Saturday, December 24, 2005

More memerie

These memes are really just questionaires of the sort played in parlors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Musicians played them back then, too. Debussy, for example. The best know questionaires are the two answered by Proust, including such zingers as " What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?", "What is your idea of earthly happiness?" or "To what faults do you feel most indulgent?." The meme going around these days asks for foursomes, so here goes:

Four jobs you've had in your life
: paperboy, dishwasher, silk screener, instrument repairman
Four movies you could watch over and over: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Houston), The Devil, Probably (Bresson), Repo Man (Cox), The Spanish Prisoner (Mamet)
Four places you've lived: Mt. Baldy, CA, Middletown, CT, Frankfurt-am-Main, Budapest
Four TV shows you love to watch: Ernie Kovacs, The Prisoner, Firefly, You Bet Your Life
Four places you've been on vacation: Chaco Canyon, Cappoquin, Yogyakarta, Delos
Four websites you visit daily: Crooks and Liars, Der Spiegel Online, New Music ReBlog, The Pyongyang Metro
Four of your favorite foods: Birria de Chivo, Larb, Frankfurter Gruene Sosse mit Oxenbrust, Gan Pung Chicken at the Omei in Santa Cruz ca. 1982.
Four places you'd rather be: Dungarvan, Pahrump, Morro Bay, Hortobagy

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Mozart Year Ahead of Us

The reputation of J.S. Bach took an interesting turn over the course of the "Bach Year" of 1985: he went into the year as the timeless universal musical genius and came out of it as a more parochial and specialized figure of his time, but also a more complex one. It was very useful to hear the church music again as the center of his work (as opposed, especially, to the late speculative instrumental works), but best of all, the quality of performances received a net benefit from the complex picture, happily (for me, at least) resolved into the thousand blooming flowers of performance practice we are likely to hear today.

I am very curious about the upcoming Mozart year. There have already been some serious shots at the bow of the current popular image of Mozart. (Norman Lebrecht's shot is so peculiar, that that it must be parody. Nothing could be more false than when Lebrecht identifies Mozart's music as "dissonance free" (if there is any single characteristic to identify Mozart's music, it's in his unique ability to maximize the dissonance-to-consonance ratio)).

That popular image does deserve some renewal, but it turns on some real subtleties, and I'm not terribly optimistic that those subtleties will be widely taken in. The Peter Schaffer play (and the Milos Foreman film) Amadeus has, for example, taken a central place in the image-making process, but this is due to the fundamental confusion that the play (and film) were biography. Amadeus was not a biography of Mozart; it was quite literally a study in the "love of God" (hence the name) and the creator's apparently arbitrary assignations of gifts on this planet. (It was also a great chance to show off Prague, but that's another case of arbitrarily assigned gifts!)

There are many Mozart's to choose from: the child prodigy, the court musician, or the freelance professional, the virtuoso or the master of simplicity, the provincial Salzberger or the urbane Viennese, the church and court organist or the freemason. Similarly, contemporary performance practice for Mozart's music is anything but the product of a consensus. I have no idea how well Mozart's music and reputation will survive the next year, but I expect that the question of Mozart's balancing between complexity and clarity will play a central role in the discussions to come.

Friday, December 16, 2005

First Annual

For what it's worth, I've now been posting for a year. The original intention was to do a group blog, but the rest of the group never got at it, and that's regrettable. As a solo effort by someone who writes uneasily at best, has children underfoot, has been through an international move in the past year, and usually is supposed to be composing for a living instead of blogging, I haven't been able to offer posts with either the eloquence or the frequency that really invites visitors to come back at regular intervals. My apologies, but also my thanks for stopping by in spite of these deficits.

(I'm still interested in doing a group effort. It could be a good vehicle for promoting new music and the world around it. But it would have to be a group of five to seven composers who are each equally committed to posting at least once a week in order to insure that the readers keep coming back at a regular rhythm. Anyone else?)

Among the musicians in the blogoplan* that I've encountered in the past year, it's possible that I most enjoy reading Fred Himbaugh of the Fredösphere. Now, given our differences in musical taste, religion, politics, etc., I would guest that if he and I were in the same room, it's possible that we'd either turn into pillars of salt or disappear into the interdimensional void in an act of spontaneous and total cancellation. But nevermind, for one of the joys of the blogoplan is never having to be in the same room, and that gives one the luxury of reading with as much or as little distance and passion as one wants. Fred Himbaugh really is a musician who likes to write about music more than himself, and does so always with good humor. That's plain decent.

Moreover, he likes dirigibles and cooking, two interest that are infinitely recommendable in my books.

*blogoplan: the set of blogs known to flat-earthers.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Too busy to post something new so here's that meme I forgot to post in March

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

Gravity's Rainbow. So I can happily quote Proverbs for Paranoids ("You hide, they seek") and tell my kids goodnight stories about Byron the Bulb, gauchos in the Alps, and explain the difference between Rossini and Beethoven.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Could be. Among her names, my daughter has both Emma and Miranda.

What are you currently reading?

The Parmenides poem, The Winters Tale.

The last book you bought is:

A guide to the archaological sites on Delos.

The last book you read:

Iron Council by China Meliville.

Five books you would take to a deserted island:

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
The Recognitions by William Gaddis
The Tempest (I assume that it's no fair to take a complete works!)
The Venture of Islam by Marshall G.S. Hodgson
Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin by Lawrence Wechsler

Saturday, December 03, 2005


Adam Baratz has a nice item about Randy Newman. His comparison with Stravinsky is interesting, although with Newman, it's the names of Schumann, Ives, and Brecht/Weill that first come into my mind, all of them song composers who are able maintain yet simultaneously move seamlessly outside the receieved framework and conventions of the song genre, allowing comment on the genre itself. I agree with Baratz's characterization of Newman as a meta-songwriter, and I'll even go one further. Sail Away (1973) , Good Old Boys (1974) , and Little Criminals (1977) are the finest song cycles of our time, and perhaps the best ever in American English. With a technique that is close to Schumannesque, these cycles allow Newman to combine the everyday riffs and jetsam of low musical cultural into a whole that is smart and startling. Further, his songs are political yet without the usual ephemeral and local qualities of political song. Both Ives and Brecht/Weill are precents and among contemporaries, Chico Buarque (try Buarque's Construcao) is perhaps the only colleague to match Newman's craft and imagination.

Why not the best?

This week, Robert Gable at Aworks is asking:
is Igor Stravinsky America's greatest composer?
I say no. There are real wonders among Stravinsky's American pieces (The Rake's Progress, Agon, Requiem Canticles, The Owl and the Pussycat), but you really want to have pieces from throughout Stravinsky's careet, and a passport can't make them all retroactively American. In my opinion, Charles Ives wins handily (and Cage comes in second, but that's for another post). Here are some pieces that make the case:

The Second Orchestral Set
Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies
The Piano Sonatas
Orchestral Set Nr. 1 ("Three Places in New England")
Variations on "America" for organ
The Two String Quartets
Set for String Quartet, Bass, and Piano
"Country Band" March
The Unanswered Question
Songs (Afterglow, Ann Street, At the River, The Cage, Charlie Rutlage, The Circus Band, Evening, General William Booth Enters into Heaven, The Greatest Man, Immortality...) and Sets for Chamber Ensembles based on Songs

The Second Orchestral Set is the Ives work which astounds me the most as a composition. Mind, heart, body: all are present. The Fourth Symphony is a work with a strange power; for Americans, a good performance of the Fourth is the equivalent of a good performance of Beethoven's Ninth for Europeans. And the little setting of At the River has everything.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


There seems to be an awful lot of worry out there about the place of serious music in the world, it's getting a lot of bloggish chatter, and some of that is coming from people -- unlike myself -- who really know how to write about music.

I can't agree more with these words from New Yorker critic Alex Ross:
classical music, for all its elite trappings, is actually a radical, disruptive force in American culture, whereas most popular culture, for all its rebellious trappings, is intensely conservative.
A few minutes after reading Ross, I came across an article by composer Cary Boyce at the Sequenza 21 Composers Forum full of reasonable marketing advice to composers, summed up perhaps best by his command: Package yourself well.

At first, Boyce's advice went into my head without registering any serious objections. Some of it I have said myself (e.g. why do so many composers begin their web pages or bios with lists of academic degrees and prizes instead of saying anything about their music?). However, the suspicion began nagging me this morning and has continued to nag at me for the rest of the day that this is probably just about the worst way to think about and care for our music. I believe that treating serious composers as brand names and pieces of serious music as market commodities both economically senseless and musically insensitive.

I believe that in the US a seriously wrong idea about how one goes about making serious music popular has been widespread -- call it the-Leonard-Bernstein-explains-it-all-to-the-kids-model -- although that idea depended largely on a large local audience still close to a recent European emmigrant experience. With that experience edging evermore into the past, Americans are at an interesting juncture now with regard to their European cultural inheritance. It's more of an elective affinity rather than a birthright. Perhaps that's one reason why performers coming out of places like CalArts or Mills are often more exciting interpreters than the cookie-cutter virtuosi turned out by the big conservatories. (Don't get me started on the suitability of the name "conservatory"!)

