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 The historical references are polar: Bruckner and Stravinsky, but the methods are often designed from first principles (i.e. orchestrating in terms of the position of the individual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."