Friday, January 31, 2014

Enough names to go around?

I've admired the work of the Amsterdam-based new music ensemble, Trio Scordatura, which has specialized in music with alternative tunings since 2006.  Now, I've just read a review at the New Music Box of a Texan violin and viola twosome, Duo Scordatura.  Before I clicked on the review, I expected to find that some 2/3 of the Amsterdam trio had done a recording absent either a voice, viola or keyboard instrument.  Given the lack of overlap in repertoire and physical distances between the groups, I don't expect that the two groups are much likely to be competing for exactly the same market segments for concerts, but recordings and online items do circulate widely and live long and there ought to be enough interesting and useful names to go around, so start-up groups ought to do a little due diligence to avoid such similarities. When the market stakes are higher, this name business can get cutthroat (like the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain / United Kingdom Ukelele Orchestra fracas) but I think the New Music World is both small enough and kind enough that we could get along with some more respect for others' names. Kraig Grady, for example, has worked as an ambassador for the music of the (possibly imaginary) island state of Anaphoria for decades now, with postings in both the US and in Australia, in numerous solo and ensemble configurations, often with film or shadow theatre;  however, another new music group established itself in Chicago in 2008 with a potentially confusing name, the Ensemble Anaphora.  Not quite the same word (the first is a medical term, the second literary/linguistic, but I suspect both are rooted in the Greek anapherein, to bring back or to carry) but close enough to potentially confuse (I hit upon the later Chicagoan website while trying to remember the other's URL.)   Interesting and exciting work comes from both Anaphoria and Anaphora, and it'd be nice for each to have a more distinctive name.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Hocket in the Works, in Aptos

If you happen to be near Santa Cruz, California on Saturday the 1st, The Santa Cruz New Music Works will be playing a mixed bill at Cabrillo College in Aptos including the first performance of my little Double Hocket for three treble and two bass instruments.  I first heard a concert by NMW in late 1979, and it's a typical sign of the lively cultural life of that community that The Works are still going strong, under the direction of their impressario, Philip Collins, more than three decades later.  I was fortunate to take part in an exquisite corpse cooperative composing project for Lou Harrison's 75th birthday, so this is my second happy collaboration with Collins and Co.. This program will also include the premier of Tryst by a good friend and fine composer, Steed Cowart.  I've seen the score to Tryst and it looks like a whole lot of hocketting will be going down in Aptos this weekend.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Taking Inventory

Here's a page of a piece — or maybe not yet a piece — I made last year:

(Click the image to enlarge.)  This is the first of a series of similar pieces. It's nothing more than a list of the pitches, measure-by-measure, in ascending order, found in a famous piece of "learned" music.  I did it first as an analysis, but found that that I liked playing it as well (not a particularly innovative idea: The Scratch Orchestra's Draft Constitution suggested playing from Schenker graphic analyses, after all!)  It works well on a keyboard, but is perhaps more engaging as a solo cello piece, either way with the something of the character of an unmeasured prelude.  As a piece of music, it erases the rhythmic and polyphonic aspects of the source composition, but something of the harmonic flavor remains and the ametrical but steady rhythm has  a character of its own, somewhere between cogitating and meditative.  It is not as "interesting" as the source, and certainly not as efficient, but it tells something about the source material that may have been otherwise overlooked (overheard?)

But I'm not altogether sure that it's a finished piece.  Things like this need time to determine whether more or less composing — here, manipulation, in the form of addition or subtractions of elements or instructions — is in order.  (Thinking here, as usual, of Jasper Johns's recipe:  Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.)

The idea of taking inventory of one or more classes of objects or features in a work is a standard analytical exercise and here provides some fuel for the fire of how much quantitative elements contribute to the qualitative experience of a musical work.  There is a body of contemporary poetry which plunders the inventories of existing works.  The composer and poet (and all-round free radical thinker) Samuel Vriezen pointed me in the direction of the astonishingly virtuosic anagrammatical Sonnets, or "Sonnagrams", of K. Silem Mohammad, formally strict English Sonnets, each of which is based on a Shakespeare Sonnet, each with 14 end-rhymed iambic pentameter lines using only the letters found in the corresponding Shakespeare poem, with any leftover letters used in the title of each Sonnet.  As I understand it, this is an ongoing project, with the ambition to compose a full set.  What I have read impressed me no end; they are at turns deeply moving, funny, troubling, daring.  How can you not love a poem that begins:

Go softly to the Disneyland Hotel,
Its simulacral threshold grown sublime:
The bedrooms all emit that new car smell,
Like nothing else in bourgie Anaheim.