Ultimately, all I'm interested in are great pieces of music, and I'd like to encounter that music on its own terms. I'll confess to being interested in composers' biographies, but that's from a general interest in intellectual or creative biography, or maybe even vicarious living on my part, but not from any sense that the biography will reliably explain the work.* And even though a composer's worklist gets handled as a kind of track record for commissions and the like, I'm bound to be disappointed if the worklist is the only reason for recommending a new work. I'm more interested in repertoires than in catalogues of individual composers, and more interested in particular pieces than in repertoires, and maybe more interested in my favorite places in pieces than in whole pieces. (There is a series of tutti chords in the first movement of Harold in Italy that are dynamite; too bad you have to sit through the rest of Harold in Italy to hear them).

These are very rough ideas and I've said nothing concretely prescriptive. I've put Marcel Mauss's Essay on the Gift and Hermann Broch's Hugo von Hofmannsthal and his Time on my desk, perhaps they'll bring some clarity to the topic.

* Okay, I'll grant you that knowing that Berlioz had an overwhelming infatuation and then disappointing marriage might help with the Symphonie Fantastique, or knowing that Nancarrow liked good coffee is one way of getting into some of the Studies. But that kind of information is (a) more impressionistic than concrete, (b) may be misleading, possibly getting in the way of your own images, and (c) you can probably get a good handle on the music without any of it, anyway.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Last Details

It's long been considered a compositional virtue for every single bit of information in a composition to formally relate to every other bit in one way or another. Sometimes this quality is called "organicism" or "cohesion"; this quality is often described in economical terms, with "economy" or "efficiency" being considered especially valuable qualities in a composition. A typical tactic taken by composition teachers with their students is compelling the student to make the case for the inclusion of any given aspect or detail, the assumption being that every part should be explainable in terms of its relationship to the whole. While this might have value in a large number of pieces, I think that it can't possibly be true for all pieces, and indeed, in many pieces, it may be highly undesireable.

The best mysteries, from Oedipus Tyrranus to Hamlet or from The Crying of Lot 49 to Lost, present an ensemble of details, creating the illusion of a real (or, at least, plausible) world. That ensemble contains elements that are directly relevant to the mystery's plot and other elements that are ultimately never more than noise. A large part of the mystery writer's craft is playfully bouncing the relevant and the irrelevant back and forth between the foreground and background of the story. We all have our tricks for sorting out whether a detail is relevant or not; we pay attention to redundancy, amplitude, connectedness. But sometimes a detail may be oft-repeated, loudly, and full of associations, but turn out, ultimately, to be unimportant. And that's okay, because we know going into the game that such misdirection is the main attraction of the genre. In other words: not every flap of a butterfly's wings in the Sahara will lead to a Hurricane in the Carribean.

I suspect that more music is composed of a playful mixture of relevant and irrelevant detail and noise than has been fashioned into a tightly organized whole whose parts all manifestly belong together. I cannot make any automatic value judgements about this, as good music can be made either way, but I do find it useful to ponder the idea that this element might be used more dynamically by composers, with works of music varying over time with regard to the level of cohesiveness, sometimes being very explicit about what is going on, and sometimes deliberately misdirecting the listeners about what, ultimately, is important and what is not.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Talking Turkey

The following remarks are not intended for vegetarians or anyone with a sentimental attachment to domesticated animals.

Two tips for roast turkey: (1) debone it (2) brine it. Deboning is easy to do, and probably the only thing that Jr. High Biology class has prepared you for, but you need to be patient (give it 45 minutes for the first operation) and practice on a chicken or duck or two sure helps before trying to debone the big bird. If you have neither the time nor the confidence in your deboning skills, there are a few professional poultry people out there who will debone to order, but not one of them lives in Germany, so I had to teach myself. You basically cut a slit down the back, straight to the spine, starting an inch or two from the top and continuing to an inch or two from the bottom. Then, with a small knife, gently separate the soft tissues from the bones, moving around the ribcage until the the spine, ribcage and breastbone come out in one piece. Manually pop the wings out of the shoulders and the thighbones out of both hip and legs. I prefer to take out the rib cage, breast plate, shoulder blades and the thigh bones, leaving bones in the drumsticks and wings. Those bones don't get in the way of slicing and lend the bird a bit of structure for the presentation. Fill the bird with the stuffing of your choice to roughly the original form and sew it back up with strong cotton thread. (There is a urban cooking legend that dental floss will also work. Forget it.) Brining is soaking the bird beforehand in strongly salted water, roughly 1/4 cup salt for every five pounds of bird. Brining's not neccesary if you're working with a kosher turkey (which has already been treated with salt), and shouldn't be done with any bird that's been chemically treated (but you wouldn't buy one of those, would you?) but is essential for a fowl of any other provenance. Lightly rinse after brining and allow the turkey to completely airdry on a rack in the fridge before spicing, stuffing and roasting. I have brined before deboning and deboned before brining, and have noticed no difference in effect, but omitting the brining can lead to a dismal fowl, and omitting the deboning can lead to that dismal table game of "who really doesn't want to carve the turkey?".

And finally, remember the sage words of my old friend Kali Tal*: You can never have enough cranberry sauce.

*Yes, Kali, I do remember that JelloTM was invented by a woman.

Question about US English

Recently, I've noticed in conversations and in media that many Americans are pronouncing the contracted negation "n't" as a a reiterated d+short-i+nt instead of schwa+nt. Has anyone else noticed this? Is there a local dialect origin for this or is it novel? It has a subtle effect on the rhythm of the word, which might have repercussions for text setting (compare diduhnt with did-dint).

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Baratz on Garland

Adam Baratz at Form/Content writes thoughfully about Peter Garland's Americas.

I can't overstate my debt to Peter Garland. I grew up in a corner of Southern California where new music was a fleeting -- but when so, astonishing -- presence. KPFK had great music programming from David Cloud, William Malloch, and Carl Stone. At 13, I bicycled to every concert of the last Claremont Music Festival (I then lived in Montclair, a very non-collegiate town, across the L.A./San Bernadino County border and south of the tracks from Pomona College in gentile Claremont) and heard pieces by Kohn, Leedy, Ives, Stravinsky that I can vividly recall to this day. I also cycled to libraries, in Ontario and Pomona, with much better collections of scores and recordings. Barney Childs was a presence in Redlands. Even strange old Gail Kubik brought Bert Turetsky and Stephen Scott to Scripps College for concerts. But this was not yet the real American experimental tradition, that came with a very special guidebook, called Soundings.

When I first learned of Soundings, I wrote to Peter directly and he sent me the only two issues he had in stock. The rest I had to read in the library at UC Riverside. Pomona College had a full set of Source, which was beautifully made and had an attitude, and a full run of the West Coast edition of Ear, which had character, but Soundings had -- as I think Charles Olson would have put it -- a posture. That posture was uniquely Peter Garland's. Peter did have precendents -- in the writings of Yates or Cowell, or in the enthusiasms of his teacher, Tenney. But Peter managed to connect the generations from Ives, Ruggles, Varese, Cowell and Seeger to Partch, Harrison, Cage, Beyer, Nancarrow, and Rudhyar, and on to Tenney, Childs, Oliveros, Ashley, Corner, Mumma, and finally to Garland's own contemporaries. I've run into Peter two or three times over the years, and we somehow got off on the wrong foot when I referred to him being in the next older generation from mine... but never mind. Soundings (alongside John Chalmer's microtonal journal Xenharmonikon) changed my musical life forever, and I think, for good.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Another opinion revised

I am clever enough to know I am clever. -- Steerpike

Just finished re-reading the three "Gormenghast" novels of Mervyn Peake (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone). I had last read them in high school, liking the strangeness of the impossible architecture of Gormenghast Castle and taking great pleasure in Peake's names: Dr. Prunesquallor, Barquentine, Opus Fluke, Muzzlehatch. But I did not carry much else out of the experience. Now, too many years later, I am completely taken in by the profound melancholy described by Peake's mixture of detail and nonsense as well as the ethical (for lack of a better word) force of the parallel stories of the kitchen boy Steerpike's rise and defeat and the heir to Gormenghast Titus's education and exile. The central narrative is much clearer than I had recalled, yet it still challenged all of my reading habits much in the same way that experimental literature (e.g. Harry Mathews or Walter Abish) does. Peake's trilogy is truly in a genre of its own, gothic-but-not-that-gothic, mannered-but-not-those-manners, and not at all to be mistaken for a work of fantasy or pseudo-epic.

