Thursday, August 31, 2006

Please, not that.

Just heard the phrase emerging composers, and to be perfectly honest, I'd rather not encounter it again soon. From where are they supposed to be emerging? Under a rock, covered with slime, beating their chests at the first sign of light? From rows of petri dishes in the basement of some big School of Music or some big management agency? Or are they the inevitable if unpredictable output of a cellular automaton gone to town? And, most importantly, who's going to make sure that they're stuffed right back into that place before they start getting too comfortable around here?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


This sentence is the title of another blog item at Renewable Music

This sentence plays one prelude and two-fifths of a fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier each morning before breakfast. This sentence intends to create a distraction to keep the counterpoint teacher from discovering a pair of avoidable parallel fifths. This sentence can argue for hours about the optimal Abigaille in Nabucco, but secretly prefers to Nat King Cole to any opera singer. This sentence never managed to get into Britten, Schostakovich, or Henze, but has weak spots for Sibelius, Hovhaness, and Martin Denny. This sentence once knew a cellist who only used rosined fingers when disrobing a lover. This sentence wrote twelve-tone music in order to get a PhD but now writes tonal Broadway musicals and film scores under the pen name J. This sentence once signed in as "Mrs. Stockhausen" in a Amsterdam hotel. This sentence was written by a critic named K. who wants us to cut the crap and start talking about the piece K. wrote in 1974 in which K. invented the triplet. This sentence is angry because it was told that it would have to pay for a full-page ad in Fanfare if it wanted to end with a guaranteed ! This sentence used to play horn with the Xville Philharmonic, but lost the job after biting too late into an eclair, causing a split tone on the solo and spraying a mouthful of creme patisserie onto the flautists in front. This sentence just failed the instrumental auditions and has decided to become a conducting major. This sentence has never listened to a full work by Richard Wagner without the assistance of hallucinogenic drugs. (Like many parenthetical sentences, this sentence was plagiarized from Hugo Riemann and promptly discredited as overly-mathematical and insufficiently musical by a mob of angry Schenkerians). This sentence likes the music of Boulez and anything else requiring whips, chains, and large-curd cottage cheese. This sentence, like others in the neighborhood, thought at 19 that it had learned everything it would ever need to know, and had learned most of it from Tom Robbins. This sentence was smart and hid its parallel fifths next to the weapons of mass destruction. And this sentence is just happy to be hanging out at Renewable Music, getting read by you, and you, and the other one, yes, you, with the begonia in your lapel.


James Tenney was not really one of my composition teachers, but he did help me out a lot with one issue, and that was scale. At some point in my journeyman years, I realized that I was not going to be a composer who made a lot of very big pieces, long in duration or demanding of resources. At the time, I worried that this would be a signal of a lack of ambition or seriousness as a composer. When I told Tenney about my concern, he simply said: "Relax. As long as the scale fits the idea, you're never wrong." He was absolutely right, of course, and his own catalog has been a model for this.


The term "scale", when not refering to a collection of tones ordered by frequency, seems to enter music theory in Ann Arbor, Michican, with the composers of the ONCE group. Gordon Mumma used the term as part of the title of some pieces mentioned previously. But the definitive use of "scale" comes in Robert Ashley's Public Opinion Descends Upon the Demonstrators (1961), a piece realizeable in several scales, from the initimate (a handful of people in a living room) to the mass (from a large concert hall to a filled stadium to the entire population of a large urban area), with the duration and character of the score adjusted appropriately (the imitimate event last a couple of hours and the sounds are quiet and intimate, the large urban even has a short duration and is extremely loud, perhaps thermonuclear).

Saturday, August 26, 2006


Never to be forgotten: staying up, too late, in a snooker club in Scheveningen, in Den Haag, trying to play that (to us) mysterious game on those immense tables with the composers James Tenney, Clarence Barlow, and Tom Johnson. We never really figured out how the game was supposed to have been played, but the beer flowed and play we did, and Tenney in particular was game for the adventure, so long as one principle prevailed: once we had decided upon a rule, it had to be carried out no matter what the consequences.

Sad news has come that James Tenney has died. A composer for whom the concept and sound of a musical work were uniquely inseperable, he was devoted to and became himself a main branch in the American experimental tradition. His experimental approach was a model for me, and our shared interest in intonation was a point of connection. Though I knew of his work and had corresponded with him from the 1970's, I didn't really get to spend any time with him until the 1990's, and, ironically, in Europe: in Darmstadt, in Krems, in Frankfurt, and in Den Haag.

