Monday, July 31, 2006

Keyboard Music?

The number of young musicians for whom a portable electronic keyboard is the primary instrument must be large. In places like Germany, where housing is crowded and playing out loud after nine or so in the evening is often restricted, being able to play an instument through headphones is nice option (most pianos for the home market here also come with a built-in felt damper mechanism, either hand- or pedal-controlled, the Moderator).

Given the ubiquity of these instruments, it's surprising that a larger repertoire of new music written specifically for solo electronic keyboards has not developed. In the sixties and early seventies, there was actually quite a repertoire for Farfisa organs as ensemble instruments (Reich, Glass, and others) and cheap amplified reed organs had some currency in the British Experimental scene.

So how about it -- who has pieces for solo electronic keyboards, with ranges of 49 to 61 keys, and perhaps a dozen contrasting timbres, with key-velocity and sustain pedal optional?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

This is your life

The estimable Fred Himebaugh of the Fredösphere provides a useful guide to the life ahead for young persons considering a career in composition.

Form: always surprised

There's a pumpkin plant in our (tiny) garden that's stretched and arched around the back terrace, coming into bloom here and there, but now, suddenly, four metres away from the roots, an orange fruit has finally taken hold, a future jack'o'lantern suspended between an old rose and the garden shed. Why there? Why now? How does it manage to arrest attentions, surprising every passer-by?

I've tried several times to write something useful about musical form. I've thought about the origins in song and dance, and the license gained by the invention of absolute genres. I've considered the uses and benefits of calculation (or the failures of miscalculation). But in the end, musical form is about finding the right mix of materials and time, playing those elements against human memory and expectation, and then -- if you want to make music that does more than function -- you grab something surprising and incalculable, you add that pumpkin four metres down the vine.

Monday, July 24, 2006


in a Cafe, a man says to a woman:

"you'll like Roy Orbison... he's the Hugo Wolf of popular music".

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Hidden tracks

I recently revisited a stack of scores made in when I was 16 or 17. One of the most interesting, at least conceptually, was a piece for piano and ensemble, in a just intonation that was (and is) probably unrealizeable by real instruments. Curious to hear the piece with some precision, I entered the score into a notation program, and then rendered it as a sound file with the pitches right (well almost, a better solution is needed for some of the pitch bends, which were rendered as portamenti when the going got rough). Though it has some naive movie-music charm, the piece can best now return to happy obscurity. Nonetheless, it is a bit irritating that the score wasn't ever really finished. The first two sections are complete, but the third is about three-quarters done, and while I'm certain the rest had been pre-composed in some detail, there are no sketches left to indicate what exactly had been planned. The alternatives are to just go in and forge an ending, or to leave it as is, a fragment. Neither is a satisfactory alternative, so unless I'm prepared to channel myself at 16, a return trip to the desk drawer seems in order.

It's been policy around here to get rid of sketches. Part of the idea here is that finished pieces should be granted some independence from the circumstances of their composition. Another is that new technical discoveries are easier to make when you are not too closely following previous paths. Another is that I just don't like extra pieces of paper hanging about. (This may in part be an extreme reaction to one of my teachers who has, apparently, hung onto every bit of manuscript paper he's ever touched). This policy doesn't help much in the present case, but my chief concern has got to be the next piece, always the next piece.

Friday, July 21, 2006

To comfort and disturb

Somewhere along the line, somebody said that the purpose of good music (or art or literature) was to disturb the comfortable and to comfort the disturbed.

What was the last piece of music that had that effect on you?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Local Genres

The Proms season has begun in London, and I wonder if anyone else has noticed that there is actually a genre of "Proms pieces" -- twenty minutes long, big orchestra, at least one orchestration feature (lots of percussion, or a soloist, or a childrens' choir), and a tonal language that is never really avant-garde, but never really retro, either --? I've heard quite a few Proms pieces performed in Germany over the years, and they certainly provide a good opportunity for composers to make "baggage"* pieces, pieces in a composer's catalog that are ready to travel, as they are already blessed with a paid-up commission, a clean score, proof-read parts, and a good recording to recommend the piece.

