Thursday, January 28, 2016

Y is for Yonder

I've long had a toy theory that in the Vorspiel to Das Rheingold, via the entrances of the instruments and their relative positions in the pit, it's possible to tell which side of the Rhine you're supposed to be on, as the water moves from North to South.  Of course, this theory gets mixed up somewhat with the unorthodox seating under the cover of the Bayreuth pit, but the notion that the physical placement of instruments in a space can lead to a sensation of motion is not fanciful at all.  One of the features I neglected to mention in my post about Thomas Brodhead's edition of Ives's 4th Symphony is that Ives included fairly elaborate instructions regarding the dynamics in the second movement and how these might be refined through actual placement of the musicians, in some cases suggesting either physical movement of the players or an enlarged ensemble.  To date, this appears not to have been done in performance, but it is surely worth trying.  The potential for this was certainly evoked in Jose Serebrier's quadraphonic recording, in which the mobile perspective of the composer/listener is strongly suggested (in fact, I might now characterize Ives's approach as film sound design before films had sound design!)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

X is for Xenophilia

Sometimes, sending a score out into the world is like writing a love letter, addressee unknown.

Friday, January 22, 2016

More than a Survival Guide to Ives's 4th

This video may be on the musicologically wonkish side for some, but I find it fascinating: it's an introduction by Thomas Brodhead to his critical and performance edition of Ives's 4th Symphony. Brodhead has taken an admirable strategy to producing practically usable performance materials that both make difficult passages more readable for individual players, sections, and conductor(s) (it can be useful to have more than one conductor for sections of the work), but also preserves the many performance options that Ives left.  Perhaps most importantly, for me, Brodhead restores the precise proportional time relationship between the main orchestra and the separate percussion ensemble in the fourth movement, something that has been basically faked in the past; this is regrettable, not least because with this relationship intact, the prescience of Ives's invention here is immediately obvious.  

Thursday, January 21, 2016

W is for Waking

Much, if not most, of my work composing is routine, even mechanical, realizing in details all the consequences of my grand plans and lesser follies. For this, the small hours of the night seem best, and drifting into dreams (and sometimes providential error!) reliably gives those details an added dose of fantasy that might otherwise be lost to the routine.  Editing, the work I like least, is done best in the afternoon, the dullest part of my day. But it is in the waking moments that my best composing gets done, or better: begun, composing music at the same time you're composing yourself, and, when both fortunate and focused, being able capturing some of the spark remaining from the productive sense and nonsense of musical dream-work. It's not unusual for me to rush straight from bed, not quite awake, not quite still asleep to a keyboard or to paper and pen and try to capture just a few sounds from rapidly fading memory. Like trying to catch mercury.  No, not transcribing whole, finished pieces from dreams, but carrying musical ideas and impulses from dreams forward into waking life and real music to be played and heard.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

V is for Velocity's as if we're in a contest between the speed of tongues and hands and fingers, the length of breath and bow arm, and the resonance of the sounding body or echo in the room all on one side and the speed of listening, the length of attention, and the acuity of memory on the other. And the magic is that neither side ever loses...

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

U is for Underground

When poet/playwright/actor/artist/activist George Hitchcock was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1957 and asked to state his profession, he said (truthfully): "I am a gardener. I do underground work on plants".

In some recent research into the new music of the '60s, the phrase "underground music" turned up with some frequency.  Now it may well be that the shelf life of the term, music-wise, has run out and now we reserve "underground"  for extreme and secretive political movements, but it would be a shame if that were the case, in my opinion not least because musical history amply demonstrates that a little subversion of the normative order has always been musically useful.  There is simply something vital to the idea that something  relatively unknown yet lively and well worth digging for — in this case music, or musical techniques, or ideas about music made in alternative ways — lays immediately below the surface of our everyday musical lives.  It might be argued that with all the information-conveying media available to us now that nothing, really, is ever too far beyond reach to be considered underground, but if anything has been demonstrated by the famed notion of a long-tail, the narrow end of said tail is so invisible (inaudible, in this case) that it might just as well be physically (as opposed to virtually) underground as the social networks in which it shakes are not of great volume or visibility.  

Monday, January 18, 2016

T is for Thread

I like to misuse the phrase "through-composed"; instead of referring to an opera without formal divisions (into recitatives, arias, ensembles etc.),  My misuse is idiosyncratic and more generic, using it for pieces that are composed (and subsequently performed) from a beginning to an end, without much in the way of pre-planning getting into the way, and more or less as a single continuity.  But that doesn't mean — for me at least — an actual absence of any structural substance or the guidance of planning or theory or rules, rather that this substance, and the plans and theoretical stratagems and tactical rules, simply become apparent or articulate to me during the actual composing.  And as they become apparent, they either form a set of constraints which I strictly obey in service of — let's call it — coherence, or I find myself doing things which irritate or, eventually, break my provisional sense of coherence and force a reformulation (which may be formal, notated in sketch or words, or informal, on the fly and in my head) to restore, if not an order, at least an orientation, to an apparently larger musical world that is the piece in progress.

