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.