There are other local genres, all of them depending upon institutional sponsorship. One is the Parisian Cantata, usually secular, always with a soloist and orchestra, sometimes a choir. It was once expected as a graduation exercise from all young composers completing their Conservatory training, and was associated with competitions and prestige. These cantatas are a mixed lot, with landmarks from Berlioz to Boulez. The most extraordinary of these pieces is Satie's Socrate. (There used to be a BMI student composer's prize genre, too; the defining feature, as I see it, was that winners all knew the secret of the ozalid copy).

To be honest, I don't think I could pull a 20 minute orchestral piece for the Proms or a French secular cantata out of my sleeve. If I'm ever to be associated with a local genre, it'd probably be one of those four-and-a-half-minute solo concertina pieces for the biennial music festival and pancake breakfast sponsored by the Mt. Baldy Village Bookmobile.
* "Baggage" is a term I get from Alvin Lucier, who got it from Aaron Copland. (Jeez! That makes Copland one of my grandteachers). Copland advised Lucier that composers needed to have a certain amount of "baggage" in their catalogues, pieces of modest scale for solo instruments and common instrumental combinations that could readily get some play.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Snarky-But-True Theoretical Asides, Nr. 1

From Diether de la Motte, Kontrapunkt:

...(siehe einschlägige Regeln für die Fugenkomposition im französischen Standardwerk von Gedalge: Regeln, die allem Rechnung tragen, nur nicht der Bachschen Fugenpraxis)...
[...(see the relevant rules for the composition of fugues in the standard French textbook by Gedalge: rules, applicable to all situations, except for Bach's fugal practice)...]

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Let Farinelli Rest

There's been a recent news item in wide circulation about a project involving the exhumation of the remains of Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli, the most celebrated of the castrati singers. This is being done for musicological and physiological research purposes. I'm all for open scientific inquiry, but this seems both unnecessary and disrespectful. Is knowing more about the anatomy and medical histories of castrati truly an urgent scientific issue? It is true that we don't really have a good idea of how the best castrati singers sounded, and there is some truly beautiful and virtuosic repertoire written for their voices, but I doubt that this project will add much to that particular mystery. There are some things I really want to know -- what the rest of Monteverdi's Arriana sounded like, or with whom Dick Cheney conspired consulted in creating the administration's energy policy, not to mention the whereabouts of a half-dozen misplaced household objects -- but the physiology of a castrato? There are some mysteries that can stay unsolved.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Audio snapshots?

An old friend, Tom Hilton, has introduced "random Flickr" blogging as a weekly feature at his blog If I Ran The Zoo. Each week a random number XXXX is drawn, and Tom's readers are invited to search for an IMG_XXXX at Flickr and give it an appropriate caption.

It'd be swell to have an audio equivalent, but my guess it that it wouldn't work. Listening to music consumes time in a different way from the time spent looking at an image. Most audio online is music rather than the snippets of travel, local festivities, friends, family, pets, plants, and curiosities that fill the Flickr imagery, so there's not really an audio equivalent of a visual snapshot, as in this one, showing streams of refugees attempting the dangerous crossing over the Wabash from occupied Indiana into the free state of Illinois:

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A Small Prelude in F

Reading for Winter 2006-2007

Amazon has just started taking pre-orders for the next Pynchon novel, title unknown, 992 pages long, due in December, with this blurb by the author:

Spanning the period between the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, this novel moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.

With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.

The sizable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics, and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns. There are cameo appearances by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi, and Groucho Marx.

As an era of certainty comes crashing down around their ears and an unpredictable future commences, these folks are mostly just trying to pursue their lives. Sometimes they manage to catch up; sometimes it's their lives that pursue them.

Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they're doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur. If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.

Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.

--Thomas Pynchon

Saturday, July 15, 2006

... i canti alterno

In the prologue to Monteverdi's Orfeo, Music sings "I alternate my songs, now happy, now sad...". Music's warning and embrace of more than one kind of song, with more than one kind of effect -- to calm a troubled heart, kindle a frigid mind, charm our ears, or inspire our souls -- is here a key to the musical variety that will follow.

