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.