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.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Landmarks (2)

Mozart Mauerische Trauermusik K477.

As a musical thought experiment, suspend a few beliefs and disbeliefs for a moment and consider Mozart's Freemasonary as a serious religious alternative. The Masonic musical works then uniquely present a Christian sacred repertoire that is neither Catholic nor Protestant. Aside from the texts, what distinguishes this repertoire from other sacred musics, in particular from Mozart's Catholic works?

Two things come to mind: the importance of the wind ensemble, especially the clarinets/bassett horns, and the dynamic shape of the pieces. The wind ensemble represents at once a public form of music-making independent from both court and chapel and the triumph of technical innovation in instrument design with the emergence of the clarinets. The Masses and the Requiem are climactic, perhaps teleological, pieces that inevitably become something larger in the course of a movement. But the Masonic pieces are anti-dramatic (yes, even the Queen of the Night), striking balances rather than climaxes, and often come close to stasis, daring to be simple, clear, yet paradoxically and inevitably, more mysterious.

I think that there is a real tension in late Mozart between an increasingly archaic-baroque catholicism and the classicism of the Masonic works. The "Jupiter" Symphony, a symphony of baroque instrumentation (without clarinets), closing with the finest classical era fugue and possessed by an enlightened transparency, is perhaps the best signal that the composer had found useful resolution to this tension.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Best works of the 1920's

An OT thread on the Finale users' list asked about the best works of the 1920's. This was my list:

Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920), Pulchinella (1919-20)
Ives: Orchestral Set Nr. 2 (rev. ca. 1925)
Antheil: Ballet méchanique (1927)
Bartok: Dance Suite (1923), String Quartet Nr. 4 (1928)
Cowell: The Banshee (1925)
Milhaud: Six Petites Symphonies
Puccini: Turandot (-1924, compl. 1926)
Sibelius: Sinfonia 7 (1924), Tapiola (1926)
Varese: Hyperprism (1922-3), Ionization (1929-31)
Webern: Three Lieder, for voice, E flat clarinet and guitar, opus 18 (1925)

I also considered Wozzeck, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, the Copland Organ Symphony, The Makropulos Affair, and some Respighi, all music that I like, but none of which really struck me as more worth listing than the pieces above. The Schönberg Suite, Op. 25, also considered, is one of those historically important pieces that is less than convincing as a piece of music outside of that historical context. (The Monteverdi Vespers are a similar case, but in the case of the Vespers, I say that the sum of the parts, all of them beautiful, outweighs the whole, so I'd definitely keep it on my list of the best works of the 1610's. As long as I'm at it, Lou Harrison's Suite for piano, also a twelve-tone work, is a wonderful piece that ought to have more attention and I find it more successful than the Schönberg model).

This decade offers some surprising juxtapositions of generations and styles, and while some works on my list still clearly reflect a "masterwork" ethic of works of great scale and moment, most of the pieces on this list challenge that ethic in some substantial way -- a single movement symphony, stripped-down, souped-up, or spaced-out orchestras, percussion and extended techniques, and radical miniatures of condensed expression.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Markus Trunk; Games of Chance and Skill

Here's a nice interview with my composing colleague Markus Trunk, a fellow Material Press composer, in a pub over a mushroom pepperpot. Robert Ashley, in Music with roots in the aether, was wise to take interviews with composers out of boring, formal settings, and this transplantation has become a nice experimental music tradition.

I was delighted to learn that Markus used die to solicit random numbers for his pieces. When I've used chance operations, my tool of choice has been playing cards. (A) Because I'm a card player and usually have a deck handy, and (B) Because decks of cards can be quickly divided into useful smaller collections: divisible by two (colors), three (drop a suit), four (all four suits), five and mutiples of five (drop the face cards), six and multiples (drop the kings), etc.. And sometimes I weight the deck, with uneven distributions, or even a wild card or two.

Some of my favorite composers have had intimate acquaintance with games of chance and skill. Mozart was a billiard player, Stravinsky was a passionate card player (recorded in a ballet), Schönberg designed his own playing cards, Cage liked every game from Cribbage to Chess, and even let Morton Feldman teach him to shoot craps. Given such auspicious company, I should probably entertain a larger dose of such vices...