There has been a tendency to segregate a "sound art" from the category of music making. Instead of pushing, or probing, the capacity of music to be a larger, more inclusive, house, expanding the realm of activity that can be called music, does this move posit some closure over the category music? Is this a good thing? There is utility in being able to say "my work is not music, but something else, so that I need not be obliged to concepts and limits associated with music". But hasn't it been the advantage of music, that a listener can, no, must again'n'again discover that the extent and limits of music are not yet known?

Friday, July 14, 2006

Mad Gardeners, All of Us

He thought he saw an Elephant,
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
'At length I realise,' he said,
The bitterness of Life!'
-- from Lewis Carroll, The Mad Gardener's Song
In a recent post, I described a mean-spirited game of composer-jump-the-snark. This was really the completely wrong idea. When the trajectories of a piece of music and a listener cross, the listener often wants to stake a claim to a piece, and vicariously, to the composer him/herself, expecting that the qualities he or she finds in that music will carry forward into further works of music. But the trajectory of a composer's searches has its own course, and the listener is not seldom disappointed to learn that the composer is not exactly the same person one had imagined.

By accident, I suppose, I first heard the Symphonies of Sibelius in order, and I had followed the composer through the strange and wonderful Fourth, only to be disappointed by the return to classical form in the Fifth and Sixth. I worried that maybe he was "just another" symphonic composer after all. But thankfully, the Seventh put all doubts to rest, the two intermediate Symphonies could now be heard as taking care of unfinished business from the earlier Symphonies and the Seventh had another, equally radical, answer to the question posed by the Fourth. Another one-movement Symphony, the Third of Roy Harris, was a piece I must have heard a dozen times live as a young person, and I had developed an attachment to the idea of Harris as an innovator that was never actually satisfied by another real piece of his music. But his subsequent music did keep true to an idea of music, and I can recognize that now.

I will forever be in the debt to the works of Steve Reich up through Drumming and Philip Glass through Another Look At Harmony. There is much subsequent work of both composers that I value but am not attached to in the same way. With the wisdom of hindsight, the long-term concerns of each composer's work seem obvious, but they are not the same as the concerns that initially made the work attractive. With Reich, ideas about speech and voice that had been present in some of the earliest music came forward while I remained attached to a set of instrumental and technical features that appear less critical to Reich. Glass's identity had always been that of a very professional composer for the stage, but, not being a New Yorker, I had never really known him as anything other than a composer of absolute music. In both cases, I especially missed a real time element in their earliest music, one in which the presence of combination patterns and every manner of acoustical grafitti was often made more articulate than the plain notes the musicians were playing.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

2-4-6-8, it's not time to commutate*

Non-commutative Ramblings is a new blog by "Lprcycle"** for "music theory, musicology, mathematics, philosophy, and other 'stuff.'" The first article is a review of a recent volume, Music and Marx. Not casual reading.

*Apologies for the somewhat misleading title of this item. It's not quite good form to mix a metaphor from electricity with one from mathematics, but I couldn't resist.
**Younger academics blogging under a pseudonym appears to be a Chicago tradition. They take their blogging serious in Chi-town, they do.

You don't leave a bar when all the drinks are on the house, unless the damn place is on fire.

The outlines of the US administration's plan for exiting Iraq are starting to emerge. Today, we've learned that Army contracts with Halliburton will not be renewed. We can reasonably assume that Halliburton is not being cut out unwillingly, but has decided that they have maxed out their opportunities and will now get out while the getting's good. Halliburton has been benefactor to one of the largest blank checks the government has ever written, and ending these contracts is a major event. Things have got to be pretty bad over there to give up a deal like this. This war has been the largest experiment ever in privitization of military services and, even more than in Vietnam, the decision to exit will be determined not by the will of the American people but by the analysis of the private sector that their returns have passed the optimal level and will not improve.