Stravinsky: Symphony in C

I struggled for a couple of hours last night to write something smart, or at least clever, about the Stravinsky Symphony in C. Without success. I've resigned myself to failure in the smart or clever department. So I'll just say that it's a piece I -- following the general consensus -- had previously discounted, but I am now convinced that the consensus is wrong and the piece works just fine, thank you. The subject of the Symphony in C is the "classical symphony", and it does everything a "classical symphony" should do as well as everything a "classical symphony" should not. Is the Symphony in C then itself an example of a "classical symphony"? I guess it depends entirely on how you hear those quotation marks.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Worst Sound

Sound 101 is a survey from the University of Salford looking for the "worst sound in the world". It's fun, if your nerves are in good shape. I learned that (a) I have a fair tolerance for mechanical noises and (b) I will never be a cat blogger.

Are they hedging it or is it honest conviction?

FREQUENTLY, and in good bourgeois company, among civilians largely unaquainted with the hows, whys and wherefors of the new, contemporary and experimental scenes, I am often pressed on the question of "why exactly?" I should not rather be composing like some long deceased colleague (preferentially these days Mozart or Brahms). I have taken of late to responding that I think that I do indeed compose like that colleague -- in that I take the material at hand and push it to some extreme of artful manipulation and cunning -- but that my music and the music of said dead colleague simply do not sound alike. That answer satisfies some, challenges others, and presumably disappears into background noise for most. Like most composers of experimental music, I suppose that growing used to such a response is a healthy mechanism.

But there are composers out there for whom composing with similitude to old masters remains a focus. Take, for example, Noam Elkies, also professor of mathematics at Harvard. He composes tonal music, closely following classical models, never getting too adventurous with pitches but sometimes throwing in a little rhythmic trick or two. It's the very model of amateur (in the best sense) music making: it comes directly from the habit of someone who plays music, and composing allows one to play a bit with the conventions of the repertoire one loves. Elkies seems to get some serious performances of his work, and they seem to be received with the appropriate spirit of -- as no one other than John Cage put it -- conviviality.

I just noticed an online community gathering composers who identify their work as "tonal"

The Delian Society (a membership list is here)

and another community where the common denominator is "consonant".

New Consonant Music

Now, my familiarity with both communities and their member composers is limited to a few hours of surfing, I do have a strong impression that the membership and their compositional output is both heterodox in the extreme and they shouldn't be dismissed outright. While there does seem to be a handful of genuine tonal archaicists or new consonant anachronists, and not a few of these striking my as simply -- as opposed to interestingly -- naive, there is also a good number of sophisticated musicians from classical, non-western, popular and even contemporary music backgrounds. While a couple of these may simply be trying to hedge the market through the appeal of an attractive surface, many of these composers seem to find "tonal" or "new consonant" as useful descriptions for work that is smartly historicist, often ironic, and even downright experimental in approach.

Sunday, November 13, 2005


I was surprised to find this photo of my Frankfurt studio online, at Maria de Alvear's site. That's me (blond head in the foreground) with some Javanese friends, making a little Saturday afternoon music.

Composers' studios are interesting places. I've been to those of Ives, Bartok (actually, for five years time, I could actually see his house from my own studio window, on the next hillside in Buda), and I'm proud to say that I have a picture somewhere of La Monte Young and I standing in front of the re-created Schoenberg studio that was once housed at USC. These places tend to be warm and comfortable, rather than flashy. A good writing surface, lots of writing implements, overfilled shelves, a sturdy chair to sit for long hours, and often a place to crash. Lou Harrison often composed in a little trailer parked someplace out back of his house. There are often very special things that haven't anything directly to do with music, but say a lot about the craft: Schoenberg's homemade playing cards or toy violin. The way studios change over time is also interesting: when I first saw Gordon Mumma's (analog) studio, centerplace belonged to his soldering iron, some (digital) years later, that place was taken by a huge monitor. I like to have lots of instruments or noise makers around, but not necessarily the particular instruments I'm composing for at the moment. There's a piano in the house, but not in my studio. I will sometimes grab whatever instrument is closest to try something out: my father's Eb clarinet, a recorder, or a cornetto, maybe my son's cello. Stravinsky always had a piano, in L.A. with the moderator on all the time, but when he wrote Ragtime and Les Noces, he hired a cymbalon. In later years, John Cage had no piano at home. If he wanted to try something out on a piano, he would go to the Merce Cunningham dance studio.

I like to think that the room in which I compose is reflected or imprinted in the music itself, and that traces of the music hang in the air for a good long time. (Alvin Lucier, of course, has made this a great theme in his music.) As my music changes, this is reflected in the room, which is just as much a work in progress.

Friday, November 11, 2005

More lost and found

California quarter-tone composer Mildred Couper.

Not just 1/6 of Les Six: Germaine Tailleferre.

Mexican microtonal theorist and composer Augusto Novaro: here and here (a wav file).

The last of the red-hot ultramodernists, Leo Ornstein.

A nice repository of the surviving ancient Greek and Hellenistic music.

Never really lost, but still good to find: Josef Matthias Hauer.

An interesting chat about the Russian-American composer and cultural cold warrier Nicholas Nabokov; this is a composer whose catalog needs some sober evaluation.

The internet still needs a good site for Nicholas Obuchov (as well as the other Skryabinistes), William Denny (an interesting neoclassicist, and not a minor teacher: he played catch with Terry Riley in a Utah performance of La Monte Young's Poem for chairs, tables, benches etc.), Robert Erickson, Richard Maxfield, Barney Childs...

In another post, I'll list some of the living composers I think ought to have an internet presence.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Dept. of Missing Composers

Some of our most interesting composers just disappear, leaving but the faintest traces; luckily, there are a few good souls out there trying to reverse the situation, for example:

Mary Jane Leach has a report on her search for the music of Julius Eastman. (Leach is a fine composer, check out her homepage).

Larry Polansky of Frog Peak Music has been recovering and leading the production of an edition of the works of Johanna Magdalena Beyer.

The MELA foundation has archives for composers Richard Maxfield and Terry Jennings. Let's hope that MELA can get the resources together to make their musics more available. (I think that Maxfield's is a critical case. Many of his earliest scored works are in the music library at UCB, and several are worth reviving, especially since the idioms are so out-of-fashion. The works on tape are a bit scattered. The Maxfield LP on late Barney Childs' Advance label recording has been re-released on CD, but that's far from the bulk of his electronic output.)

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Some Southpaw Pitching

Has anyone else wondered why all the one-handed piano music seems to be for left-handed monomanual pianists? Do pianists (Wittgenstein, Fleischer, some big names to start with) really injure their right hands more often than their lefts? Is there any significant repertoire for the right hand alone? Is there any left-handed repertoire that can be inverted for playing by the monomanually non-sinister?

How about injured hands and other instrument? The violinist Rudolph Kolisch, a central figure in transmission of the Viennese classical performance practice as well as an important figure in the performance of the second Viennese school, is an interesting example. His left-handed playing gave him a good excuse to specialize in chamber music and in teaching, instead of orchestral playing, where sharing a stand would have led to serious bowing conflicts.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Cartesian reunions everywhere

William Houston, another former member of the Cartesian Reunion Memorial Orchestra, has his own website:

Friday, November 04, 2005

Gelassenheit, or Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

My work in progress has pretty much stopped sounding like a sketch; the scale and proportions of the whole are emerging. In order to get to this point, I had to jetison a whole section, notes - if not quite music - of which I had grown fond, but ultimately couldn't fit into this piece. But getting over or around this act of excision has been tough and, if you'll bear with me, I'd like to try to explain why it's been so tough.

Since writing a piece called Dessins d'Enfants (1999, trombone & piano, written for Roland Dahinden & Hildegard Kleeb), my composing has been increasingly engaged with the idea that very different means of putting notes together can lead to astonishingly similar musical surfaces. Like the good experimentalist I trained to be, I still work with first principles applied to fairly raw musical materials, but the finished pieces often exhibit features that immediately recall historical musics, although sometimes that recollection may be a bit skewed, as if seen through a funhouse mirror.

All of my teachers, and Alvin Lucier especially, have what could be called a "classical" attitude. Getting a piece into the shape that most clearly presents the idea of the work without excess or expressive baggage is central to that attitude. Quoth Lucier: "I like my music clear, like gin". But in the music that I am making now, clarity is less on display and ambiguity is a frequent trope (in the world of potent potables, bourbon would be a closer equivalent than gin). But that lack of clarity is an accident of surface, not a direct or inevitable result of compositional methods. One composer whose music has been essential to me, Jo Kondo, describes his music as the "art of being ambiguous". Kondo is never explicit about what exactly he is being ambiguous, but I am fairly confident that it is an idea about tonal music. If my own music achieves a similar level of artful ambiguity, I would be mighty pleased.

