Tuesday, February 28, 2006


I recently posted a comment to an item at Sequenza 21's Composers Forum about Ned Rorem's new opera Our Town:

Rorem was very wise to limit the size of his orchestra. Modest resources would seem to match the modesty of his subject matter and the economy of means has other practical and musical uses. Personel costs can be real impediments to productions and it's reasonable to assume that the smaller pit will make the piece more attractive. A lighter orchestra, however, creates some interesting opportunities for flexibility with vocal types. A lot of the discomfort audiences and composers alike have with operatic voices comes directly from the development of a vocal technique designed to compete with a large orchestra (even then, at Bayreuth, of all places, the unique construction of the pit attenuates the orchestra considerably so that singers don't need to overproduce), while often sacrificing comprehension of the text. If opera is going to renew itself in any major way, I think that either a more "natural" vocal technique combined with a more intimate orchestra, or an electronically amplified and mixed environment is going to be part of the equation. (Another way of thinking about it is that the furture of opera lies with Monteverdi and/or Robert Ashley, composers of operas with intimate ensembles, comprehensible texts, and equally rich in vocal details).

A few more scattered thoughts about voices and new music: Nowadays, popular music is dominated by vocal music (popular instrumental music -- and especially big band dance music -- never really recovered from the Musician's Union strike during the Second World War, and popular successes in instrumental music now tend to be novelty items) while prestige among "serious" composers has usually been reserved for instrumental genres. Of course, this is all generalization, and operas/music theatre, choral music, and art song have their niches, but I believe that it's generally true. One reason for the prestige is simply that vocal music tends to have texts, and the concrete references of lyric or narrative texts run against more abstract impulses. Vocalise, essentially the use of a textless voice as an instrument, has been a minor genre (albeit with interesting examples, an a capella choral Petit Symphonie by Mihaud for one), although many composers and singers have unintentially created vocalises with either text settings or performance styles that render the text unrecognizeable. Another reason for the prestige of instrumental forms is that composers tend themselves to be instrumentalists, and few in the ranks are gifted singers (there is actually a style of shorthand singing that many composers use when going through a score -- intervals tend to get squished, preserving only a semblance of the contour -- not a pretty sound). The exceptions, however, from Samuel Barber to Robert Ashley, tend to be composers whose vocal music is worth hearing.

One sentiment often expressed by contemporary composers about singing is a distaste for classical vocal technique, and vibrato gets singled out as especially undesireable. I'd like to refine this complaint a bit and hazard the notion that the problem is not vibrato per se, but rather the inability to control vibrato. The singer should be able to turn it on and off, as well as to control the speed and depth of the vibrato. I recommend highly a small article by the late and extraordinary early vocalist Andrea von Ramm, titled simply " Singing Early Music", in Early Music 1976 Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 12-15. She goes firmly against the idea of a single vocal technique to fit all musics, and instead advocates mastering a body of flexible techniques that can be fit to the music at hand. I don't think composers of new music could wish for anything more, and the real exchanges that have taken place between early and new music specialists (as well as those engaged in musics outside of the western tradition and in vernacular genres) can only further enrich vocal practice. To my ears, there is more than a close fit between the ideas of early music specialists, like von Ramm or Paul Hilliard, and those of musicians specializing in new, extended vocal techniques, like Meredith Monk, William Brooks, or any of the overtone-singing specialists.

I realize that I may create some dissonance when I identify Robert Ashley as a gifted vocalist. Ashley doesn't exactly sing, he talks, but he does so under the constraints of a discipline that can only come out of extraordinary musicianship. And from The Wolfman in the sixties to his most recent operas, Ashley has completely opened up the space that exists between speaking and singing. But perhaps this was simply neglected space -- in his Music Primer, Lou Harrison recommended Chinese Opera as

"complete music theater, for it includes & offers all that can be done with text & music. Plain speech, unaccompanied. Plain speech accompanied. Rhythmitized speech unaccompanied. Rhythmitized speech accompanied. Song unaccompanied, etc., up to & including Chorus accompanied."

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Sørensen's Symphony Wins in a KO