? With Muhammed's examples of an old familiar sonnet scrambled into a new and much stranger, if contemporary, sonnet, it is awfully tempting to scramble my prelude and turn it back into a fugue of some sort.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Temporary Notes (17)

So there's this new watch — well, it's really a very slow metronome — that buzzes every five minutes, just a reminder that a certain span of time has passed, the particular duration chosen for a certain quality: "vibrating any more often than every five minutes, they found was annoying; any longer than 10 and it became hard to remember when the last interval started."  In other words, the interval needn't have been precisely five minutes, indeed, unless we filled up that duration singing to ourselves a song that exactly fit that length or carrying out some task with some number of mechanically precise repetitions, most of us really wouldn't reliably know whether the duration was five minutes exactly or somewhat longer.  Robert Erickson named a piece "Taffy Time" with the notion of capturing something elastic about the sensation of acoustic events marking the passing of time; my own experience has been that a lot of musical value can be conveyed by time intervals that escape precision.  Neuroscientists have been able to identify a number of internal clocks which we carry around with us, regulating operation of the body and determining how we take information in and process it. These clocks tick within fairly stable frequency ranges, but can be usefully dynamic within these ranges, the heartbeat and rate of breathing slows down and speeds up whether we're at rest or working, musical consonances resolve themselves more quickly in the brain than dissonances, etc.. This is not just theory, it's enormously practical, the stuff of big business even: it sets the rate that frames flicker by in films  (and also explains why we can follow "movement" on a video screen, but dogs get confused) or the sampling rates for recorded sound. For musicians, the clocks that seem to matter most are one that ticks around 200 mHz, at which, when two sounds occur within that span, we can't reliably sort out which came first, and then around 10 or 12 Hz, the rate at which we can, with some degree of certitude, tell whether successive pulses are evenly spaced or not, then the sweet spot of around 80 beats per minute, within which we tend to subdivide and take in whole groups of rhythmic activity — metric feet (which relate to both song and dance, activities closely tied to basic body mechanisms), drum rudiments, words in Morse code or touch typing all fall into this range — and above or below which most tempo phenomena occur (and, usefully, when one reaches the half or the double of a tempo in this region, subdividing or grouping can kick in, as in the Javanese Irama system, in which dynamic tempi settle at stable densities over multiple levels of doubling or halving) and among which we tend to group into handfuls of pulses, for example into metres, which may or may not be reinforced by dynamic stresses or subtle distortions (both regular and irregular) in the lengths of successive beats. This new metronomic watch, however, is explorating a clock that, in musical terms, is ticking at the level of form rather than local rhythm.  Five minutes would be on the long side  for a pop song, better for a slow than a fast dance, it could be a whole piece of concert music, or a movement or section of a larger work.  In any case, it is certainly at the edge of an ambiguous formal length: I find that for a huge swathe of the repertoire, three minutes is short, eight or more is a substantial movement, so five minutes falls somewhere in-between. Beyond this, the twenty-minute single movement strikes me as rather often ambiguous or anonymous again, depending upon whether we start to subdivide it, and some time length beyond that, in a region Feldman and Ashley both identified as "scale", form starts to do something altogether.

A is for Antiquity

When I was very small, my mother took me to see the touring exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls when they came to Claremont. For weeks beforehand, I had been prepped by both parents about how exciting and important they were.  When we finally saw the exhibition, however, I was disappointed because no dead squirrels were on display.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Professor Pythagoras Would Be Jealous

Professor Pythagoras Would Be Jealous

for Alvin Lucier's 81st

for electric guitar and six sine waves

The instruments should be individually amplified, with their own loudspeakers, not mixed electronically. The volume should be modest.

The electric guitar is tuned D - G - c - f - bb - eb', in beatless fourths.

The six sine waves are tuned to the same frequencies as the guitar.

Over the course of 10 minutes the lowest sine wave holds the tone D continuously and the five other tones descend steadily to a beatless unison with the low D.  The initial tuning in fourths and final unison may be sustained for up to one minute each, briefly fading in at the beginning and more slowly fading out at the end.