A lot of the accidental resemblance between my current music and older music is simply due to the fact that I'm making conventionally notated music for voices and established instruments instead of electronics and found or invented instruments. Some conventions just come with the territory, and it's been a series of minor revelations to discover some features of that territory. For example, I had no idea how much almost-tonal music you could make just by bopping about long enough with a diatonic collection of pitches, or how sensitive a musical style could be to the repeated application of a single motive: if you don't repeat it enough, it falls under the tonal attention radar, if you repeat it a bit too often it becomes boring or annoying, and if you repeat it very much, it disappears into background noise. These minor revelations seem to confirm that -- to paraphrase Schönberg -- there really is still plenty of music in C major, especially when you are willing to rethink what "C major" might mean.

But compositional identity is something like brand marketing, and coming onto the market -- even a market as minor as that for serious new music -- with some music that sounds to any extent like something familiar is risky. And that's the source of my excision problem. The section that I have now removed was generated by operations done in the spirit of the rest of the piece, so it belonged abstractly and intellectually. But when heard with a musician's ears, with all of the experience and habits that a life of playing music brings, the section just didn't fit. In spite of all my experimentalist claims, by not taking the risk of letting the piece fail on terms external to the experiment, by removing a section through an appeal to musicality, do I run the risk of just writing another piece of music? I need to think more about this notion of risk.

David Feldman & I talked recently about making a game theory for new music. (This came about when we discussed the recent Nobel Prize winners in Economics, two game theorists). David pointed out that back in the early seventies, in New York, he was on a mailing list for new music events, and while most of the concerts advertised were same-old this, or same-old that, the postcards that Steve Reich mailed out to announce his concerts with sample score pages were real outliers. The music appeared to be tonal, so it was clearly not one kind of some-old, but it was repetitive in a way that could not have been the other kind of same-old. Reich was definitely introducing something new into the market, and he did it by adjusting the balance between the familar and the novel in an interesting way. Perhaps that's a good model.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Landmarks (9)

Gordon Monahan: Piano Mechanics (1981-86). Uses the piano as is -- no preparations, no electronics, although it often sounds prepared or electronic -- to explore the complex potential of the instrument when used simply a "machine for the synthesis of sound". It is played mostly on the keyboard, but the technique is not traditional; one might even say that the techniques used are musically naive, being closer to the explorations made by patient children when left alone at the keyboard. The work is structured as a series of studies, concentrating on individual techniques or attributes; upon repeated hearings, I am ever surprised by how (literally) composed each individual etude is, and how elegantly the individual etudes are ordered into a whole. To be honest, Piano Mechanics was the first piece by one of my contemporaries which left me with a full case of composer's envy. The balance between clarity of purpose, minimal means, and novel but virtuoso execution is near-perfect, and the effect is maximal without appeal to any ordinary musical sensations.

Show us your URLs

A certain critic-and-professor-who-shall-not-be-named writes:

It seems like every month another young composer shoots out of grad school and starts blogging, brimful of enthusiasm for the musics of Ligeti, Carter, Xenakis, Berio, Boulez.
If this is really the case, then the critic/professor owes us a few URLs as evidence. My own perusals of blogs by younger composers have shown a real diversity of enthusiasms, from Howard Hanson to HipHop. I have yet to acertain anything approaching a critical mass of passion for the late 20th century modernists.

Even if such a passion were on broad display, what would be the real complaint? Does our critic-cum-professor really see a threat to his own musical culture from these fogies? No matter how you analyze the numbers, all we're talking about are small musical cultures, and all of them survive in delicate musical biotopes, under the most precarious of conditions. The real threat is that made to musical diversity by a mass, commercial music monoculture. This monoculture is as inhospitable to Elliot Carter as it is to Ellen Fullman, and it strikes me as urgent that before we start playing our little biotopes off against one another, we had damn well better make sure that everything has been done to insure the survival of the greatest amount of musical diversity.

Most music won't survive, and honestly I don't believe that every music should survive. The quality in music that I've come to call renewable seems to be a rare one, but without creating the circumstances where real musical variety can thrive, our judgments about musical quality are seriously limited and provisional.

Cartesian memories

Composer Lloyd Rodgers wrote to let me know that he's put a small treasure of recordings by the late and legendary Cartesian Reunion Memorial Orchestra (alongside his own fine work) online at:

Although sharing some common origins, west coast minimal music has a diversity and depth quite distinct from the east coast variety, and the Cartesians were very much a west coast phenomenon. Their music was tonal (but not always functional), cyclical, repetitive (except when it wasn't), sometimes closer to English minimalism, sometimes socio-political, and often blessed with that decent sense of irony that comes when a group of friends decide to make music for themselves. (East coast minimalism has many aspects; to the best of my knowledge, irony is not among them).

Postscript: I just listened to Rodger's trio (1975): a strange and beautiful piece, and (IMO as always) one of the better entries in the late piano trio repertoire (alongside the two trios by Clarence Barlow and those by Morton Feldman and Wolfgang von Schweinitz).

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


There has always been a deep connection between ethnography and poesis; the encounter with "the other" provokes precisely the kinds of misunderstandings and speechlessness that productively feed the imagination. The encounter with the unfamiliar is an opportunity to rediscover the strangeness of the familar. The habit of ethnographic production is addictive and infectious, and even forgoing physical travel altogether is insufficient propholaxis. Marco Polo's diaries or Castaneda's Don Juan "field notes" are not less readable because they are frauds; the imagined lands of Swift or Nabokov's Zembla are not less ethnographic because they are fictions.

Some musicians reimagine musical history and ethnography: Bach's "French" music is not French music, but German Baroque music with French music as a topic. Stravinsky played this game all the time; his music is inevitably music about some other music. But some musicians have gone beyond purely musical concerns, and have found that they need to imagine the whole culture around their music. Two favorites: Kraig Grady, an Angeleno composer and just intonation instrument builder in the Partchian tradition has become our Ambassador to the Island nation of Anaphoria, not only providing us with the music, music theory, and instrumentation, but also the shadow theatre, mythology, cultural geography, and fragments of everything else that is anaphoriana. This is a project of decades, no sudden impulse, and the development in his instrumental design, performance practice, and the emerging clarity of his compositional project show that. Another musician, Herman Miller, has chosen to report from several lands elsewhere unknown, and provides us with information about both their languages and musics (mostly in non-12-tone-equal temperaments).

The composition is the instrument

I went to a concert two weeks ago of music by Volker Staub, a local Frankfurt composer and instrument builder. Live performances by Michael Weilacher on a variety of percussion instruments and Staub himself on a long steel wire resonated by an oil drum were accompanied by a recording of Staub's "Witterungsinstrumente", weather-controlled instruments in an urban soundscape. The steel wire instrument was much less interesting than the percussion (to be fair, perhaps I am biased by a long relationship to extraordinary works of Lucier and Ellen Fullman for related long wire instruments), and the recording was often more vividly "composed" than the live performances, which sounded sometimes more like instrumental demos than compositions. However, this may be an altogether misplaced criticism on my part: none of Staub's instruments was built as a "general purpose" instrument for a large repertoire of music (for example, they don't try to represent all of the tones of a tuning system), but rather the instruments and compositions were built together, so that the instrument's resources and the demands of the score are mapped one-to-one.

One of Staub's instruments is a set of sliced and suspended glass bottles. Partch's Cloud Chamber Bowls are clearly an inspiration here, but the smaller, more fancifully-shaped, and multi-colored glass bells in Staub's instrument have a quality that sound (and look) more delicately chamber-musick'd than orchestrally cloud-chambered.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Unstable systems

This interview with Stockhausen has been well-noted online. I don't have anything to say about Stockhausen's music, but am a bit bothered by one biographical detail. He says that he's from a planet around "the star Sirius". But Sirius is actually a double star system, and I can't reasonably expect that planets in such systems are especially hospitable to life. Or is that the explanation for Stockhausen's extraordinarily robust good health?

If Stockhausen wants to be from Sirius, fine, it's probably a better place to be from than a place to stay for any extended period of time. I'm happy being from here.

Some books

David Graeber: Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Smart, theoretically modest, provocative, and perhaps a very useful way to look again at the world.

Harry Matthews: My Life in CIA. I need no longer answer any question ever again about what it's like for an American to live in Europe, I'll just send 'em on to Matthews' memoir (or is it a novel?).