I was twice asked to write about Tenney's music, both times asked explicitly to explain his music and ideas to a non-American audience. Both times I failed. I think that many Americans, and Tenney and Tom Johnson in particular, posed a unique challenge to the European new music establishment, in that they made intellectually rigorous musics, but neither necessarily produced musical endproducts with surfaces that adhered to the cliches of modernism. Moreover, the total identification of the musical idea with the musical content, meant that these composers were willing to jetison any extraeneous traditional musical elements. In a sense, then, this was music that was "more modern" than their own "modern music".

I constantly come back to Tenney's music: the early tape pieces, the postcard pieces, Harmonium 2 for string trio, Bridge for two retuned pianos, four hands, Change for six retuned harps, Critical Band for ensemble, and ever ofter, the Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow. That piece executes one simple process -- 24 tones in a harmonic series, entering initially with the second partial playing once for every two beats of the fundamental, then the third every three beats, and so on, but shifting gradually so that the relationship is inverted by the end of the piece. Couldn't be more strict in construction, but the sounding result, when played from the piano roll Nancarrow punched himself, is an experience akin to hearing thunder for the first time. His mastery was one that found monuments in smaller forms, but always the right forms.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Doing the work

There's an interesting article at the New Yorker by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber about the solution to the Poincaré conjecture. It describes two fundamentally different views of being creative in mathematics - one in which reputation, career, competition, and institution-building play a role, or at least a driving force, and another in which the purity of the work itself is everything - a state of affairs that I recognized immediately in musical creation as well.

My sympathies are obvious: of the two principle actors in the story Nasar and Gruber have framed, both are mathematicians with historical stature, and the contribution of Shing-Tung Yau to the institutions of mathematics (both in the US and in China) and future productivity in the field through both his own work and the work of his protogés is remarkable. But it is Grigory Perelman, who has simply stood away from* all the intellectually uneccessary apparatus of the academic world, who comes across as a man with a unique dignity and a committment that is, in the end, aesthetic.

As I read the article, I recognized the same emotion in my reading as some years ago I witnessed the composers - of historical stature - Ligeti and Nancarrow on a stage together in Cologne. Nancarrow's rejection, no, refusal, no, nothing so violent, his preference not to play the role of the Great Composer was completely apparent as he sat reserved, almost laconic, next to the gregarious Ligeti: it's all about the music. If a question could be answered with yes or no, then for Nancarrow, yes or no sufficed, and if he disagreed, he disagreed rather than get caught up in the storm of Ligeti's flights. Let me be clear, I love the music of both men, and I probably do recognize in Ligeti my own nervous tendency to bubble over with my enthusiams, but that zenish, gelassenen, place where Nancarrow was was definitely where I would like to be.
*Is it perverse that I recognize the same dignity in Melville's Bartleby?

True One-Minute Stories for the End of August (2)

When asked by his Harvard students what he thought of the prepared piano, on the day after a concert in Cambridge by John Cage, Walter Piston said: "There must have been fifty cents in there."

Thursday, August 24, 2006

True One-Minute Stories for the End of August (1)

Once I came home from Junior High to find a group of people - including a local medium who also wrote a gossip column for the weekly paper, an retired Highway Patrolman, and a large and extravagant guy with a ragged plaid coat, wild hair, and the air of a committed career drinker - trying to get my father to invest in a machine invented by the big man, who was referred to as a "genus" and "the professor". The effectiveness of the as-yet-unfinished machine, secreted away in a garage that the cop had someplace in Pomona, was supposed to generate more energy than it output, and its use in separating salt from water and extracting gold from "other elements", was attested to by the medium who had touched the closed door of the garage, as she, not-yet-a-paid-investor, had not been allowed to see the prototype. The working principle, the inventor staged-whispered to us, was air pressure. After my father showed the unsuccessful sales team to the door, he sent me straight to the Britannica to read up on the laws of thermodynamics. The inventor and the retired cop were later jailed for the scheme, the medium continues to give readings from her living room in Montclair.

Should we be concerned?

The material health of New Music has never been robust, but vitality in other domains has - perhaps improbably - sustained musical innovation and experiment for generations. Despite my personal optimism, a decline in excitement made public over new combinations of sounds old and new with the capacity to challenge both sense and intellect seems impossible to ignore lately. Either there is something of a real trend now, or New Musicians are just plain doing a lousy job in communicating their excitement. Our little Newmusiconlineand has been next-to silent this summer. The bit of optimism I have comes mostly from a handful of independent musicians I've discovered online. While I think that there is some real blame to be laid at the tired institutions which continue to get the lion's share of material nourishment from the small trough from which we all forced to feed while programming ever more minor if more polished variations on the same old same old - I mean, seriously, who's actually going to come back from a Darmstadt or a Tanglewood this Fall with a thrilling and convincing story about "what I heard during my summer vacation and how it changed my life forever"* - there are now more ways of doing one's own work outside of an institutional context than ever, so blame can be spread around pretty well.