The Washington Post story linked above notes that the contracts end in September. The mid-term elections are in November, with the possibility of a Democratic majority in either house of congress the only opportunity for proper legislative oversight. This is perfect timing for the Bush administration to announce a major troup withdrawal and reduce the potency of Iraq as a campaign issue in the fall.

Facing the shark

Just got off the phone with an old friend, also a composer, still in California. In one of those off-moments when old friends lose their manners, we started to play a game of When-Did-Famous-Composer-X-Jump-The-Shark? After having agreed upon Die Feen and Kontakte, better sense and a measure of good will took hold of both of us, and we set aside the game, agreeing that good composers never really jump the shark. All composers are uneven, but each has the potential to escape from the mouth of Leviathan and follow disaster with something new, wonderful, and deep.

After Guillaume Tell, Rossini feared the coming shark and retired to the kitchen (where he composed the brioche, beef, fois gras, and truffel in madeira sauce masterpiece known as Tournedos Rossini), managing a come-back with a series of "sins of old age", ranging from the Petite messe solemnelle to some delightful and strange piano pieces, thus escaping the shark altogether and having in sum, a long, well-fed, and happy life. It's possible that Cage, with some disastrous experiences with performances of the Song Books and the orchestral version of Cheap Imitation saw the shark coming, and radically rethought his practices, in particular his responsibilties towards performers. I believe that this rethinking played itself out most consequently in the late "number" pieces, in which establishing the balance between clarity of instructions and challenge to individual musical sensibilities became the center of his work. Satie, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Stravinsky: all had remarkable late works that cannot be separated from the personal and musical crises that accompanied them: Socrate, Four Last Songs, the String Trio, the Requiem Canticles. And more recently the Ninth Symphony of Malcolm Arnold, in its way a most experimental (!) piece of music, has echoed this pattern of crisis and resolution- (or even redemption) -through-composition.

So, let us remain optimistic: perhaps Stockhausen's new 24-part Klang will prove the shark to have been a temporary, if long-overstayed, visitor to Köthen. The pieces so far of Klang suggest that Stockhausen has returned to the economy and sharpness that marked his strongest works -- IMO the early piano pieces, the electronic studies, Zeitmaße, and Kontra-Punkte -- while also returning to a spiritual impulse similar to that which marked Gesang der Junglinge, i.e. less Urantia Book, more Veni creator spiritus. Optimistic, always!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

So hidden, I don't know what I'm missing

Pliable has a good post about the "hidden power" of agents in the classical music world, especially the agency IMG ArtistsTM, which appears to be the inescapable behemoth, the Yoyodyne Corp. of that particular world.

Curiousity raised, I took a look at IMG's webpages, and went through their complete roster name-by-name, seeking out in vain a single name on their lists that would cause me to rush from the house, plunk down a large handful of Euros and attend a concert or buy a cd.

Up 'til now, I've been under the impression that my musical life is a full and happy one, but does my failure to consume products from the IMG palette mean that I'm missing out on something? Can my life only be truly complete with a full and regular helping of IMG ArtistsTM? Should I get with the program and learn that the only artists I really need are IMG ArtistsTM?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Infernal machines: a progress report

"These talking machines will ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy, in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today, you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal chord left in America! The vocal chord will be eliminated by a process of evolution as was the tail of man when he came down from the ape.” -- John Philip Sousa, testimony to US Congress
I love all kinds of machines for making music, whether those machines require the pushing about of electrons or not, and I can't live without any of them. But I do believe that it's possible to live without recordings of performances. My year without recordings -- not making them, and avoiding listening to them -- is going splendidly.

Okay, I did listen to some soundfiles sent to me by Jon Brenner (you can hear some here, too), and taxiing kids about town is a valid excuse for turning on the radio, so I've heard some amazing things (for example) on broadcast recordings by accident, but generally, I've tried to use the time I would have spent listening to recording by doing more score reading at the keyboard: of late, Giles Farnaby, Purcell, Bach (one-a-days from Die Kunst der Fuge), some Feldman, Kurtag, and Mumma. I'll never be a real pianist, but my ambition here has everything to do with training my ears, which is a project for a lifetime, and little to do with keyboard technique, which is a project for a youth more disciplined than mine ever was. More importantly, I think, I've been taking time each day to sing with my daughter (she's four), time that cannot be better spent in front of a loudspeaker.