Landmarks (8)

Stravinsky hit the conceptual music exacta in 1920 with Pulcinella and the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. For a Musik-Konzepte issue with the theme Was heißt Fortschritt?, I wrote

For Stravinsky, modernism was a form of rapid transport in musical time and space, and composition for him meant finding new syntactical relations among existing materials, accustoming one to the alien while restoring strangeness to the familiar. His two most radical scores date both from 1920, travel in opposite directions, yet illustrate the same point. The Symphonies d’instruments à vent (in memoriam Claude Debussy) have no direct precedent or referent in musical history and are enormously difficult to analyse with regard to form, tonality and orchestration. Yet, at all points, the listener to the Symphonies must make music-historical and -ethnological references to get any hold onto the music. On the other hand, the <<Ballet avec chant>> Pulchinella (Musique d’apres Pergolesi) is superficially an objet trouvè, but the authentic, lyrical material from Pergolesi (and others, as it turns out) continually melts away from the listener’s recognition into absolute Stravinskian invention. To listen to Pulchinella, one has to forget how to listen to 18th century Italian music; to listen to Stravinsky one has to abandon chronological, genealogical, and ethnological expectations; Stravinsky’s music progresses by force of personality alone without a bit of anxiety.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Economies of scale

I've come to a tricky place in a new piece. I've been composing it without much in the way of pre-compositional planning and it's still unclear whether it'll be eight or 28 minutes long, or whether it'll be for a smaller or larger ensemble. My sense of the potential economics of a piece of music based upon the materials assembled so far is that the longer the piece, and the larger the ensemble, the less material and the courser or broader the contrast levels should be. As it now stands, I have about 7 minutes of fairly dense music in short score, which would -- with a few details and some brief connecting passages added -- probably make a decent piece for a small group of instruments. However, the very same material, though strategic repetition and variation and some thinning out or trimming, might just as well turn into something for many instruments with a duration three or four times longer.

This piece is composed "on spec", without a commission, so the precise make-up of the ensemble and the duration have not been set or determined externally. I have the luxury to let the materials themselves speak to me a bit before making these decisions. In other words: I'll have to sleep on it.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Iraqi Freedom

Is this the sort of freedom Mr Bush has intended for Iraq? As a musician, learning of the repression of music in a part of Iraq we were said to have "liberated" is no better evidence for the total failure of the Iraqi adventure. This comprises failures in intelligence, planning, execution, and follow-through: they should have seen it coming and they should have done something about it.

Islam has always been conflicted about music, with Islamic legal schools holding contradictory viewpoints. All the schools agree that the recitation of the Quran is not to be understood as music, and the performance and audition of music proper may be embraced by some authorities, tolerated by others, and completed rejected by still others. In spite of this ambiguous status, the Islamicate regions of the world have both conserved and developed rich and exquisite musical traditions, ranging from the complexity of fully developed classical repertoire to the immediacy of folk and popular traditions that continue to provide an excellent mirror to musical practice in the western traditions.

A loss of any musical tradition is a tragedy without measure. If the United States and its allies have been an instrument in this particular loss, it is a tragedy that could have been avoided, and that is simply wrong.

Mahler's sweet 16th

There is a tradition, and not only a German dialectical tradition, of narrating the life of a composer as one with dramatic climaxes and a determined relationship between the life of the great composer and the course of music history. Beethoven wrote his nine symphonies and after that the number nine put a cap on the productivity of everyone who followed. Or: that, with the last great creative surges before their early deaths, Mozart or Schubert had said all that they possibly could have said in music, and music history duly noted the landmarks.

Mahler, of course, suffered both of these curses: dying at a mature but decidedly early age of 50 and the fatal number nine symphonies. (In avoiding the sum of nine, he ended up writing 10 (figuring in Das Lied von der Erde) or 11 symphonies (the almost-finished Number 10)). Mahler, unlike Mozart or Schubert, was a late bloomer as a composer, and his nine completed symphonies and Das Lied were composed in a curve of increasing productivity (his age at the completion of each: 28, 34, 36, 41, 42, 44, 45, 47, 48, 49). By the time of his death, he had hit his stride of just about one symphony every year.

The 2oth century music history industry, and the Viennese segment in particular, has a lot invested in the notion that with Das Lied, the Ninth, and the unfinished Tenth, Mahler had somehow exhausted the potential of his compositional talent. The conventional narratives of the careers of subsequent generations of Viennese composers inevitably depend upon this idea. Probably no notion of mine has made folks around here (Frankfurt) more uncomfortable than my speculation that had Mahler lived to a more actuarily reasonable age, we would now be going to concerts with Symphonies numbered into the twenties. The response is usually that that would be impossible, as Mahler had completed his earthly work, but some have more inventively answered that Mahler's symphonic work was complete and he would have had to turn to opera.

In Pale Fire, Nabokov amuses with the reverse alphabetical determinism of the names of Judge Goldsmith's daughters (Alphina, Betty, Candida, and Dee, aged respectively 9, 10, 12, and 14), but building the narrative of music history around the coincidence of a completed ninth symphony and an early death troubles the imagination more than it amuses. But comfort level be damned, I plan to continue to enjoy imagining Mahler's 16th.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Culinary diversion

Pizza with very thin seedless lemon slices, anchovies and margarita salt, no sauce on the dough, just a light brushing with olive oil.

This year's model

The novelty of musical devices, special effects, or extended techniques is usually inversely proportional to the antiquity of the device. The composer or performer who uses the device first gets a free ride, but everyone after that is obliged to come up with a convincing musical context for repeated usage.

Some devices allow themselves to be dated with fair precision, and first compositional usage can be determined with similar accuracy: Cowell gets hands inside of the piano, Cage gets nuts and bolts, Stephen Scott gets bowed and stroked piano wire. Varese gets sirens. Salzedo gets a near-monopoly on harp effects. Crumb gets seagull calls on cello harmonics, maybe cymbals on timpani, too. Lucier gets a rare trifecta with brain waves, re-recording in the same space, and long wires. Partch gets a railroader's chorus of "Chicago, Chicago" (sorry Mr. Reich). Leedy was the first to have a player speak through a wind instrument (for the record: the instrument was horn and the words were "if elected I will go to Korea." Rzewski gets settings of "El Pueblo Unido" (sorry Mr. Spahlinger). I think we can safely assign roto toms to the year 1976, but mutiphonics will need some binding arbitration. A bit of research will surely yield definitive dates and composers for fluttertongue and velcro tap-dancing. But who gets to keep the farfisas? Heck, we're getting close to a dissertation here.


The representation of natural and man-made sounds in music deserves a substantial piece of scholarship. I imagine a book tracing this from Aristophanic choruses of frogs, birds and wasps and through ornithological madrigalia, orchestral storms, machine music, and on to the more elementary naturalism afforded by modern technologies. Representative music seems to me to be most compositionally problematic in achieving the right balance between musical coherence and naturalism. I can well imagine that this was one of the problems that led Ligeti to give up on his operatic setting of The Tempest (he wanted to make an orchestral storm in the overture) and I've heard tell that John Adam has turned to acoustical absence to represent an even that, portrayed naturally, would certain be overwhelmingly present. That paradoxical assertion of presence through absence is a smart move, methinks, and one with a long tradition in the fantastic, virtuosic, repertoire of the chinese qin (or ch'in). Qin music is barely audible to anyone but the player, yet savors vivid dynamic contours within that small range and a huge variety of playing techniques to create both gestural and timbral diversity and often quite explicit imitations of natural sounds. The limited absolute volume of the qin, which forces the listener into more intense audition, is -- again paradoxically -- the source of the qin's astonishing musical presence.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Fat Crayons and Musical Pidgins

I remember once, in an ethnomusicology seminar, comparing transcriptions of a solo vocal performance by an Appalachian woman. My transcription looked something like Circles-era Berio: lots of notes with very small values, microtones duly noted, considerable rhythmic nuance, a lot of detail that came from listening to the recording again and again, and making great use of an ajustable-speed cassette player. A colleague from West Africa, a master musician in his own repertoire, produced a transcript that couldn't have been more different. His transcription was in quarters and halves, restricted to five white notes, with probably 1 glyph on the page for every 15 of mine. At first some of the seminar members were a bit uncomfortable with the West African's transcription and excused it with apologies for it not being "his" music. Of course, if we were really doing ethnomusicology, that was an odd response. With further reflection, although my score had more information, we came round to a consensus that my colleague's certainly had more novel information, and might even have had more valuable musical information. Forests and trees, you know?

The first time I attended the Holiday Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, I woke myself up one night with a bit of anxiety. This was the heyday of the Complexers at Darmstadt and these folks were turning out scores so full of notes -- and oh-so-tiny notes -- that I suddenly had a vision of all the course- goers being sent for an exam in the gym (the ever present odor of Darmstadt's institutional kitchen especially vivid). We all got our musical blue books, Brian Ferneyhough stood before us with a clock and a gavel, and signaled for all of us to start composing. I then noticed that all of my colleagues were writing away with their micro-nibbed Rapidographs, but I had been handed a box of fat, kindergarten-sized Crayolas , as if to label me most efficiently as "American, Mimimalist, not one of us". This notation anxiety hung over me for the rest of the Course, but I was somehow relieved to learn that most of the complexity tribe actually wrote fairly big notes and then reduced their scores with a photocopier. Lesson: a lot of complexity is only a matter of appearance.