I could characterize this project as drawing and following a line (with all regards to my teacher, La Monte Young, my lines tend to not be straight: they wander, or better meander (I've long wanted to write a piece called Meander Scar (which would refer to the long-term motion of river beds, but also the sculptural shadow drawing of Richard Tuttle))) but line is perhaps too loaded musically (and more than musically, see Paul Klee's line taking a walk in his wonderful Pedagogical Sketchbook) and I think too immediately of lines=voices in early polyphony or the long line in romantic melody, and I'm thinking here of an aspect of continuity that is much larger than tune (tune being the breadbox of musical quanta, in which a note is a bite, a measure is a slice, and a whole loaf the stuff that ends in crusts) and, so. even better, I go with thread.   Threads have length but not much width, can be held taught or lax or twisted, can be led or followed or go astray, be spooled away, dropped, broken, torn.   As a composer, I do all of these things with a thread, and as extemporaneous as each stitch may appear (or sound, in this case), this isn't automatic stitching or sewing or writing, because pulling a thread is an act of control, with a history and a forward direction.

Friday, January 15, 2016

What? Vibrato again?

I posted this response to a recent article over at New Music Box:

For me, the issue of vibrato does not reduce to the binary of vibrato/no vibrato and does not have anything to do with emulation or contrast with boys’ choirs, but it has everything to do with musicality and control. As a composer, there are times when I honestly do want a straight and clear tone with precise intonation in a particular register and I want to ask for it specifically, from singers and instrumentalists (yes, flutists…) The use of vibrato, and its speed and depth is a performance and — potentially — compositional, variable. (See the late and great Andrea von Ramm’s landmark essay, “Singing Early Music”, in Early Music Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 12-15.) Recognizing this and requiring this from oneself or others as a singer, voice teacher, choral director, or composer can, however, go against some strongly ingrained, but typically local and parochial, notions about what good vocal quality is, and can create resistance from strongly ingrained performance practice traditions and habits that refuse to recognize this as both variable and an advantage. Particularly difficult are arguments that one form of production is more or less “natural” than another or produces certain physical or physiological advantages; fortunately, we have too many counter-examples from the world’s varieties of music to let these arguments ride. I would even go so far as to assert that any strong position regarding technique, whether with voices or instruments, vibrato included, is as likely as not to be taken cover for laziness with regard to modifying or acquiring new techniques. And also, a strong and continuous vibrato is, frankly, too frequently used as cover for less accurate intonation in both vocal and instrumental performance.

Fortunately, I think there is ultimately something moot to arguing this out: there is no standard model for a musician and her or his technique, there are real differences in physiology and musical taste, and this rich variety stands matched to a rich variety of composers, catalogs, and repertoires. No singer or player can nor need fit all repertoire, no piece of music can nor need fit all singers or instrumentalists and there certainly need not be any lack of mutual consent in playing a piece of music. And, as a composer, that’s okay with me, because it makes our musical lives — and perhaps our lives in general — both livelier and more convivial.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

L'Histoire du soldat

First, let's get the inevitable joke out of the way:  With the popularity of the online investigative program The Serial Podcast, we can only anticipate The Aleatoric Podcast and The Minimal Podcast and The Complex Podcast and The Neo-Romantic Podcast...

I came late to The Serial Podcast and found the first season to be fascinating, both as investigatory journalism (with both virtues and faults) and for its use of the medium, an audio-only program released in regular intervals over time with a both a continuing and a cumulative effect.  Through the gradually accretion of detail, an apparently closed story opened itself up through first minor irritations in the established narrative and then through the gathering sharpness of texture and features, leading to additional evidence and doubts and, perhaps, plausible alternative narratives that have actually invited revisiting of an old case.  Of course, it's of foremost importance that a justice system is shown to be an instance for increased justice,  but as the investigation here was not far from a detective story, with the combination of real leads and false trails and the persistent and skeptical voice of the investigator (here journalist Sarah Koenig): exactly the elements that make the genre so engaging.  I've always been fond of radio drama and can't wait to hear where she leads the story next. As a composer, used to musical works in which attention is sustained for minutes, perhaps tens of minutes in a single evening's stretch,  I'm definitely impressed when encountering work that sustains interest over an hour, and then from one week to the next, even as, in this case, the story came to no clear conclusion. Reasonable doubts and all that, perfect thing to listen to while cooking or copying music.