Okay, then, what have you heard lately that has changed your life?

* With all apologies to Rilke, I will just note that the greatest tragedy of my apprentice career as a composer was that the Burdocks Festival did not continue; a lesser tragedy was that the greatest controversy of the Darmstadt courses I attended concerned the combined lack of adequate ventilation and a seriously inept catering service, against that sensory foreground, the music was weak background radiation; at the same time, the greatest fortunes of those years was getting programmed at the Cabrillo Festival (back when they actually did experimental music) and by the Gesellschaft für Akustisches Lebenshilfe in Kiel.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Markus Trunk

I'm happy to play host to a recent score by Markus Trunk, his Böotische Riten, subtitled "the fragments of the Plataea Manuscript in a transcription for piano" (2005). A PDF file is available here.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

On the road

I'll be away for the next five days, with the family in Budapest. As the poet says: keep cool, but care.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Okay, I used the word "habermasian" in my last post. How many posts about the use of Chinese slang in Firefly will it take to make up for it?


John Holbo, a philosopher who blogs at Crooked Timber, writes:
Does it ever seem weird to you that Hegel and Hölderlin and Schelling were college roommates? Or, for that matter, that Hamann and Jacobi were housemates? The whole business strikes me as quite suspicious.
Friendships among composers have their own sociological interest. While some composers may group themselves for strategic or tactical reasons, the music biz being cutthroat at times, many friendships among composers simply represent good friendships, and can sometimes even overcome serious aesthetic differences.

In music history texts, you sometimes find artwork or photos with two or more contemporary composers gathered together. The fifteenth century seems to have been particular rich in friendships among musicians: to my ears, Josquin's Deploration on the death of Ockeghem is not just a tribute to an older master, but is musical evidence of a close friendship. Bach's relationship to Telemann, Schumann's to the young Brahms, Liszt to Wagner, Bartok to Kodaly: all are examples of relationships that were more than temporary tactical alliances.

Groups of composers can be analysed (as is sociological fashion) in terms of networks: of student/teacher relationship, of private liasons, of influence, mentoring and patronage, and even fissures or breaks in groupings can be interesting (try Cologne from ca 1952 -ca 1965). I've written before about networks of teachers -- if you study with A, you may only be able to do further study with B or C, or with D not at all... The colleagial "New York School" of the 1950's can be diagrammed with John Cage in the middle and with spokes out to Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff. A solid arrow goes from Feldman to Wolff, a shaky line from Feldman to Brown (with a firmer line returning to Feldman), reflecting a tenuous professional and personal relationship, and there is little or no direct connection from Brown to Wolff (they liked and admired one another, but just happened not to have been in much contact). There are further lines going out to Varese and Volpe, to Cage's older circle with Harrison and Cowell and perhaps Thomson, to younger colleagues in the Tone Roads group, or the Once group and, naturally, David Tudor plays a major role in making still more connections, especially to Europe. When the network is extended to Europe, one senses that tactical relationships start to play a more important role, indeed trying to re-cover the personal friendship between a Boulez and a Cage behind the damage trail of their broken professional relationship is all but impossible.

Once, at a festival celebrating John Cage's 75th birthday, I was invited to join a group of composers for lunch in advance of a panel discussion, in which they were to talk about "Cage's influence" or something like that. I think that the idea was that I could help them focus on a few topics around which they could frame their public discussion. The group -- which included Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, Alvin Lucier and Gordon Mumma -- was immediately a meeting of old friends, and at once so jovial and loquatious that my assistance was superfluous. In any case the privilege of seeing a group of composers together who enjoyed each others company, admired each others work and were curious about their current work and lives, without a single hint of competitiveness, was all mine, and has remained with me to this day.