I remember that the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently ran a Feuilleton article which called Firefly the "best science fiction series of all time", a judgement I share. (No, I haven't seen Serenity yet; it won't even open here until November). One thing I really liked about Firefly was the pidginization of Mandarin amid the generally gentille frontier English. (Firefly is basically a western, but it's set 500 years in space-faring future with a handful of deep, dark secrets to keep a bit a paranoia in the air; it's something like a negative image of The Wild Wild West). The Mandarin is used in the two places where pidgins usually develop: for swearing and for trading. I've noticed lately that the development of a European Pidgin English is well in swing. The first sign is abundant: the prefered epiteths of young Europeans are increasingly English even when adequate local lexicons exist, and commercial advertising is the same. When I have interacted with non-native English speakers speaking English, I have noticed that I am often at a disadvantage in that I expect their English to have the same associations and nuances as my own, and communication often fails at critical points. On the other hand, I have never seen such expectations get in the way of two non-native speakers communicating. On the other hand, the non-Native usage has a lively inventiveness of its own, and strikes me as increasingly rich in nuances that cross linguistic boundaries which are beyond my own experience.

Maybe my relationship to contemporary European art music is a bit like that of a pidgin speaker to the language which is being pidginized. I don't "get" all of the complexity that the tradition carries with it, but I bring my own complexity to it. I may draw my scores with big fat crayons instead of fine-point draughting tools, but my big fat crayons come in 64 different colors.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Landmarks (7)

Klarenz Barlow*: Orchideae Ordinariae or the Twelfth Root of Truth für großes Orchester (1989). A resynthesis of the late 19th and early 20th century orchestral work. A mixture of the major orchestral forms: symphony, suite, concerto (in this case, piano), ballet, perhaps even B/Hollywood film score. The historical references are polar: Bruckner and Stravinsky, but the methods are often designed from first principles (i.e. orchestrating in terms of the position of the individual player in the orchestra rather than the character of the instrument played), they are often formal and algorithmic. The techniques used are documented in a 26-page article (issue 36 of the Feedback Papers), wherein Barlow's remarks about the aesthetic project represented by the work retain a great deal of mystery.

I may be altogether wrong about this, but I think that the great theme of Barlow's work is the relationship between a musical tradition and a music made from the ground up, for example, from an intuition about acoustics or perceptions. His personal background has allowed him the luxury of distance to the western classical tradition (or to rock or North Indian classical music, for that matter) at the same time that the depth of his engagement with that tradition has become increasingly clear.

*The composer has kept the spelling of his name in a variable state.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Not everything needs to be renewed

Last night, sprawled on the livingroom couch, I channel-hopped between EinsFestival's tribute to Ernst Krenek (including his 1966 opera for television Der Zauberspiegel) and a news channel's rebroadcast of the funeral services for Frère Roger, the founder of the ecumentical community at Taizé. I watched the Krenek broadcasts out of some sense of duty -- I had met him a few times when I was a teenager in California Deserta (composers there were few and far between and I was happy to meet any one) -- and was struck again by his music's odd combination of the worst clichés in vocal contours, exaggerated dynamics, arbitrarily assigned, and forced changes in scoring patterns that made me even less nostalgic for this particular "look back at the future". Music history has its share of cul de sacs, particularly those which assert "this is the music of the future". Varese is another, similar, case, but Varese's music always remains striking while Krenek's is just too much of the same. (I had wondered if his vocal music worked better if one could understand the German. My German is now competent enough to conclude that the answer is no.)

The contrast to the requiem music at Taizé could not have been greater. The music at Taizé is unashamedly derivative, simple, accessible: qualities that have no certain inherent potential for quality or lack thereof, but certainly carry a great deal of risk. It is music for amateurs. The technical interest is minor. The performances are rough. But it works fine for its intended liturgical use. Much of the music sung is based on models of some antiquity and music-cultural range (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox), but I suspect that it will continue to be sung for a long time to come, and be ever more widely received, a future very different to that Krenek's music can expect.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Composers in the Kitchen

I propose a new taxonomy for composers: those who cook, those who are cooked for, and those who can care less about cooking. The patron saint of composers who care about cooking is, of course, Rossini, who gave up competitive composing at an early age for the pleasures of knife, fork, and spoon. (He did, however, with his exquisite "sins of old age", return to composing, albeit, with amateur status reinstated.)

Some years ago, I took part in a project which involved collecting recipes from composers. We had the intention of intention of publishing a cookbook, but the project ended with the passing of the co-editor, Stefan Schädler. I collected some gems: La Monte Young's non-fat potato salad, Alvin Lucier's Pasta for Tired Dancers, Walter Zimmermann's Karteuserklöschen, Lasagne from Morton Feldman, Mole Poblano de Ajo from Gordon Mumma, and something involving blue corn and juniper berries from Jerry Hunt. (I'm not kidding about any of this and have the recipes to prove it!). However, we learned quickly that many major composers simply did not know their way around the kitchen. A few composers tried to sneak in the work of their partners, Clarence Barlow wrote two extraordinary fake recipes, one for "tortured duck", another presumably created by submitting the contents of a multi-ethnic kitchen cabinet to algorithmic rearrangement, some begged off for lack of time, others submitted obvious plageries. Only one composer admitted to not being a good cook.

I'm not into cats, so will refrain from ritual cat-blogging, but perhaps a composerly recipe or two will find its way into these pages in the future.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Local kid does well

I once reckoned that there were about as many composers of serious music in the US as incorporated towns or cities. Unfortunately, composers tend to clump together in a few of the bigger cities, competing with one another rather than distributing themselves more widely. I used to toy with the fantasy that composers would be assigned more equibly among communities, assuming local roles not unlike those played by the town musicians or Kapellmeisters of days gone by. Of course, such a plan would probably be spoiled by the politics: can you imagine the intrigue that would ensue over who would "get" Manhattan or San Francisco or Honolulu or Boston? On the other hand, who knows what an imaginative musician might do in Yankton or Biloxi?

Most composers and musicians have local reputations, and many of those who have remained local figures are the equals of their colleagues who have gained international esteem. Some have larger reputations outside of their home countries. Other composers have been overlooked because their chosen instrument or genre fell out of high regard. The lutenist Sylvius Leopold Weiss, a J.S. Bach contemporary, is a good example. I once attended a musicological conference and witnessed every single tenured professor leave the hall before a presentation by the world's leading Weiss scholar. It was the best presentation of the conference but Weiss was apparently the "wrong" composer for their valuable time. (J.S. Bach's high opinion of Weiss apparently was not shared by the local professorate.)

This is an excellent website concerning the carilloneur, recorder virtuoso and composer Jakob van Eyck. Although recognized in the Netherlands as a major musical figure, his profile abroad was probably diminished by prejudice against his genre: virtuoso sets of diminutions for solo soprano recorder.

Friday, August 19, 2005

More composers online

FURT (the electronic performance duo of Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer). I only know his scored works, but Barrett is smart and the music I've heard is too, often going to extremes, without fear of risking failure.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

New music in Germany, nowadays

Since returning to Frankfurt after five years in Hungary, I've received a number of emails asking about the state of new music in Germany. I've only been back a month, so this is not a thoroughly researched report, nor is it an opinion that will likely survive without substantial amendments, but I can still manage a strong impression: All of the institutions that have traditionally -- and in institutional-bureaucratic fashion -- supported the cultivation, presentation, and preservation of making new art music are either retreating from these roles, are not meeting new challenges, or are abandoning new music altogether.

The pleasant entente between music for "entertainment" and "serious" music at GEMA has fallen, and the "entertainers" are firmly in control. While staking a strong claim to represent the rights of creative artists in new forms of electronic transmission, GEMA has yet to produce a convincing plan for realizing those claims. The new music committment of the German Music Council -- following a major financial scandal -- has now been reassessed, partially in favor of popular genres. When not eliminated, new music has been further marginalized in concert and radio programs. Private "classical" stations, offering popular classics and movie music have entered the market, with noticeable effects on the ratings and programming of the public stations. Radio station studio recordings have priced themselves out to minimal output, and electronic music studios in the stations are probably a thing of the past. Major festivals have only tenuous support. Music publishing has become a very different kind of business, to the disadvantage of new music composers. Only two or three of the traditional publishers can be said to have a serious on-going interest in young composers (and one of them continues to be a specialist in Eastern European imports). Reviews of concerts and recordings in nationally-distributed papers are no longer simply to be expected as a matter of course. The specialized new music press is dominated by necrologues and reports on music-making by the usual suspects of generations past and all as packaged in the familiar institutions. For many composers and performers of new music, the times are tough, and tough in immediate material terms. (One might even say that things are approaching the American state of affairs, but Germany has never had the number of academic posts for composers that the States continues to have!)