In the second season, as far as we can tell from the first four episodes, not only the subject but the form is altogether different from the first. With the public announcement immediately before the first episode was broadcast that the subject, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, would be prosecuted by a US Army court martial for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, listeners were made clear of this difference. The legal process is ongoing, not revisited history, and the basic elements were established:  Bergdahl did break the Army's rules and walk away from his post.  Whatever one thinks of the presence of US troops in Afghanistan or of military conventions in general, it was a naive and stupid thing for an individual soldier to have done.  If he had legitimate criticism of his superiors, as someone who had signed up for an enlisted position and most likely been drilled and re-drilled with the rules of organization and his expected conduct in that position, he should have had a better sense of the actual resources and limits permitted him.  We can agree that he was treated horribly in an astonishingly long captivity (especially for someone with such limited linguistic skills or cultural preparation), provided no useful intelligence to his captors, and did try to escape when escape was possible.  I think Koenig could have established all of that in a single episode and that would have been that for the Bergdahl story. But my impression is either that she's got something larger and longer in the works, or she really has no idea where the story is going to go except for a vague description of a story that "spins out in so many unexpected directions" and "extends far out into the world.  Her notice this week that the story would now continue on a bi-weekly rather than uni-weekly basis, with at least one additional previously unplanned episode in order to accomodate material previously unknown to her, doesn't decisively support either view.   The four episodes so far have expanded the topic in concentric rings around Bergdahl, giving his story more texture, but my gut feeling is that there is very little more there, that it won't continue to drop substantial details and doubts about that individual's soldier's story, but I think we may well learn more of some larger stories about, for example, Pakistan's internal relations, and its relationship to its neighbor Afghanistan and to the United States, an ugly story about which we don't learn enough.  My guess is that the Army will convict Bergdahl — I don't know how they could remain within their own rules and not do so, such is the nature of institutions like the Army — but hope that his time, deprivation, and torture in captivity be treated as punishment enough. If, however, Koenig decides instead to tighten the circles of the story back around Bergdahl, there are some cultural questions that could be usefully explored about the background of a small town kid from Idaho, home-schooled, from an Orthodox Presbyterian family who would spend time in a Buddhist monastery, a cyclist in car country without an auto driver's license, someone who'd given up studying martial arts and fencing for ballet.  The idea that someone with that background could sign up and be expected to fit into the institutional life of a rigorously hierarchical social organization like an Army strikes me as unlikely, but it does also strike me as perhaps piece and parcel of the same kind of confused "patriotism" that one too often encounters in the US today (see: militias, tea baggers, Bundys....)  In any case, I'll keep listening: I like forms that defy my predictions.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Epochal notice

Let it be noted that the predominant musical genre and style of the day is Post-Interesting Music. However regrettable, this is not an altogether unusual state of affairs and experience has shown us there is not much more to be usefully said about it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Strauss, in fragments

Going to a performance of Der Rosenkavalier seemed like the right thing to do this last weekend. Although it's not the kind of recreation an experimental composer would seem likely to go in for, when done well, it reliably cheers me up and as this year — not personally, but generally — started out with wanting a good dose of cheer, recreate I did.   In a very good performance at the Frankfurt Opera under Sebastian Weigle, I was struck this time by how modern the 1911 piece is.  While typically reckoned as the beginning of the composer's romantic-conservative turn, it is still built so edgily on stylistic, or rather music-about-music, citations and fragmentation that the whole has a continuity more of a piece with Elektra (1909), his first collaboration with librettist Hofmannsthal*, than with the smoother operas to come, from Ariadne auf Naxos (1912) onward.  Although Strauss's score doesn't have Ives's contrapuntal mettle, with his fragments and citations linear, in series, rather than overlapped or parallel, and he's more for stylistic than exact quotes of tunes, it really does belong in the same modernist ballpark as Ives, with nostalgia playing a similar role (it's easy to forget that at the time of its premiere, the pseudo-Mozart and almost-Johann-Strauss-Waltzes in Rosenkavalier were not fashionable objects of nostalgia and Ives's citation corpus was, and was increasingly so, similarly out-of-the-moment. (I won't push Ives-Strauss much further, but can't help but note that both shared a similar device for hanging a shimmering and harmonically ambiguating cloud over nostalgic material — for example, here, Strauss with his use of celesta and flute and Ives with a separated group of five violins and harp in the first movement of the 4th Symphony.)  Strauss's fragmentation had a great resonance in its time, with, for example, Bartók's enthusiasm for the broken continuity of Also Sprach Zarathustra reflected directly in works from the tone poem Kossuth to the Dance Suite (1923.)

About the subject of the opera and its libretto, I'll just note that although this opera has the formal shape of the classical comedy, with thwarted young lovers asserting themselves with a prank against the — here, oxen — heavy, it is more like a late-Shakespearean dark comedy or romance, a meditation on aging, on fickle men and wise women, with a fairly realistic take on the various sub-classes of the Austrian (or any) aristocracy,  the servants and supplicants. Above and beyond the obvious attraction to Strauss of writing for three strong women's voices of distinct types, Hofmannsthal gave Strauss a extremely rich set of contrasts in characters to reinforce or play against musically and this meant, in the absence of the contained forms of classical arias and recitatives — which allow for a suspension of dramatic time for emotional consideration and repose — a surface of constant radical shifts in texture and time.

*This, too: I should be writing something smart or clever about Hermann Broch's essay, "Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time, Art and Its Non-style at the End of the Nineteenth Century", but smart and clever fail me here: just read the damn thing.