutiny. It could be, for example, a form of work-for-hire, a practice with some substantial tradition in all of the arts, in which case, the commissioners may have some concerns as to whether the work delivered was the "authentic" Golijov they asked (and paid) for. I suspect, however, that to whatever degree material was borrowed, the ultimate evaluation is going to be highly subjective in character, and it will be very interesting to hear how the rights organizations and Mr Golijov's academic institutions handle this, as they have their own interests and standards, obtained over long experience with the legal and moral niceties, for the correct identification of authorship.

For all of the attractions and advantages of working in a repertoire, priority and attributions are inevitable concerns for a composer.


* The avant-garde and radical-experimental impulses being, by nature —and also, for better and/or worse —, counter-repertorial.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

From a Diary: I:xviii

What is Renewable Music, anyways? So I'm reading David Antin writing about Marjorie Perloff writing about Ludwig Wittgenstein this evening and Antin — inevitably, as he's writing about the Tractatus — has to use the word "picture" and I'm suddenly thrown back for a moment or two by the look of that word, "picture". It just doesn't look right, the orthography doesn't click, it's as if I've forgotten the spelling and simply can't recognize it, though I damn well know I've been reading and writing that word for four and a half decades. The very shape of those letters in that sequence suddenly looks wrong... is that really a word? Do English words really do that? For that moment, it doesn't look a thing like the word [picture] in my head or match the sound of the word [picture] in my head, but there it is. Picture that. Then, later in the evening, I'm overhearing music, not quite listening, just on the edge of really being able to hear it, as it's coming from the room next door. It's music I know well, the Scène d'amour from Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette, extraordinary music anytime, but at this moment, when I can barely hear it, filtered through a wall and resonated by an odd pair of rooms, generally attenuated, but with a booming if counter-functional bass and odd details popping to the surface, it's not immediately recognizable, but it's strange and wonderful, and even in the inevitable moment of delayed recognition, it is a strange and wonderful renewed acquaintance.