That said, I believe that it is premature to say so long to all of that. There is tremendous inertia in the system and much activity will continue as before. But, more vitally, in the ruins of the old institutions may well be the foundations for much more music-making, in greater quantity and diversity, and without the authoritative administrative and editorial figures of the past. There may even prove to be routes out of the music-content inertia that has widely accompanied the institutionalization of new music. It is really possible that more people are or will be hearing and making new music than in the past, but it will no longer be selected for and spoon-fed to them (with generous doses of imitation-Adorno commentary), and the old familar associations among pieces of the repertoire will give way to surprising, rhyzomatic, even anarchic connections. Increasingly, composers are publishing their own work, and the emergence of a cottage industry including Stockhausen on one hand and Thürmchen Verlag or Material Press on the other, is healthy. The internet steadily provides better means of distributing scores and sounds. If anything is clear to me in the emerging system of new music, it is that there will be more niche locations for a wider range of composers, but probably less room for the sorts of careers that "stars" had in past generations. I don't know if it will eventually add up enough to allow a large number of composers to live in the manner to which they had become accustomed, but on balance, the possibility of an end to musical inertia makes the risk appear worthwhile.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Before my time

Critic Alan Rich on George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children:

"I had smoked my first joint shortly before Ancient Voices came around. The disc has made it possible to repeat the experience anytime, straight. It was the first head music respectable enough to appear on a concert stage."

Friday, July 29, 2005

Landmarks (6)

Pauline Oliveros: In Memoriam Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer (1969): commissioned as accompaniment to Merce Cunningham's dance Canfield, Oliveros wrote a piece where the musicians of the company (Tudor, Mumma) uses the theatre itself as an instrument. The musicians discuss, then venture out of the pit (1969: remember "extravehicular activity"?) to test and measure the room, and finally, the hall is "played" with a sweep of low frequency oscillators in a search for a primary room resonance frequency.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Paul Bailey threw me a meme

Total volume of music on your computer? ca 10 gb audio files, lots of midi or scores
Last CD you bought? Some oud music from Thrace
Song currently playing? Gendhing Gadhung Mlathi (central Javanese)
Five songs I listen to a lot or that mean a lot to me? (1) Ives: The River (2) Cage: The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (3) Purcell: Dido's Lament (4) Schumann/Heine: Im wunderschöne Monat Mai (5) Dylan: All Along the Watchtower; runners-up: Anon.: The Rose of Allendale, Mozart: Catalogue Aria, Issac: Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen, Leedy: Sinfoniae Sacrae

Friday, June 17, 2005

Landmarks (5)

Boudiwijn Buckinx: 1001 Sonates (BBWV 1988.09) for violin and piano. (In this series of Landmarks, I promise that this will be an exception in that I have not heard the piece in its entirety. I have heard about 100 of them, via a cassette on loan from Hauke Harder.) In these Sonates, some for the duo, and some for each soloist, Buckinx works simultaneously at the extremes of the miniature (most of the Sonates are brief) and the epic (the total duration is 24 hours). An individual Sonate may be urgent in character, but it might be nestled in a group of similar Sonates, giving the sequence a paradoxical sense of leisure. There is no detailed system or preplanning to the 1001; the pieces tend instead to group, regroup, recall, anticipate in an approach that is tactical, following intuitive, local logics that get tested out, thrown about, consumed, and then suddenly the atmosphere changes: we go someplace else, but everything remains the same. Sort of like traveling through Belgium, if you know what I mean.

(Perhaps as remarkable as the fact that Buckinx composed 1001 Sonates is the fact that they have been played, complete, several times, and there are really listeners out there who have heard the work, complete, more than once.)

I believe that Buckinx wisely takes advantage of being Belgian -- he's in debt neither to German insistance, structure, dialectic nor to French affect, taste, and style. There is more than a little surrealist flavor to his music, and Belgian surrealism (with the poles being Magritte and Ghelderode) at that, but I'm not expert enough to say anything more profound than that. He has the luxury to afford a sense of humor, and his individual hues of light and dark distinguish that particular humor from that of others.

Buckinx has also composed Nine Unfinished Symphonies. I profoundly regret not having heard these.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Orlando he dead

Sometimes the internet is a wonderful place. Composer Paul Bailey has just put up an mp3 of Doug Hein's Orlando he dead, one of my favorite pieces from the repertoire of the legendary Cartesian Memorial Reunion Orchestra (a semi-situationist, semi-electric chamber ensemble in the grand style of LA in the 80's). Hein's piece is one of the few vocal works in the Cartesian 's repertoire, with the only lyric I know of that meaningfully includes both Orlando di Lasso and Mama Cass. It's also one of the very few genuinely funny works of recent modern music. But more importantly, it's an example of exquisite counterpoint and near-counterpoint and fake renaissancery.

The history and diversity of west coast experimental and mimimal music is not as well known as it should be. The composition classes at SF State and UCB that included La Monte Young and Terry Riley also included composers like Loren Rush, Pauline Oliveros, and Douglas Leedy. Somewhat older figures like Robert Erickson and Richard Maxfield were very influential: Erickson taught generations of composers from Oliveros to Paul Dresher, Maxfield took over Cage's New School course in New York. There were also the Source magazine folk in Davis. In Southern California, Harold Budd and Barney Childs would be the forward line in the Cold Blue school, there was Cal Arts, and Lloyd Rodgers, a student of Castelnuovo-Tedesco and John Vincent at UCLA as well as a good friend of Leedy and Roy Harris, would be the founder of the feast known as the Cartesians, and as far as I understand it, Paul Bailey's own ensemble stands in this lineage. And finally, Kraig Grady's musical messages from Anaphoria Island celebrate broad swathes of the west coast aesthetic.

I know Douglas Leedy the best of all of these composers, unlike his classmates Young and Riley, Leedy's background was essentially that of a classical musician. He was an early advocate of synthesizers, but he soon made significant turns to early and ancient western music and studied Karnactic vocal music in Madras. I hope to write more soon about Leedy's music, one of the real alternative paths in the minimalist landscape.

Monday, May 23, 2005


Track 12, the "Polka"on this cd is a rare and sweet example of occidentalism in music: a classical Turkish ensemble, here accompanying a Karagöz shadow puppet performance, plays an impression of European music, used to indicate the arrival of a Greek or "Frank" on the stage.

I just stumbled upon this and thought -- inasmuch as orientalism in western arts is such a hot topic -- it might be useful to have an example, however modest, of occidentalism. I'd be very curious to learn of other, more substantial examples.

Thursday, May 19, 2005


I've always enjoyed writing music out by hand, and both musicians and non-musicians have often complimented my calligraphy. Finding and using the right inkpen is a real pleasure. Negotiating the proportions between blank page and musical notations is, in itself, a real, if minor, aesthetic joy. However, I have gradually shifted to doing most of my notation by computer. This was first with a homemade program using Forth and Postscript, then with Masterscore on an Atari, moving to Finale in the late 90's. Now, I use Finale and bits and pieces from other programs, and can do pretty much all I need to do. Interestingly, perhaps, the more I can do with the computer, the less fastidious I have become about notation (at least in comparison with some of the engravers on the Finale List). With the computer, I find that I am more satisfied with an adequate representation of the score for potential players than with the artwork that a handmade score might represent.

As ubiquitous as notation programs may now be, the ability to make a score by hand still carries a certain caché. Many of the so-called "new complexity" composers still insist on handmades. When I applied for membership in GEMA, the performance rights organization, one of the requirements for acceptance as a "professional" in the "E-Musik" (E for Ernst = Serious) division was the submission of a page of handmade notation. Although I was already well-invested in computer notation, getting approval of my manuscript from the authorities at GEMA gave me the feeling that I had gone through an old ritual exam conducted by the masters of my guild: I was now a certified journeyman composer.

This afternoon, my 11-year-old son came home from school with a problem set from his music class at school. To help him out, I needed a page of staves on the quick and re-encountered my old staff-drawing-pen (actually five ball-point fillers joined together in a comfortable holder. I also have the Stravinsky version, with five sharp-edged wheels turning through a trough with an ink pad. I find the ball-point instrument to be cleaner, more reliable, and a better fit for the hand). We rapidly went through the exercises and afterwards, a glance at the page of scales sent me into a bit of near-Proustian reverie for scores past.

Landmarks (4)

Jo Kondo: Standing (1973).

I've had the same experience repeated so often that it no longer surprises: I meet a composer for the first time and then learn that she or he too was under the influence of Jo Kondo. Kondo's earliest pieces include landmarks of minimalism*: Standing, Sight Rhythmics, Knots, An Insular Style, A Shape of Time. (Morton Feldman was famously fond of Kondo's Under the Umbrella, for five percussionists, mostly playing cowbells). Each of his pieces is at once an example of elegance and distinct invention, and he has increasingly come to be a model for how a composer confidently builds a coherent repertoire of music without falling into clichés.

Standing is an example of the simplest of procedures, shaped by the slightest of composerly interventions into an astonishing web of relationships. Kondo identifies his own music with "the art of being ambiguous", and his music stands in an ambiguous relationship to both tonal and non-tonal musics. This score is clear, even simple, in appearance, but contains difficulties in performance that have defeated even the most virtuoso players.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Going Pro

The mechanical aspects of composition can be self-taught. You listen to music, read scores, discovering musics you like (or don't like) and how those musics are put together (or fall apart), and then try to make music of your own, first hewing close to models, and then gathering skills in making something more of your own. But pure auto-didacts are rarely (but admittedly, if then, spectacularly) successful composers. Most composers defintely profit from some teaching, or mentoring. How, then, are teachers useful to young composers?