At the same time, the guitarist plays a steady six-string ascending arpeggio with the right hand while attempting, with the left hand on the tuning gears, to match the tuning of the guitar as closely as possible to the current tuning of the sine waves.

D. J. Wolf
May 2012

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Einstein on the Beach and the Relations of Production

I caught the last half or so of the live web broadcast from Paris of the revived Einstein on the Beach.  The theatrical pacing is still unlike anything else, the dancing this evening was especially clear and sharp-edged and the music still carries its particular charge, although now no longer its rough ensemble charm, but thankfully with restored tone colors closer to the original analog electric organs rather than the slick synth sounds that had turned up in revivals during the early CD era.  Everyone who knows Einstein probably has their own vivid recall of first hearing it (and those lucky enough to have seen a production even more so); for me it was an extended broadcast on Carl Stone's KPFK program, in headphones in a big recliner in the family den, and I immediately started saving to buy the box set of LPs.  (That set would later get played in entirety on Hallowe'en in 1981 over the biggest set of amp and speakers found in my Santa Cruz dormitory hall, creating an evening in which chemical enhancements were entirely unnecessary for an elevated sensory experience.)

But enough nostalgia for a moment:  I don't think it's been remarked upon often enough that Einstein (with, a little later, Robert Ashley's opera for television Perfect Lives) represented the most important challenge to opera in terms of its use of labor and means of production.  When Wilson and Glass rented the Met and Glass plopped his amplified keyboard, wind and solo vocal ensemble (with strategic use of violin obbligato and chorus)  into the pit, this constituted a fundamentally different way of filling a large hall for an evening with a complex and compelling mass of sound from business as usual in the opera house, which usually means the production of music via the last mass manual labor practice surviving from the steam age.  Now, to be certain, I find that there is a real and unique value to a good that requires the live participations of several hundred people with highly specialized skills working in close coordination yet able — sometimes spontaneously — to respond to sudden changes (there is no production line on the planet, not for cars, not for cell phones, not for bathing caps, that has the level of sensitivity and flexibility towards impromptu changes that a good opera company has when forced to respond to, for example, an inexplicably absent sword carrier in a crowd scene, a curtain falling when it should be raised or a missed vocal cue by a momentarily distracted soubrette (to be fair, of course, not all opera companies are that reliably good!)) and, more importantly, the sound of a large orchestra with or without unamplified voices in a good hall is a value in itself.  But, it is an honest question, in terms of both economics and aesthetics, to ask if this is a use of labor and resources that can be often afforded for new music for the theatre.  Let's stipulate that the amplified and mixed Einstein ensemble was cost-effective, but let's also be clear about precisely about the ways in which it is effective.  An amplified-and-mixed chamber group does not, and will not, have the same presence in any hall that the big orchestra has, but neither should it try to, as it has qualities of its own.  The strength, in this regard, of Einstein, as far as I'm concerned was that Glass used the ensemble's sound as an acoustic thing in itself, not as an orchestral surrogate, and although much of the music had, at the levels of notes alone, its infamous simplicity, at the real sonic surface there were all sorts of other things going on, in terms of beats and resultant tones and surprising patterns of melodic reinforcements and unexpected spatial resonances, a liveliness and complexity both different to and impossible in the traditional orchestral organization. Moreover, temporal and tonal control was in real time (Glass would nod his head to indicate moves forward from repetitions, and similarly the live sound mix would be adjusted to spontaneous changes in the composite sound.)  Glass's later operatic works use more traditional instrumental resources (pit, big band, man with stick), so there is a lot more remaining to be done in this direction.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Writing for String Quartet

