Sunday, December 26, 2004

Alternative Universes (2)

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49:

A sudden chorus of whoops and yibbles burst from a kind of juke box at the far end of the room. Everybody quit talking. The bartender tiptoed back, with the drinks. What's happening?" Oedipa whispered. "That's by Stockhausen," the hip graybeard informed her, "the early crowd tends to dig your Radio Cologne sound. Later on we really swing. We're the only bar in the area, you know, has a strictly electronic music policy. Come on around Saturdays, starting midnight we have your Sinewave Session, that's a live gettogether, fellas come in just to jam from all over the state, San Jose, Santa Barbara, San Diego-----" "Live?" Metzger said, "electronic music, live?" "They put it on the tape, here, live, fella. We got a whole back room full of your audio oscillators, gunshot machines, contact mikes, everything man. That's for if you didn't bring your ax, see, but you got the feeling and you want to swing with the rest of the cats, there's always something available." "No offense," said Metzger, with a winning Baby Igor smile.


Alternative Universes (1)

from Philip K. Dick, Cantata-140:
Late at night, Tito Cravelli sat in his conapt, before a genuine fire, sipping Scotch and milk and reading over the written report which his contact at Terran Development had a little earlier in the evening submitted to him.
Softly, his tape deck played one of the cloud chamber pieces by the great mid-twentieth century composer, Harry Partch. The instrument, called by Parch 'the spoils of war', consisted of cloud chambers, a rasper, a modernized musical saw, and artillery shell casings suspended so as to resonate, each at a different frequency. And, as a ground bass accompanying the spoils of war instrument, one of Parch's hollow bamboo marimba-like inventions tapped out an intricate rhythm. It was a piece very popular these days with the public.
But Cravelli was not listening His attention was fixed on the report of TD's activities.

Tape deck?

Wednesday, December 22, 2004


I recently gained entry into the On-line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences for the the sequence 1, 3, 7, 19, 55. It's probably the only entry in the Encyclopedia with a reference to Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two and priority should be assigned to Childs and Beck, but the sequence is also musically interesting. It suggests a family of tunings including 1/3-comma temperament (close to 19-tet) and the 55-tone temperament said to be favored by Telemann.

Friday, December 17, 2004


There has recently been quite a bit of internet chatter and US media attention about a prodigious young composer, Jay Greenberg. I have only heard fragments of Greenberg's music, but enough to agree that his is a real talent, although one that -- from the viewpoint of new musical materials or techniques -- has not yet led in any earthshattering directions. I wish him well and expect that his imagination will soon lead him down more adventurous paths (and perhaps even paths well beyond Julliard).

I happen to have stumbled upon the work of a prodigy of a different sort, and one whose work, although not showing the technical gifts of Mr. Greenberg, immediately strikes the mind and ear with features that fundamentally challenge my understanding of the qualities that music might possess. This composer, Marco Melanson, an Acadian/French-Canadian of Bathurst, New Brunswick, is now in his mid 20s, mostly self-taught, and prolific. He identifies himself forthrightly as a classical composer, writes works in classical forms (sonatas, symphonies, serenades), and his inspiration is a unique mix of Viennese classical music (I stumbled onto his webpage when searching for midi files of Haydn Baryton trios; he has pages full of midified Baryton trios and Mozart piano sonatas) and pop music (French-Canadian chanteuses, and Boygroup pop, with a violent aversion to Eminem).

Melanson has organized his list of works into chronological periods, some of which are named after the pop musicians to whom he then gave allegiance. Many of his pieces are online in midi format. Most of the early pieces are monophonic, sometimes with a rudimentary accompaniment, with an initial essay at a bass line appearing only in his 70th composition, the Simardian Concerto No.2 in E flat ("Simardian" refers to Nathalie Simard, the pop singer who was Melanson's idol during his creative period extending from 1992 to 1996). Latter works demonstrate an increasing mastery of the classical idiom and a functional harmonic language, albeit with considerable room for the development of more contrapuntal features. Most of the pieces are identifiably tonal, but some work within constraints that Melanson himself identifies as "avant-garde", for example, using only black or white keys in a movement, or using wide chordal voicings that recall -- for Melanson -- John Cage.

A random listening to a selection of Melanson's earliest midi files and especially the huge number of improvised "Melansonatas" yielded some moments recalling children improvising patiently at the keyboard, others the music of Chris Newman (albeit more tightly organized), or of Howard Skempton (albeit less economical). His later works recalled the 100+ Sonatas of John White or the 1001 Sonatas for violin and piano by Boudewijn Buckinx (or, albeit in a more modest way, my own 32 Sonatas for solo keyboard). Melanson's pieces share a simple surface with all of these but -- and this is very much like White or Buckinx -- his relationship to traditional repertoire is not simple: at once one constantly hears real fragments of familiar music, but the fragmenting process itself is constantly disarming in ways that David Cope's "recombinant" algorithmic pieces for comparison, are not. The truncated version of the Ode to Joy melody appearing in the first movement of Melanson's Symphony No.4 in D "Jeremy Jordan Symphony", M3. 138, is one good example. Melanson's use of repetition is also striking, in that the appearance and frequency of repetitions is never predictable. Sampling his midi files chronologically shows a composer gradually acquiring all the elements of a musical tradition, with each element internalized and redefined in his own terms.

From the biographical remarks elsewhere in Melanson's webpages, one can learn about some of the personal circumstances that have led to his musical work, his working methods, and some of his proclivities and obsessions. The relationship between his overtly classical textures and his affections for pop music just plain puzzles me. (When Melanson writes about his dreams, idols, or obsessions, he use language that could have come straight out of the journals of Joseph Cornell). However, these aspects strike me as ultimately unimportant. He is not an avant-garde or experimental composer and his works bear none of the irony or distance found in works of White or Buckinx, but it is precisely in the naivete of his works that honest traces of the experimental spirit can be found. I believe that calling attention to his work is not a case of my liberal ethics gone too far. Melanson has a unique take on music, and his development as a composer is worth some attention.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

First steps

What was the difference between a prepared piano and a ready piano?