Thursday, June 27, 2013

Those added degrees of freedom

Eight weeks after having a heating pipe bust, with the insurance company willing and the plumbers & painters & floorers finally done with their work, (and perhaps the good will of a couple of benevolent pagan demi-Gods,) we're finally in a position to put the furniture back in the living room.  And* with walls and floors and celing looking fresh and new, the temptation to reposition the furniture is great, a chance to make our old familiars (tables, chairs, sofa, cabinets, lamps, home entertainment devices (piano, harpsichord, music stands, the electronica), pictures) somewhat less familiar.  But our stuff, less chosen than accumulated, none of it especially valuable or (one drawing excepted) attractive, our stuff entered our house piece-by-piece over many years, each piece chosen largely on the basis of being able to fit into whatever space the existing piecery left vacant, so that the number of possible repositionings in the room is greatly limited and the number of functional & desirable repositionings is even more limited, so much so that the optimal repositioning of the objects in the room is pretty much exactly the same positioning we had before the pipe broke, give or take an inch here or a centimeter there.  And yes,** we could probably gain some modest additional degree of freedom by admitting that we have too much stuff, but that we know, already and all-too-well, even if — in an effort to delay the reality of our fading youth — we pretend that that is not the case, keeping up with the accumulation of our stuff as a way of artificially staving off age & death & all that:  it's a way of saying, or signaling that we are still in the game, even though we don't really have space any more for any new stuff.  WHICH IS ALL A ROUNDABOUT WAY OF MAKING AN OBSERVATION ABOUT COMPOSING AND ITS ADVANTAGE OVER JUST LIVING AN ORDINARY LIFE:  unlike real rooms (or at least those rooms that folks like musicians could ever afford), there is really no natural limit on the degrees of freedom with which we can rearrange our acoustical furniture (sounds in general or their absenses; musical tones, noises in particular; from instruments and/or voices and/or neither; in established or novel configurations; comfortable & familiar or disturbing & strange), and indeed the very rooms (forms) into which we fit our music are elastic in the extreme.  However, there is a real and non-trivial musical joy in taking the most well-known, even banal, of our acoustical goods & properties and the most established of our formal scaffolds, the oldest cookie cutters or aspic molds in the drawer, and trying to find just one more undiscovered way of nudging things around a bit. And*** often that is our best, even most radical work.

* Yes, once again I am caught starting a sentence with "And...."  Blogging wild.
** See above.
*** ibid.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Alphabetized Winterreise

Here's a new score by Eric Carlson, a composer previously unknown to me, Alphabetized Winterreise.   The piece is exactly what the title says it is: Schubert's song cycle Winterreise, disassembled into its individual words which are then reassembled in alphabetical order.  There is some precedence for such re-assembly of the contents of an existing work (Christopher Hobbs's The Remorseless Lamb does, measure-for-measure, something of the sort, and both polyphonically and randomly, for a four-hand arrangement of Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze) and there is a body of experimental literature in which alphabetizing lexicons of texts is a formal move (Walter Abish has done this brilliantly, first a paragraph, then the alphabetized list of words which, emptied of their word-order-driven syntax, have a emotional power of their own.)  But Carlson's piece seems to me to be a uniquely virtuoso effort within this field, and reading through the score has been an experience quite unlike anything else I've heard or played.  The music is crazy and obsessive (in the best possible sense, and well it should be, given the crazy and obsessive compositional procedure), non-relenting in its stuttering, jerking continuity, but the wonder here is that it has a definite continuity, a trajectory even, if driven only by the structure of the alphabet and the background radiation of the source song cycle.  Zwei zwei zwei Zweige zwischen. It has moments of great humor and lightness, but also moments of tenderness, melancholy, even despair, everything that the original Winterreise had, but is a very different journey altogether.  Why does Winterreise work so well for this purpose?  I honestly can't imagine the same procedure working for Dichter Liebe or the Spanisches Liederbuch and, while I can't prove it, I suspect that its due to a previously unrecognized degree of stability in large scale musical-lexical correspondences in Schubert's setting of the Wilhelm Müller texts. I am really looking forward to hearing a performance of this piece.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

A little less consorting, please.

One of the commissioning trends of late has been for several performers or groups, from chamber musicians to choirs and orchestras, to jointly commission a new piece from a composer, with the prospect of multiple performances of the work more-or-less guaranteed.  While all commissioning is good and pooling resources is usually good, and the promise of performances beyond a premier is always good, I think that a greater good to the diversity and liveliness of our musical lives would be done by if all the individuals and organizations interested in commissioning new work would each commission a new work from a different composer.

Yes, this more than likely means much smaller commissions, but the commission is basically a gift upfront and is only part (and the least reliable part) of the composer's complete compensation package. That guarantee of a first performance might compensate significantly for a significantly more modest commission when coupled with a second or third performance and good documentary recordings.  Those additional performances can be the difference between a work getting "read through" and actually being turned into real music, and the existence of the recording (and remember: I'm not a recording enthusiast) can often be the key to a work becoming a repertoire item shared with other players or groups.

The bigger picture here, of course, is one of managing the abundance and diversity of new music, in which an individual work of quality is often simply lost before it can become known and recognized as well worth singing, playing, and listening to.  (More posts on this topic to come.) A commissioning consortium arbitrarily isolates and identifies one (prospective, unheard) work as significant without offering musicians or listeners a meaningful sense of the field of alternatives from which it actually comes. I can't help but see that as representing a loss of freedom: composers will find themselves trying to compose to the patterns and models that have already had success with consortia, and players and listeners will be offered an ever-smaller menu of music to play or hear by local musical organization.

We're in an odd stage of musical history in that so much music is readily available in recorded form, that the music we actually get to hear live is necessarily only a tiny slice of that abundance but one which has been, in the end, capriciously monopolized.  I believe that the best way forward towards both dealing with the variety and trying to avoid that caprice is — perhaps paradoxically — to go in a direction that looks somewhat more like an earlier period of music-making, when news traveled slowly and musical activities were strongly localized. Yes, the immediate access to anything and everything in recorded form is here for keeps and will always form a powerful background radiation to all the music we make and hear, and the forces that would like to make the selections for us are probably there as well, but if we don't take ownership of the musical air immediately around us, we've already given up.