BTW, isn't it swell to know that John Philip Sousa, that most American of American musicians, believed in evolution?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Let us now praise the rebloggers

...for they bring us together. New music bloggers are mostly soloists with day jobs, and it's tough for us to keep up a regular routine of postings, making it inconvenient for readers out for a daily fix musical news, opinion, and chatter. There are many of us, and you never know when one of us is going to suddenly pronounce wisdom on the world in one of our inimitable verbal cadenzas. Jeff Harrington's new music reblog and Jerry Bowles's Blognoggle | New Music have solved this problem, and in doing so, have become the Chronicle and Examiner of metropolitan Newmusicburg. Many thanks to the both of them!

PS new music reblog keeps a running tab on the number of posts noted for each blogger. The top ten is composed of group bloggers and real writers of standard English, like Alex Ross of The New Yorker, and Pliable of On An Overgrown Path. Renewable Music has been a stable occupant of place number eleven for a good long time and movement into the top ten is improbable, as that would entail an unprecedented effort on my part in order to overtake the prodigious and eloquent Pliable. But no worry. It ain't exactly a horse race around here, and eleventh place just may be exactly where this belongs, a slight irritation on the edge of a great conversation.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Landmarks (14)

Achille-Claude Debussy, Six Épigraphes Antiques (1914) piano four-hands. Arranged by the composer from incidental music originally scored for two flutes, two harps and celeste, there are also versions for two hands, and for orchestra, but the four-handed version is a remarkable ensemble piece and seems to me to be the optimal expression of these little pieces. Arrangements of theatrical music for piano, two- or more-handed, are often simply a tool for accompanying rehearsals (in the absence of the larger ensemble), but a small number of these arrangements have managed to become concert works in their own rights, and the Six Épigraphes Antiques work as well in the concert hall as in the home .

It's a music appreciation cliché to identify Debussy as one of those composers for whom instrumentation and timbre are essential to the character and identity of a piece of music. This is trivially true for a lot of much. Anything well-written for horn, for example, is going to be so constricted by the playing-technical aspects of the instrument -- and more so, in the case of a natural horn -- that simply reassigning material from another instrument is seldom going to function, let alone thrive. In the best cases, like the case at hand, the transcription of a piece of music from one set of resources to another can be revelatory, and the revelations concern both the source and the medium of the arrangement.

With regard to the source, stage music for The Songs of Bilitis, the uniform timbre of the piano brings out aspect of contrasting pitch collections and pitch symmetry that continue to resonate in later music, particularly in the music of Bartok (an incubatory relationship between piano music and music for other instruments is shared by Debussy and Bartok). And with regard to the medium, in the Six Épigraphes, the composer decisively moves the piano back into the realm of percussion instruments (a move shared, albeit with alternative technical means, with the slightly later experiments of the teenaged Henry Cowell in California). But the aspect of percussion that Debussy grabs onto is not that of the noise maker or time marker, but of an ensemble character, one that he presumably recognized in his contacts with Flamenco or with the Gamelan Madenda he had heard and returned to hear at the World's Fair.* Playing the Six Épigraphes Antiques with a like-minded musician friend (you needn't be great pianists, just good musicians who can get around at the keyboard) is a delight on a par, in my book, with playing Javanese music.


* Contrary to another music appreciation-land fib, there is no material evidence -- in terms of instruments, scales, rhythms, or borrowed tunes -- of Debussy being "influenced" by the Gamelan Madenda. Instead, he responded enthusisatically to a music with which he recognized some substantial shared sensibilities, and those shared sensibilities lie more within the realm of ensemble and texture than in pitches or rhythms. AFAIC, Debussy's capacity to form such a recognition is amore than adequate demonstration of a unique musical personality. Why diminish it with unsubstantiated talk of "influence"?