Most important, I suppose, teachers have some experience and a second pair of ears to share -- pointing out repertoire or catching errors that you might otherwise miss, and bring another focus to the work. Teachers may set problems for the students, experiments that may or may not have established solutions; they may introduce restrictions that force the student to decide what elements are essential in a work; or they may encourage the student to go farther, in extremes or scale. Often, a teacher may just bring some polish, a finishing touch, a bit of attitude to a students work: Morton Feldman is said once to have told a student with a lengthy score of great density: "That chord needs a cowbell."

The stuff you learn from your teachers can rarely be anticipated, and seldom lets itself sum up in a word or two. I learned about scale and density and identity from Gordon Mumma, about commitment and patience from La Monte Young, and about the need to clarify the musical idea from Alvin Lucier. My own music has taken a classical (not even "neo-") turn of late, and it's sometimes hard for listeners to imagine (let alone understand) the relationship between my music and that of my teachers, but it is real, if not always explicit.

Sometimes teachers will introduce a student to something that is not immediately musical, but will have an impact that is ultimately much larger than some technique for pushing notes around: Lucier pointed me in the direction of the visual artist Robert Irwin; John Cage told me to "go to Nobby Brown".

Choosing teachers is a loaded business. On my senior exams in music, I mentioned La Monte Young in the context of a question about tradition and innovation in music. One of the professors grading the exam, a musicologist, exploded on encountering La Monte's name. He called up the lead examiner and said: "I can't grade this. I went to Berkeley with La Monte Young. I saw La Monte Young brush his teeth on stage!" The lead examiner calmed down the musicologist, but sent word to me that I would have to be more careful in the future, to know my audience.

At about the same time I was taking the exam, I was applying to grad schools. I quickly learned that composers operate in networks, and that the network of experimentalists whose work moved and interested me most was a small, albeit very special, one. More slowly, I have learned that all of these networks are small and special, most of them the product of considerable struggle to establish a role for a teacher on campus, and none of them represented any great security.

There is, unfortunately, a knee-jerk tendency these days to put one network up against another, to insist on a form of competition that music and musicians do poorly. I agree that there's damn little out there in the way of resources for composers in academe, and that little bit is getting chewed at all the time. But that chewing is not caused by composers competing with one another, it's mostly because music theory and twentieth century music history are increasingly being taught by folks from the new tribes of music theorists and twentieth century music historians. The problem is not that 12-toners have a hold on jobs at Princeton (they don't) or that experimentalists have holds elsewhere (they certainly don't), or even that marching band composers at big schools in the mid-West have holds on jobs at schools with big marching bands (many music departments are letting the athletic dept. take over the band...). The problem is that these jobs, once hard-won, are always in danger of being dropped from the tenure track FTEs, or being converted into jobs for theorists or musicologists. Let's try to agree on this: any composer who retires without insuring that their FTE gets replaced by another composer has failed. (I could on further about the lack of jobs for generalists, but as a composer with a PhD in Ethnomusicology granted on the basis of a dissertation with a mix of theory and twentieth century music history, I'd just be tooting my own horn).

(I also agree that prizes and commissions are unequally distributed between networks of composers, and as much as I'd like the $500 that comes with a Pulitzer, (a) inequity of distribution is a fact which, in this case, I'll happily accept: Alvin Lucier did not win the Pulitzer for I am sitting in a room, but I am sitting in a room is that rare phenomenon: a thirty-some-year-old piece of music that still gets played, in concerts and broadcast, and is still available as a recording; and (b) consider the company you keep -- do you really want to be in a club that has both Charles Wuorinen and Gail Kubik as members?)


So you're really self-taught as a composer, but you admit to having had teachers, and you have those academic traveling papers. Your work is published, you get performances, recordings, broadcasts, and a small stream of commissions and GEMA or ASCAP or BMI royalties come in. You don't have a day job (or only have part of a day job). Do you consider yourself to be a professional composer?

I don't find the word professional very useful. It doesn't seem to have much to do with music. What are the qualifications for our profession? Who decides? What does it mean to be "unprofessional"? If I go pro, and stop being an amateur, do I have to stop loving music? Your music goes out of style -- do you lose your pro status?

In any case, I didn't see my university study as pre-professional training, which seems to me to be rather the domain of conservatories and schools of music. I believed (and still believe) in a broad liberal arts education, something open-ended, to be carried around for life, rather than certified competent at a particular skill set and sent out into a particular marketplace. I hear my music as a signal from that experience, an inseparable part of the life of the imagination, mind, and soul.

(to be continued)

Sunday, April 17, 2005

A critic to rely on

Once an enfant terrible, Alan Rich is now the most senior active American music critic; his reviews are more intuitive than technical, but his opinions betray an excellent ear, his writing is always fresh, and his bias happily left coast. keeps his column, "A Little Night Music" online and archived.

Making lists, checking them twice, redux

I did a quick count on the Sequenza 21 list -- I've heard 68 of the pieces listed (the Nancarrow Studies counted together as one), and surprisingly, I've heard most of them in concert, with only a handful encountered on radio, and only one or two of the pieces were heard only via recordings.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Making lists, checking them twice

The new music blog world is alive with list-making these days. Although tempted to respond with a list of my own, I'll limit myself to remarking that memories of musics past are fragile, observers are local, and documentation (scores, recordings) survive only with caprice. Three of my favorite pieces from the eighties -- Information White-out by Michael Peppe, Ron Kuivila's Alphabet, and Orlando, he dead by Douglas Hein (performed by the Cartesian Reunion Memorial Orchestra) -- have completely vanished from the radar. I don't know why -- maybe too West coast, perhaps too far outside of the most prominent academic circles. Also, the non-U.S. pieces that make it across the pond seem rather arbitrarily chosen; while I may have the advantage of having lived on both sides, it's unfortunate to see lists that miss Walter Zimmermann's Lokale Musik, Gordon Monahan's Piano Mechanics, or anything by Clarence Barlow, Jo Kondo, Jeney Zoltan, or Boudiwijn Buckinx.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Landmarks (3)

Lou Harrison: Scenes from Nek Chand for solo Nation Reso-phonic (Steel) guitar. Music from an imaginary border town between Chandigarh and Honolulu.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Bleak Cities

With some unexpected horizontal time on my hands (ice, ankle), I've managed to do a bit of pleasure reading, including two novels by China Miéville (Perdido Street Station and The Scar) and Paul Feyerabend's autobiography Killing Time. I'll write more about the Feyerabend later, perhaps in connection with the recent dissing of 12-toners in the new music blog land.

For the moment, a word about Miéville: I haven't read much fantasy, in fact, I don't think that I have much patience for it, but never mind, Miéville's not a fantasy writer, he's a first class novelist who happens to write in the fantasy genre (or "weird fiction", as he prefers it). Online criticism seems to inevitably begin with the question of Miéville's relationship to Tolkien; I guess it's a natural impulse, in that Tolkien is the 900-lb balrog in the fantasy cage, but it's a misplaced impulse, first and formost because Miéville can really write (and there's a big brown paper bag out there waiting for Tolkien to write himself out of it). Although Miéville's novels carry the complete, and apparently essential apparatus of fantasy with an entire imaginary world thought out in astonish detail (geographic, ethnographic, etc.), he manages to convey this thoroughness without the obligatory Tolkienesque maps and appendices. The text of the novel sufficed (although, I admit, one might have fun in actually trying to draw some creatures from the descriptions or map-out the seas of Bas-Lag, much as Nabokov so nicely drew Gregor's beetle anatomy or mapped out the Samsa apartment, in his lecture on "Metamorphosis" in Lectures on Literature). I think that the richer comparisons for Miéville's novels are to be found elsewhere, starting, for Perdido Street Station, with the urban visions in Dickens, and for The Scar, with the Odyssey and with Moby-Dick, all voyages with deeply scarred travelers and awesome beasts.

Miéville has a real gift for inventing names for people, places, and the things between, but he also has the gift for giving these inventions an emotional edge, and one that is grounded in a secure moral and ethical viewpoint, even when the real situation is loaded with regret or ambiguity. Curious perhaps, given his academic background, his visions of political structures in Bas-Lag are rather vague. The mayor of New Crobuzon strikes me as as much of a caricature villain as the mayor of Sunnydale in the TV Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The encounter, in Perdido Street Station with the ambassador from Hell is, however, a scene of classic comedy. (When the film is made, only John Cleese, seated behind the appropriate desk, could play this bureaucratic with appropriate elan).

I've already packed Iron Council, Miéville's third Bas-Lag novel for my trip next week to Greece. More about that later.