I went to the Forum Neue Musik concert last night at Hessischer Rundfunk, a program of recent orchestral music by four composers (James Clarke, Klaus Lang, Bruno Montovani, Bent Sørensen) played by the HR-Sinfonie Orchester. Forum Neue Musik has been an important series, essential, for example, in establishing the orchestral works of Feldman and Scelsi, but also in exploring the periphery of the repertoire from Carillo and Obuchov to Chris Newman and Maria de Alvear. The orchestra played well last night, as usual, but with real engagement saved for a single work on the concert. In theory, there was something for everyone on the program -- some complexity, some minimal-meditative pianissimoism, some "jazz" riffing on accompaniment figures from Schubert Lieder, two pieces with soloists (percussion, bass clarinet) -- and although the first three quarters of the way through the program, the orchestral-writing competence of all the composers was everywhere in evidence, I was suffering from a real bout of the tired-new-music-cliché-blues. Clark, Lang, and Montovani all made the mistake of using all of their toys in their instrumental toy boxes. I think that if you're going to use a lot of instruments in a piece, you have to have good reasons for using each and everyone of them, and simply having the instruments pre-paid in an orchestral roster is not a good enough reason for me. The Clark Maailma, for solo percussion and orchestra, had a typical new music concert array of percussion and used all of it in turn. It was a bit like reading a percussion cabinet inventory without any ear-convincing rationale for doing so. It's a shame: Clark's rhythmic writing is inventive, and had he simply kept those rhythms intact and had the soloist play a single instrument -- let's say, a tom-tom -- it would have been a more intense experience. The orchestral writing for strings and brass was excellent, and a bit more economy -- why not just eliminate the woodwinds and orchestral percussion? -- would have usefully tightened the piece. Klaus Lang's Tausend Kraniche, a "mourning music with obliggato harpisichord", should have been the piece on the program closest to my own sympathies. But instead, it was one large empty gesture with a bad joke thrown in at the end. I don't feel competent to say much about the Montavani Mit Ausdruck for bass clarinet and orchestra; I simply can't assess the relationship to Jazz that the composer claims, and the relationship to Schubert lieder was not vivid enough for me.

I could have left the concert at that point and the program would probably have been forgotten by the time I reached the parking lot, but I stayed, and I'm glad that I stayed because the fourth work on the program was excellent and will remain in memory for a longtime. I had never before heard a single note by Bent Sørensen, probably because we come from very different neighborhoods in New Music Land. Sørensen's Symphony was one of those rare pieces that had enough connections to traditional repertoire (Mahler, everywhere, but to many others as well -- Bernard Herrmann, perhaps?) and to traditional orchestral interpretative practice that the orchestra was fully engaged. At the same time, Sørensen made no compromises and his work was always something new and of a piece with itself. The piece worked both globally and locally; long term connections were underlined by striking details. The quiet lamento high strings over loud and narrow contrabass sighs at the close of the work, just barely suggesting nostalgia for a contrapuntal world beyond the confines of the piece, both tied the Symphony together, and left it shattered. Although both technically and musically difficult, the orchestra simply liked playing the piece, and I really liked listening to them play it.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Economies of scales

One more note about tunings. I first started to explore tunings in the seventies (I was a precocious High schooler) and the instruments I used most for exploration were simple metallophones made from aluminum conduit, modeled on those built by Erv Wilson. They sounded great but had one major drawback -- every distinct pitch I required required another piece of metal, and each new piece of metal has to be playable integrated into the instrument, which couldn't expand too much simply due to lack of space. You can probably imagine how quickly a cost/benefit picture comes into view, with costs rising at an alarming rate. A Just Intonation array was plausible only as long as modulation was limited and my total pitch vocabulary was restrained; otherwise tempered alternatives showed advantages of which I sometimes took.

Nowadays, working primarily with electronic media for my microtonal work, the constraints on materials and space have become less critical, and theoretically I should be comfortable working with any number of pitches. In practice, however, I like to have some sense of or feeling for the entire pitch collection in a piece of music, and my experience, with Just Intonation, is that only feel in command when that collection has no more than 20-22 or so pitches. At the same time, and again, even though cost should no longer be a great concern, I find that the advantages of temperaments are rapidly outweighed by costs when the total number of pitch classes exceeds 20 or 22 or so. There is much to recommend a tuning like 31-, 53, or 72- tones to the octave, but the qualities recommended are largely those of Just Intonation, so I find that unless I absolutely need to extensively modulate pitch sequences, I'd just as soon tune in Just Intonation. And should I be interested in using functional relationships that are not available in a Just environment, it's fortunate that the equal divisions of the octave from 7 to 23 tones offer a substantial number of such functional possibilities at the cost of reasonably small total collections of pitches with which to become familiar.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Books on composition

(This was a personal response to a question on the Make Microtonal Music list.)

These are a few of the books more-or-less directly about composition to which I have returned frequently over the years:

Cowell, Henry, New Musical Resources
De la Motte, Diether, Kontrapunkt (This, unfortunately, has not yet been translated into English).
Erickson, Robert, The Structure of Music, A Listener's Guide
(Erickson's later book, Sound Structure in Music, mostly about timbre, is also interesting, but for whatever reasons, I have never returned to it)
Harrison, Lou, Lou Harrison's Music Primer
Kühn, Clemens, Formenlehre der Musik (needs to be translated)
Morley, Thomas, A Plaine and Easy Introduction to Practical Music
Mozart, W.A., Attwood-Studien (The harmony and counterpoint notebooks of Mozart's student Thomas Attwood)
Seeger, Charles, Harmony (Sadly, very difficult to find!)
Seeger, Charles, Dissonant Counterpoint (article)