My strangest meal

The '80s. Met La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela in Schoenberg Hall at UCLA, then drove them to Clifton's Cafeteria, where we joined the then-90-something Nicolas Slonimsky as guests of Prof. Robert Stevenson (pianist, composer, and musicologist; LY's teacher at UCLA, making Stevenson one of my grand-teachers). Clifton's was (and still is) a pay-by-the-portion buffet with a menu that has not changed substantially since the early 1960's. Meat. Gravy. Scalloped potatoes. Macaroni and cheese. Carrot salad with raisins. Navy bean soup. Saltine crackers, paired in cellophane packages. Choice of Lime or Raspberry JelloTM. Assembling meals to satisfy every member of this party was somewhat difficult, but Stevenson was a patient host and an experienced guide to the mysteries of Clifton's. He recommended the tapioca, I declined and err'd on the side of salads. Stevenson had some pointed questions about the current sexual politics of the composition world. I didn't know what to say. Slonimsky was in fine form and full of questions for LY, in preparation for the next edition of Baker's. He was especially interested in LY and MZs' schedule, based on a day with more than 24 hours, thus continuously moving out of phase with the solar day. As we left Clifton's before the 7:30 pm closing time, I had the feeling that ours was a party out of phase with rather more than just the solar day.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Five Pieces for Independence Day

Christian Wolff, Changing the System (revised version)
Charles E. Ives, Second Orchestral Set
Robert Ashley, Public Opinion Descends Upon The Demonstrators
Pauline Oliveros, Big Mother is Watching You
John Cage, Lecture on the Weather

De Profundis.

Here's a nice little item (Quicktime required) from my hometown that's either a parable about the banality of the quixotic or just another story about a guy digging a big hole in his front yard.


If you ever have the opportunity to hitchhike around Ireland, I can guarantee that you will inevitably have multiple encounters with circles of four to six grown men standing around holes in the ground. From one small town to the next, it's always the same. They won't move around, nor will they converse. They are having the time of their lives.


As a child, digging holes under the backyard laundry line had one of either two purposes: to make a shortcut to China, or to remove the temple at Abu Simbel, in order to make way for the Aswan Dam. (In the 60's, National Geographic ran a lot of features on Abu Simbel and the Aswan Dam). Never did reach China, but the flood plain did render the laundry line useless with some regularity.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Rock stars I have babysat

I've never come up with a good, compact answer for the neighbor or person across the aisle on the train who asks: "Oh, you're a composer. What kinds of songs do you write?" or "What's the name of your band?" If I try to explain a bit about The New Music, and my relationship to old music, I get a lot of blank stares, and often the advice to "write a hit, make a lot of money, and retire so you can make the esoteric stuff you do as a hobby." Even pointing out that a lot of film scores they know are filled with music that has something to do with The New Music does not usually do the trick.

I realize well enough that for most people, popular music is the default setting for music in general (when it's not the only setting). But for a variety of reasons, popular music has mostly been peripheral to my musical life* and the music in the center of my life just happens to do something very different than popular music, and I remain at a loss when I try to explain this. Any suggestions?


* Extended autobiographical footnote: My parents were both born in the Depression years, and neither of them had a relationship to rock and roll. Too young for big bands, too old for Elvis. Sure, we watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, but I recall that that was mostly to laugh about the haircuts. My mother had lps of musical comedies and some folkish things, my father had Cal Tjader's Latin Jazz concert (an impressive red disk, with "Nixon Go Home" on the cover), a couple of Martin Denny records, Jackie Gleason's Velvet Brass, and The Moldau, the Schoenberg Five Pieces for Orchestra backed with Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and (my favorite) the Montreaux recording of the Rite of Spring. He also had a couple of really amazing sound effects records. He'd show off his stereo and loudspeakers by letting a steam locomotive appear to cross our living room. Mr. Johnson, the band director at Serrano Jr. High, played quite a few records for us, and I was one of the few who paid any attention. His favorite, if I recall correctly, was Respighi's Pines of Rome. Otherwise, my school music classes were dominated by patriotic and christmas songs with a healthy smattering of Woody Guthrie. In sum, I had a respectable introduction to classical music from the first half of the twentieth century, and a smattering of things that just didn't happen to include rock and roll.

