Sunday, April 30, 2006


Trevor Murphy writes really well about music.

Patrick Swanson writes really well about music, too, and much else.

I haven't heard a note of his music, but I suspect that there isn't a composer out there with either a better web site (or a more unusual career) than Gareth Farr.

Up against it

"Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof." -- John Kenneth Galbraith

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


I think that Dan Stearns is a fine composer, and a model of uncompromising independence. He's a virtuoso guitarist (I believe he comes out of some corner of the free improv world, but I could be totally wrong about this), he does serious explorations of microtonal possibilities, and, a New Englander himself, his connections to the music of Ives strike me as both honest and deep.

Irwin articulates

Few artists are as articulate about their work as Robert Irwin, and his enthusiasm is infectious -- he's not making any compromises, he doesn't know what's going to happen next, and he's clearly having a blast. That's exactly the career I'd like to have! Here's an excellent video (streaming, RAM).


"If you asked me the sum total—what is your ambition?" (artist Robert) Irwin told his friend and biographer Lawrence Weschler. "Basically it's just to make you a little more aware than you were the day before of how beautiful the world is. It's not saying that I know what the world should look like. It's not that I'm rebuilding the world. Basically what artists do is to teach you how to exercise your own potential—they always have, that's the one thread that goes all the way through."

(cited in an essay by Michael Govan)

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Still experimenting

Norman O. Brown was fond of pointing out that the German translation of the Christian Lord's Prayer contained the phrase "führe uns nicht in Versuchung", which can be taken literally as "lead us not into experiment". For some reason or another, when it comes to music making I was apparently never properly instructed in the proper Christian avoidance of experiment.

I happen to have no problem wearing the experimental label. The American compositional tradition with which I most identify has often been characterized as experimental. My graduate school composition faculty was a program in experimental music (Lucier, Kuivila), my other teachers (Mumma, Young, Harrison) had no problems with the label, either.

Although my own music often has a surface that resembles some other, familiar music, it is always the result of a project beginning with a "what if" question. As Cage put it: "here the word 'experimental' is apt, providing it is understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success or failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown."

The willingness to risk failure, by placing success and failure outside the project, and the detachment of composerly intention from the end result, strike me as the vital emblems of experimental musics. This is in contrast to music which has "effectiveness" as its object. I've never been comfortable with the terms of "effective" music-making: tension/release, climax, etc.. It could be that this is a deficit on my part, but I've never much like being manipulated, and perhaps that's the main reason I've been drawn to experimental music.

(And yes, I have noticed that I have appealed twice in recent posts to "comfort"; I suppose that's just a symptom of being a terminally American composer. )

Materia Musica

Given my music-philosophical sensibility, there is nothing that I would more like to do than to be able to put all of the music I care about into that big box called ephemera, and remove it from the real world forces of fads and markets and gossip and gravitation. However, when I learned that with each breath we take in, we inhale at least one molecule of the last breath of the murdered Caesar 2050 years ago -- and, by extension, we can reasonably expect each breath to also have at least one molecule of air pushed around by musicians playing in the first performance of the Monteverdi Vespers, or Beethoven's 9th, or Etenraku, or Gambir Sawit, or the Navajo Blessing Way -- my faith in an essentially ephemeral quality of music was fundamentally shaken. Sounds are real, and their effects are long-lived, if increasingly subtle.

Kuivila says

In an interview, composer Ron Kuivila says a few remarkable things about notation and more.

One phrase in particular captured my own reticence towards a lot of music from Stockhausen to John Zorn:

"appropriation is at least in part a form of virtuoso consumption"

(It's probably clear by now that, when conspicuous, I have a low comfort level with both virtuosity and consumption.)