Monday, March 27, 2006

More Leedy

A while ago, Alex Ross solicited composerly responses to some oddly lyrical words by Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a figure in one of the current Republican administration scandals. I couldn't summon up any creative energy myself to set Libby's paean to the Colorado aspens, but I did immediately recall a set of three three-voiced rounds to a set of short, but famous, texts associated with earlier Republican administration scandal: the Watergate Rounds by Douglas Leedy. I've made a quick and dirty Finale engraving of the score and put it up here as a PDF file.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

In a word

a few favorite terms from Dr. W's Miniature Lexicon of Efficient Critical Assaults:

braindead. A term from Ron Kuivila.
clear. Alvin Lucier: "I like my music clear. Like gin."
complex. Short for: "I don't want to get into an argument over which definition of complex is applicable to this piece. Not to be confused with complicated or hermetic.
complicated. I don't understand it, and don't expect it'll be worth the effort trying to understand it. c.w. Hermetic
deep. The work displays both internal complexity and a wealth of connections to external phenomena (history, culture, etc.).
detailed. Full of small features.
dog's breakfast, a
. Defined by Christopher Fox as a flute concerto by R. Murray Schaefer.
economic. A close match between means and ends.
effective. Music that pushes the listener. Probably the worst thing I could say about a piece of music.
elegant. When faced with a valley that one wishes to cross, a robust solution is to fill it in, an efficient solution is to build a bridge, and an elegant solution is to fly over in a dirigible, wearing white kid gloves.
empty. On zen-ish days, a compliment. On ordinary days, not.
flat. Without detail.
gnarly. Yes, I did grow up in Southern California.
hermetic. I don't understand it, may never understand it, but I suspect that its worth trying to understand it.
inflated. When market value exceeds intrisic value.
kitchen sink. Indicates that the composer has used at least one more element than was necessary. cw laundry list
laundry list. Indicates that the composer has used up every available element or combination of elements. cw kitchen sink
loss, a. The effort expended was not worth the result. see also totaled
luxurious. The enjoyment of means well in excess of needs.
mahnkopfed. pubescent. see also complicated.
mess, a. When intended (i.e. Christian Wolff, Burdocks) a playful, delightful thing, when not intended, neither playful nor delightful.
movie music.
19th Century.
Poland, (makes you want to invade). The effect of Beethoven on a listener cw the effect of Rossini on a listener. see Pynchon, GR pp440.
. Usually used as a negative, indicating the over-application of effects that are best held in reserve.
real. In a world of cheap reproductions and throw-aways, who could ask for anything more? Reserved for a very small shortlist of pieces.
strategic. Indicates the use of long-term planning. cw tactic
tactic. A move applied on a provisional or one-off basis. cw strategic
talent. As in "there's no stopping it": a sarcastic response to an underwhelming effort.
tight. Precise, without excess.
ugly. Not neccessarily a negative. I honestly believe that there is not enough good ugly music in the world; the problem is bad and indifferent music, and ugly music can be good, bad, or indifferent.
totaled. A total loss, nothing to recover.
vivid. A dangerous term. While I like music that makes certain features or details vivid, I can't handle music that is only about pushing all levels to 11. A term I have learned from Alvin Lucier and Tom Robbins.

Landmarks (11)

Douglas Leedy: Piano Sonata 1994

With the composer's permission, I have uploaded the score as a PDF file (863kb) here.

Leedy's score -- composed entirely of octave-wide diatonic clusters, with either all naturals or a single b flat or f sharp -- is notated with elegance and efficiency. It bears the inscription ioannis caveae in memoriam, and the Cage of Cheap Imitation is a presence in the Sonata, but I also hear Cowell, and Stravinsky's Chorale in memory of Debussy (later incorporated into the Symphonies of Wind Instruments).

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Looking for libretti

In the early 90s, a German composer friend & I would get together to talk shop every couple of months. The conversation would eventually turn to our parallel searches for opera libretti. My friend really needed to find a libretto, as he had not yet secured a professorship and an opera commission was a good way to guarantee paid work for two or three years. Under no illusions about my prospects for getting such a commission, I harbored the fantasy that I could nevertheless make something interesting for the stage. We ended up sharing a lot of interesting reading material, but neither of us ever found the perfect libretto. (My colleague finally got his professorship and I ended up doing a lot of childcare, so libretto hunts eventually disappeared from our conversations).

Since then, I've had more than a couple of ideas with potential -- The Winter's Tale, or Blake's The Island in the Moon, or -- following a suggestion in one of the Stravinsky-Craft conversation books -- Maximillian & Carlotta of Mexico, or Paul Auster's Mr Vertigo, with a perhaps too-obvious part for a swearing treble, or (my favorite) the story of Byron the lightbulb that never goes out from Gravity's Rainbow. Lots of very good, and simultaneously very bad ideas, if you know what I mean...

Part of the problem was (and is) that I suspect that I'm probably best suited to writing a comic opera. My literary tastes are comic. I like the fact that comic opera can enjoy all of the conventions of the form without embarrassment, and I like numbered arias and ensembles, and I do think that recitative can pace and give a motoric and melodic assist to dialogue. But face it, comic opera -- with a few, very special exceptions, and even they don't always work: Von Heute Auf Morgen, The Rake's Progress, Le Grande Macabre, Europeras I & II -- has not been the leading genre of the last century. In fact, sometime after Rossini, comic opera just gave up the ghost when it came to being, well, funny. Serious music became serious and "comic" was largely left to "entertainers".