In High School, I did play for a brief time in a sort of a cover band, and learned to comp from lead sheets to accompany the chamber singers in pop concerts, but I was really faking it and did so without any stylistic competence whatsoever. I eventually landed the best summer job ever in working for Charles Chase at the Folk Music Center in Claremont, helping to organize his collection of instruments, and getting a good introduction to musical instrument repair, old left politics, and integrating art-making into everyday life. Mr. Chase's daughter Ellen was repairing instruments then, and I got along well with her three young sons, whom my girlfriend, and at least one time, I, babysat. Her oldest, Ben Harper, now owns the Folk Music Center, which Ellen manages, and has an impressive musical career. (At the moment, the whole city of Frankfurt is plastered with posters advertising a concert by Ben here in November). And in College, I was friends with about half of the band that became known as Camper Van Beethoven. I was even Jonathan Segel's RA, so I suppose that that's a kind of babysitting, too.

Sunday, July 02, 2006


It's possible to mark the transition from the musical renaissance to the early baroque with Monteverdi's invention of the genere concitato in the astonishing Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. While Monteverdi would subsequently reserve the concitato style to suggest battle and agitation, the style has had long-term resonance in repertoire independent of those associations, and in some very recent repertoire at that.

In the concitato style, tempi move in parallel: a slow, if not static, harmonic rhythm, a rapid instrumental figuration, and a vocal melody setting a text in a rhythm that is related to the delivery of natural , if formal, speech. It should be immediately clear that the same is going on in a lot of classic minimalism, too, and often in purely instrumental works. In The Well Tuned Piano, La Monte Young's chordal "clouds" are both rapidly rearticulated and extraordinarily slow, behaving quite literally like real clouds. In Alvin Lucier's Navigations for Strings, the notes played by the musicians in the string quartet are steady, slow, and sustained, but the resultant beats between small intervals gradually approaching a quartet unison, accelerate away from, and then slow down, returning to, a single tempo universe. In the ensemble works of Glass and Reich from around the turn of the seventies, a static background harmonic was rapidly re-articulated by instrumental and vocal figuration, but also by resultant and combination effects which cast a jagged edge upon an otherwise straight texture.

I want nothing less than to enter into a discussion of modernism and post-modernism, but will only note that as much as Monteverdi's concitato belonged to a transition from a self-consciously modern era, the Renaissance, to the post-modernity of the baroque that followed it, works of modern music which play on the same temporal ambiguities as the concitato definitely mark a similar change in sensibilities.

(On the other hand, this whole phenomenon may have a life independent of the course of Western musical history. I have noticed, for example, among Diné (Navajo) singers, that a melody which might be notated (should you want to notate it) in a simple rhythm of eighths and quarters was produced with a vocal technique which to my ears used a highly disciplined and rhythmic vibrato, made with regularity of the best drumming. I would not be altogether surprised to learn that the rhythm of that vibrato was in fact a substantial component of the music.)

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Mr. July

Composer and hardware hacker and/or bender Nicolas Collins is the subject of this month's feature interview over at the New Music Box. If you have the connection speed, do watch the videos -- Mr. Collins really talks, in real time, exactly like he writes.

(Definitely cool to have scooped the American Music Junta Center, on a topic.)