These come from the visual arts, and say nothing explicit about musical composition, let alone tuning, but they are so rich in ideas that I can't imagine not having them near my desk:

Klee, Paul, Pedagogical Sketchbook
Wechsler, Lawrence, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One
Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin

I'm not alone among composers in having found this valuable:

Thompson, D'arcy, On Growth and Form

These are more recent additions to my library, so have not yet faced
the test of time, but are certainly worth a look:

Andriessen/Schönberger, The Apollonian Clockwork: On Stravinsky
Ashley, Robert (ed.), Music with Roots in the Aether
Lucier, Alvin, Reflections/Reflektionen
Tenzer, Michael, Gamelan Gong Kebyar: The Art of Twentieth Century Balinese Music
Wolff, Christian, Cues/Hinweise

I continue to be impressed by John Cage's contribution to the Hoover/Cage Virgil Thomson; Cage was a gifted writer about practical musical technique.

One of my students recommends this so strongly that I include it here despite my own reservations:

Mathieu, W.A., The Harmonic Experience

We still need a contemporary volume to replace Helmholz's The Sensations of Tone. William Sethares' Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale is an important book. Richard Parncutt's Harmony: A Psychoacoustical Approach is one of the more interesting pieces of scholarship in the field. It's out of print, but the publisher has admirably allowed for free downloads, via:


Saturday, February 11, 2006

Armchair reading you won't find in my house

I would really like to spend some time with Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra (Hardcover) by Richard Taruskin. I was able to take a look at a copy in the local University library; unfortunately it's considered too valuable to check out. It's two big, beautiful volumes, and I have just the armchair I'd like to read then in. However, with a list price of USD195, it's just not going to happen.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Landmarks (10)

William Brooks Madrigals (1977-78) four pieces for SATB quartet, amplified.

Brooks' Madrigals are virtuosic, demanding both impecable conventional musicianship and extended vocal techniques, but at the same time very much music written by a composer who loves to sing for singers; they are complex, deep, both intellectually (Brook's analytic skills -- of both words, tones, and their interplay in timbre -- are everywhere apparent) and culturally (his re-imaginings of Orlando Gibbon's Silver Swan and Stephen Foster's Nelly was a Lady are astonishing), but these pieces are also emotionally immediate, at turns touching, comic, and amazed.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Keeping new music new

If the level of activity in the new music blogoplan is significant, there's not much in the new music world to write home about these days. In the 50s, 60s, 70s, there was excitement as each precious bit of information on the new music scene arrived. Publications and recordings were rare, communications were slow, but the sensation that something new was going on was real, and intellectual and emotional engagement - whether of support or controversy -- were lively. (In high school, in the seventies, I once actually rode my bike thirty miles to UCRiverside and thirty miles back home in order to read Soundings. I used to copy out whole scores by hand from libraries because I couldn't afford photocpies). But now that so much material is out there and readily available, not much seems new and less inspires passions of any sort.

If the new music blogoplan is going to challenge this state of affairs -- and it should because there is exciting, demanding, and moving work out there that should be better known -- then we've got to up the ante a bit. There have got to be a couple of new music blogs where there is really actually something new to read every day and the blog as a whole takes a clear posture towards the world and its need for new music. This probably means a group blog in which each contributor commits to a regular flow of words. The composers forum at Sequenza 21, perhaps, is the closest to the right track, but I'd like a bit more direction in terms of the community of writers and the pace of articles.

Simple doesn't necessarily mean that complexity is lacking

An article by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker on the Shakers and their artwork; Gopnik usefully clarifies the parallels between the Shakers and some minimalist visual artists.

The initial generation of American musical minimalism produced work, like the Shakers, out of the force of strong, experiential rather than doctrinal, beliefs, and like the Shakers, the minimalist composers did all things by going to extremes. The distancing from, if not absence of, these qualities in the "post-minimal" era was perhaps necessary, but still somehow disappointing. The acoustic grafitti -- or halo -- produced by combination tones and other acoustic ephemera that hung over the works by Young, Riley, Reich, Glass, Maxfield, Leedy, Lucier and others marked the unpredictable, unstable, complex and connecting elements in tapestries that were otherwise regular, straight, and narrow.

A return to those heady days is both impossible and unwanted, but a reinvigoration of our music, now, with those radical impulses is not only desireable but also necessary, if we are to get out of the present slump.

Friday, February 03, 2006

"It was a dream."

Es war ein Traum. February 17th will be the 150th anniversary of the death of Heinrich Heine, a poet and journalist of many dimensions, the one reason to learn German if you need only one, a man totally resistant to the boundaries of a single school, nation-state or ideology, a prophet of personal independence and political liberalism, but most of all, a musician's poet.