After many years, I have learned, when writing for string quartet, that it can be useful to write some music for a violin, another violin, a viola, and also for a cello. It may also be useful if the music for these four instruments can be played at the same time and it's also potentially useful if all four instruments can be played in some proximity to one another. Of course, these are all variables and it's worth bearing in mind that the string quartet we have -- which is not necessarily the string quartet we might dream about -- comes out of a habit, in tonal music, of featuring three-note chords, with at least one of the tones doubled, perhaps at an octave or multiple thereof, and the occasional chord with more or less than three notes, and in general, a spacing among the tones with larger intervals at the bottom and smaller ones at the top; this last feature is reflected in the tuning proportions among the instruments, of 1:2:3:3. For violinists and violas, diatonic tones and their chromatic neighbors share a finger, while cellists can give a finger to each semitone. All string players are trained to play passage work — often the dark matter that fills up most of a piece of music —  based on these assignments of fingers. It may be useful to keep a fiddle around to see how your music fits the hand; it may be more useful to keep a fiddler around to show you.  Finally, there are lots of tricks these instruments can do, alone or together, involving strings, bodies, fingers, bows, mutes, harmonics, and so forth and in all their combinations, but your mileage may vary and, don't forget, the balance among egos in a quartet is a delicate thing and each individual may well require regular stroking, whether through the notes you write her or him, or other, non-musical, forms of affection.  

Sunday, January 05, 2014


The films of Georges Méliès have, justifiably, received much attention in recent years. They remain remarkable for their imagery — Méliès was a master of stage magic — yet are essentially spectacles with just enough story to sustain 3 to 14 minutes of attention.  The early filmmaker who continues to fascinate me most, however, is Louis Feuillade, who explored the potential of film for narrative in a time before the rules of the medium were established and in ways which still have creative potential.  It is estimated that he made over 800 films in his 20 years of activity, in all genres, from trick films and comedies to mythical adventures, biblical dramas and salon melodramas, but his genre of vituosity was suspense serial and, although the greater part of his work has not survived, there are four serials that are among the most engaging works I know:  Fantômas (1913-14), Les Vampires (1915)

Judex (1916), and Tih-Minh (1918)(Edward Gorey, who enthusiastically recommended Feuillade to me, thought that the serial Barrabas (1919) was the "greatest movie ever made"; unfortunately, I've never been able to see either it, the second series of Judex or 1922's Parisette.)  It is understood that Feuillade came from a conservative, Catholic background and had a military career, which offers no explanation at all as to why he would suddenly start in filmaking around 1905 and proceed with such explosive productivity to make works with proto-surreal imagery and strage plots that persistantly resist the conventions of bourgeois morality like his suspense serials, in which the villains rapidly become your heros.  The criminal gang of Les Vampires or the outside-the-law heroes of Fantômas or Judex certainly inspire the audience's allegiance more firmly than their opponents in the establishment.  There is an anarchic tendency here that famously got Les Vampires banned for a time, but also is a powerful source for every masked film hero to come.

IMDB offers up this plot summary for Tih-Tinh:  
"Jacques d'Athys, a French adventurer, returns to his home in Nice after an expedition to Indochina where he has picked up a Eurasian fiancée and a book that, unbeknownst to him, contains a coded message revealing the whereabouts of both secret treasures and sensitive government intelligence. This makes him the target of foreign spies, including a Marquise of mysterious Latin origin, a Hindu hypnotist and an evil German doctor, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book."

Yes, it sounds silly, with all the elements of a boy's adventure tale, too, but I'm not altogether certain that I'd have let my son watch this when he was 12!  There is a ernstness, indeed a foreboding darkness, in these films that is unique and makes the fanciful elements essential details instead of just entertaining surface features.  Feuillade achieves this through three elements:  brilliant actors (Musidora, who played Irma Vep in Les Vampires and Marie Verdier in Judex, was an incredibly disciplined physical actor and remains one of the most erotic presences ever on screen,
and René Navarre, who played the title role in  Fantômas was simply one of the greatest, most confoundingly expressive, actors ever, both of them acting before the rules of the game for film acting were set), brilliant images (to be fair, part of my appreciation for this simply comes from the fascination of looking closely at a world well before my own, with streets near-empty of auto traffic and pre-electric interior walls covered in near-hallucinatory wallpaper patters;  Feuillade did not go for the spectacles of Méliès, but could just as reliably and much more efficiently come up with an image that you will never forget) , and through his use of time, contrasting very occasional short cuts (did you see that?) with a leisurely use of the large-scale serial format, in which a story, no, a world, is allowed to open up over several hours, sometimes six to eight hours at that, time, spread for the viewer over several weeks time of regular cinema visits.   Feuillade really invented film as a narrative medium and he left potential areas for exploration that are still rich, but outside the typical 90 to 120 minute theatrical format. Let me say something outrageous, but true: there is a drect line from the Les Vampires to The Wire and Judex to Breaking Bad.