Orchestras: real, imaginary, and in-between

I went to two concerts at my son's school this week. The first with his school orchestra, composed of kids from the 5th through 7th grades, with an instrumentation pretty much like a middle school orchestra anywhere else on the planet, and the second by his class orchestra. The class orchestra is composed of the students in his homeroom class, and to accompany the music appreciation class, they form an orchestra with whatever instruments happen to be at hand. In this case, it meant five flutes, three soprano recorders, a clarinet, an alto sax, two trumpets, a trombone, two classical guitars, an electric bass, tympani, three Orff glockenspiels, a marimba, piano (four-handed), two electronic keyboards, two violins, two celli, and a contrabass. They played a set of pieces arranged from the Mendelssohn incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. On the one hand, this was something like the Scratch Orchestra playing popular classics, but on the other, the tutti and various sub-ensembles had such a distinctive and charming quality, that I left the hall half-tempted to write something substantial for a technically more accomplished ensemble with exactly the same instumentation.

While that particular temptation will probably remain a sin imagined rather than a sin committed, it can also be understood as a response to a fundamental irritation I have with the premise underlying the teaching and practice of orchestration. I really enjoyed Orchestration class as a college student, and I continue to be fascinated both by the history of orchestration and theories of orchestration. I enjoy finding colorful little details in Berlioz, Widor, Koechlin, Piston, or Stiller, but the premise of most orchestration texts (as well as the premise underlying most "effective" music for orchestra) is that (a) there are some optimal ways of distributing notes among instruments, that (b) these can be observed in the music of the composers recognized as good orchestrators*, and that (c) we can derive some rules-of-thumb based upon those observations. A lot of music has been orchestrated from this premise -- especially in film and the opera -- but isn't it striking that in a great part of that lot, the orchestration is scarcely noticeable as a feature? The problem with the premise is clearly that if you want to do something with instruments that will be heard as distinctive from routine music-making, then you are going to have to do something that is other than optimal, or done differently from the practice of good orchestrators, and/or violate or ignore some of those rules-of-thumb.


A friend just emailed me with a quote from the film director John Waters, defining beauty as "a look you'll never forget". What is the orchestration you'll never forget? Here are a few examples of orchestration that I happen to find beautiful: Monteverdi's use of the regal to accompany Charon in Orfeo, Vivaldi's use of solo winds in Tito Manlio, the scoring patterns for Mozart's quintets with two violas, and the basset horn writing in the Masonic music (including Zauberflöte), almost any inner-voice writing by Rossini, Schumann obstinately doubling the violins with flute in the Symphonies, Berlioz's Ophicleide in the Symphonie Fantastique (substituting a tuba doesn't have the same terrifying effect), Varese's ensemble in Hyperprism, practically any film score by Alex North (many of which were orchestrated by Henry Brant) or even some Bernard Hermann, and there are moments in Hawai'ian string band music, Martin Denney, Spike Jones, that I will never forget. Sometimes I think my personal compositional heaven would be a land where every orchestra had basset clarinets and horns, natural horns, ophicleidi, and gambas at the ready. (Satie: "With six trumpets you can do anything!") But as much as, if not more than, odd instrumental combinations, it's voicing and registration that can lead to more distinctive orchestrations. There are tutti in Beethoven and Stravinsky that are totally unmistakable, totally right, and yet from a theory of orchestration viewpoint, they do everything wrong: putting instruments into odd registers, crossing lines, doubling thirds etc.. Here's an ambition: to be able to orchestrate with access to every point in the continuum of between the "effective" orchestrations of Jackie Gleason's Velvet Brass and the anarchic orchestration of Cage's orchestral masterpiece Cheap Imitation.

As a couselor at a summer music camp, I once had a few orchestration lessons with John Prince, a Hollywood/Big Band arranger. He had charts and charts showing which chord and interval combinations "worked" for each instrument or combination. One was not, for example, supposed to assign a major third to trombones below Bb-d. It could well be that a step towards a good balance between musical maturity and adventure was taken when I realised that if I had my trombones play the A-c# major third, leaving the registered where the interval "worked", something interesting might just still happen. Not necessarily something that "worked" within the narrow definition of the musically effective found in the textbooks, but definitely something with potential to be useful in the right musical context. And I suspect that there's still plenty of original orchestration to be found in the continuum between the possibilities that we're told will "work" and those we're told to avoid.

* Isn't good orchestrator often a kind of consolation prize for technical achievement given to composers who are not-quite great composers?