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.