In late 1999, I stumbled upon a webpage with excerpts from handpuppet plays by Edward Gorey. I had known his small books and drawings, the stage design and costumes for Dracula as well as a ballet, and the fine details of both image and text in that work had not prepared me for the radically reduced world of his puppets and their plays. His puppet plays were essentially dances for hands, accompanied by disturbing words. His puppets were basically rough lumps of paper mache, usually painted white, with a pair of holes for eyes, sometimes a nose, and female figures sometimes had a smaller lump -- a hair bun -- sitting on the back of the bigger lumps. These heads were simply placed on top of simple hand-sewn gloves, and would, with some frequency, fall off during performances (one evening of puppetry carried the title "Heads Will Roll"; when a puppet would lose its head, the other puppets on stage would give comfort to the stump). I immediately wrote to Gorey on Cape Cod, and a few weeks later received a libretto, an "opera seria" for handpuppets in 13 scenes of rhymed verse based on the "Lake of the Dismal Swamp". The opera -- despite Gorey's label, it was definitely a comic affair -- practically wrote itself, and I found myself writing tonal music and real songs for the first time since high school. The performances, in an old clapboard hall in Cotuit, Mass. were done by local players who had worked with Gorey for years, amateurs in the best sense of the word. It had a run of good ten performances, but the performances were also, sadly, a memorial to the librettist, who -- unusually but deservedly -- got top billing over the composer.

The White Canoe, my opera for handpuppets with Gorey, is a great little piece, but I've since been reluctant to allow another performance. It doesn't require a lot: four singers, three instruments, and four puppeteers, but it has to be done right, and I can wait. In the meantime, I'm still looking for another good libretto.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Virtuoso. Recorder.

I wrote that I would be avoiding recordings this year, but while driving and searching for the traffic report, I happened onto some samples from a recording by the Swiss recorder player Maurice Steger and was staggered. It was gutsy, animated, sometimes even over-the-top playing; it was detail-rich and those details were always musical. The repertoire is two concertos and an overture by Telemann, a composer whose music is too often played simply for its abundant charm. These performances chucked the charm and went for genuine shock and awe (we know all about fake shock and awe nowadays; this is the real thing). While the sound design of the recording may have enhanced this impression, Steger's playing with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin achieved a dynamism that forces me, at least, to totally reasess what the recorder can and might be able to do. Long before its forced enlistment into school and summer camp service, the recorder was one of the first instruments to be associated with a large body of notated music at a virtuoso level. While occulted a bit in the 19th century, a huge repertoire was composed for the instrument in the 20th century, and (IMO) the most successful were among works associated with Frans Brüggen, the trio Sour Cream, or the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet. There is an amazing number of good recorder players out there today, and composers should take advantage of this. But I'll go out on a limb and say that Steger's playing suggests a substantially different take on the character of the instrument, and potentially, a new point of orientation for composing some sophisticated music.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Polansky's Road

Larry Polansky has a number of scores available online. Mr. P. is one of the vital figures of his generation, with an attitude, imagination, and relationship to tradition that I admire. In particular, I recommend his piano piece Lonesome Road (The Crawford Variations), a piece of music that can carry the adjective "major" without suffering a bit of embarassment.

Slow going here at the Home Office

Recently, I have gotten halfway through writing a half-dozen posts or so only to toss them, regretting a personal and angry tone that they had taken. This blog is supposed to be about music worth listening to, not about how angry a certain-critic-who-shall-not-be-named or some institution or regime or policy can make me. So, I'll try to stick to the music...

If it hasn't been clear enough already, "renewable music" is an ethical category, not an aesthetic one. And the music I have mentioned here as "landmarks" can heardly be heard as a single, coherent repertoire. It's all just music that I happen to value and wish to share. Much of the music mentioned has fallen off the big public radar screen, and this is a time when music of any sort is increasingly devalued by the forces of markets and institutions that can influence, commodify and control the availability of music and the circumstances in which it is heard. The term "renewable" has a well-known ecological association and that association is intended. We cannot listen to everything, but arbitrary losses of rich but not-widely-known musical repertoire cannot be justified by an economization of listening. The natural musical ecosystem is full of niches that can thrive independently from market forces, but those forces, with their tendency towards an all-encompassing monoculture, are difficult to escape or to resist. If this small blog can be a part of that resistance, then it will be worthwhile.

Still at home in the 19th Century

John Quiggin of Crooked Timber has a nice item about the relative youth of much that we accept as "traditional", with some striking (excuse the pun) examples. It's really quite true for music as well -- very little from before the 19th century has remained a continuous part of "the tradition" (earlier musics had to be rediscovered, or were adapted to later performance practices), and a lot of the issues that musicians confront today -- the modern piano in equal temperament, the romantic orchestra and the instrumental technology that it represents, operatic vocal technique etc. -- are issues associated with 19th century innovations and conventions. And the phenomenon is not only a European and American one: the Court Music repertoire and practice of Central Java, for example, is a colonial-era style, and the trinity of great classical composers of Carnatic music (Tyagaraja, Muthiswami Dikshitar, and Syami Sastri) were, in their prime, contemporaries of the European romantic composers.

Practically everywhere you turn, walls appear (delineated by what? the Enlightenment? Colonization? Nationalism? Modernism? Secularlism? Capitalism? the Industrial Revolution?), before which memories become vague, and after which explositions of invention took place, explosions from which, apparently, we have not yet recovered.