Friday, January 03, 2014

For 2014 (and every year after)

No resolutions for the new year, but a wish: to hear more that disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

This page (comma) Renewable Music (comma)

This page, Renewable Music, has now been around for nine years and some 1760 items.  It began in Budapest, soon moving with me to Frankfurt, with occasional postings from places more exotic: Crete, Kathmandu, California, Mississippi among them.   Though the original idea was to be a group blog, said group didn't materialize and instead, it's been the notes and marginalia of one Californian expatriot composer, a public assembly of writings incidental to a composing life, including many of the small messages I typically write myself during the work on a piece of music.  While straying sometimes into literature, food, the movies or politics (or musical politics in particular), it's been mostly about music, new and experimental mostly, although over the course of these years, those terms have come to carry weight I'd rather not haul around and I've come to the conclusion that The Radical Music is the most apt descriptor — radical, as in "getting to the roots; relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough" (the obligatory manifesto is here) —, into which many tributaries stream, among them the minimal (the best definition of which remains, btw, "the elimination of distractions".)  Most of the items posted here are autonomous, but there have been a couple of serial projects, including an Alphabet (e.g. U is for Umbrella),  and one thirty-day month of a Diary (made urgent, I thought, by Occupy, and modeled formally, unashamedly, on Cage's Diary: How to Improve the World (You'll Only Make Matters Worse), beginning here (and whether the world is any worse for it, who knows?)) and other series on topics including rhythm and confessions to sonic pleasures (including fluttering kites, bowed metal, bowing on or near bridges, passing trains, distant horns, drones, and moving water) and many more cryptic items like a quartet of items in homage to Lévi-Strauss's Mythologiques I–IV (starting here).  A list of pieces which have been critically important to me, my personal Landmarks, is listed in the sidebar.  (In principle, the list is open-ended, without restrictions, but in practice, I've resisting going much beyond fifty (on the principle that you make acquaintance with a lot of music but that can't really or responsibly know more than about fifty pieces at a time; I have also avoided duplicating composers in the list, but three names in particular (Berlioz, Ives, Cage) have made that particularly hard.  I have tried not to fall to often into ordinary prose, which may sometime read as indulgent, when not actually lapses of taste, as in some limericks about the aging of Elliott Carter.  Yes, Renewable Music has often been about my constant rediscovery of passion for language, if only through the medium of my own awkward idiolect.*  There have been infrequent postings of single images from my own scores (some written specifically for this blog, to illustrate some thing or another then thought urgent), and links to other, whole pieces (like this set of 100,000,000,000,000 Pieces for Clarinet), but also two series of pieces: a set of twelve small preludes, on each of 12 tonics, based on the premised that a prelude was a cadence elevated to an epiphany (here's the one on Eb), and then, in October 2007, the project of composing one whole piece a day for a month and publishing each score daily, at the least, an exercise in time management.

Let me, note, finally, three projects sponsored here, of albums of sheet music for solo piano (A Winter Album), for melodica(s) (Melodica!), and for solo recorder to grounds from The Division Flute (The New Division.)  A lot of great music by interesting composers, much of which has established a lively presence as music for home, study, and concert.

* The other day, I thought that I ought to know more about English new music.  I listen to lots of it via Internet broadcasts, but I can't honestly say that I know what's going on it, particularly with regard to continuity: I just don't follow.  So I listened to a number of online lectures and interviews by or with famous English composers (from P.M. Davies and Birtwhistle to Ferneyhough and Finnissy to Barrett and several others.)  All the time, I had this nagging sense that it was not just that I don't talk about music in the same way these people do and that this seemed to signal that I didn't, in some fundamental sense, think or make music in ways that really overlapped with any of these musicians, but that the sense of separation by a common language was much deeper than I had ever suspected. I've been wondering ever since if this was something I should be concerned with. My provision answer is no, but only provisionally so.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

From a Notebook, 1 January

A small piece for solo piccolo on the perceptual threshold of a recognizable regular tempo, with at least three areas of notational ambiguity — grace notes, lipped glissandi, and varied levels of vibrato (speed? width?) — for the player to consider.