It has been a particular joy in the past year-and-a-half of blogging to recognize something of a similar spirit in the small community of composing bloggers. What is most exciting for me has been to encounter and to learn about people with the same job title ("composer"), but have job descriptions that are entirely different from mine. I have learned a lot from one blogger who does mostly sacred vocal music and another who writes for film, some composers have much deeper connections to pop music than I (and even to music with commodity characteristics that prevent me from hearing it as music!), and I suppose that a lot of music that might make my landmarks list isn't even proper "music", for some of them. And that's okay with me. The point is that we've got some dialogue, it's civil and productive in practically Habermasian terms, and there's too damn little of this about these days. As far as I'm concerned, being civil and exchanging viewpoints about something in which we all have passionate but radically different viewpoints, is acting both responsibly and musically.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

A Small Prelude in Ab

Composes, conducts, knits, plays telephone

From an interview with Pierre Boulez in today's Der Spiegel:

SPEIGEL: On the other hand, are composers ideally always also conductors?
Boulez: For me, it's imperative. I experience this with my own pieces: I have knitted a jacket, and now I try to wear the jacket for the first time. It doesn't stay here, it doesn't fit there. Every time, I must confront the necessity of corrections. A "Pli Selon Pli" had to be reworked over decades, until I could finally finish it in 1988.
SPIEGEL: What is tradition?
Boulez: There's a game that we played as children: You sit at a table, the first whispers a sentence in the ear of his neighbor: "The hankerchief is in my pocket". The entence travels, from ear to ear, ever faster, and how does it go at the end? "The cat is eating chocolate". Tja. That's tradition - often only the inheritence of mannerisms. One is imitating gestures without understanding their spirit.

(My translation).

Saturday, August 12, 2006


A report about scientists transcribing seismic patterns into musical scores. I wonder if the researchers involved realize that they are, in part, following work by composer Gordon Mumma. Employed for a time in a research project engaged with the question of distinguishing seismographs of underground nuclear explosions from those of earthquakes, Mumma transcribed a number of these into a series of works for piano: Large Size Mograph 1962 (solo), Medium Size Mograph 1962 (any number of pianos and pianists), Very Small Size Mograph 1962 (piano any number of players), Medium Size Mograph 1963 (four-hands & cybersonic circuitry), Very Small Size Mograph 1963 (four-hands), Medium Size Mograph 1964 (four-hands).


From an untitled lecture by Heinz-Klaus Metzger in the current issue of MusikTexte (my translation):
There is no lack of theoretically-, even morally-based opinions, impressing upon us that art is, once and for all, communication. Therefore, stand in front of the high altar of the Cathedral in Toledo, or Malewitsch's Black Square, and ask yourself: who the hell is actually trying to communicate with whom? May I count myself to the historical remnant, the vanishing or already almost completely vanished minority of those who, in art, still find the reservation of the unsayable, the relic of those who strive to protect that which does not communicate?
The issue also includes a substantial amount of material about the composer Kaija Saariaho, interesting articles by Hechtle (Composing After Rihm and Spahlinger) and Mainka (Is there a Traditionless Music?) as well as the usual news and reviews. In German, of course.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Private Theorist

Here's a free dissertation topic for someone: the private theorist. Over the years, a number of theorists have developed their own comprehensive explaination of how music works or might work, and many of those have gone into teaching, hanging up their own shingles. Schenker, Schönberg (before his appointment to a chair in Berlin), and Hauer had private studios in Vienna. In the States, Joseph Schillinger and Leo Ornstein opened their own schools (the Schillinger House, in Boston, would become the Berklee School of Music, and the Ornstein School of Music, in Philadelphia, which closed with Ornstein's retirement in 1955; both schools were notably successful in training Jazz musicians). I myself learned about musical tuning systems at the dining table of independent theorist Erv Wilson in Los Angeles.

Now music theory often falls somewhere between revelation and snake oil, and the more convinced a theorist may be, the more likely his pronouncements are to sound like sales pitches for aforementioned snake oil*, but sometimes you have to work in the wilderness for a while before the establishment notices. Note only that while Schenker, for example, is standard academic fare nowadays, some of the establishment theorist of the not so distant past are now considered eccentric: McHose, anyone? In recent times, I don't find myself thinking about Schoenberg's or Schenker's theories much, I do think about Hauer's a bit, and I have found Wilson's can be used productively.

In the end, though, the proof is in the pieces: does a theory help you to understand a piece that you listen to, or want to perform, or does it help you to make new pieces?

* I'm not sure that it's entirely relevant, but I thought that I ought to mention that I was once given a sales pitch by Ornette Coleman - a composer with an idiosyncratic theory - for the Dick Gregory diet plan, and another theorist once tried to sign me up for the Bates Method, a course of exercise said to improve vision. Maybe the whole message of this post is actually that missionary zeal can often follow from musical zeal. Or maybe not. Maybe the message is this: musicians are just odd.

What about German composer-bloggers?

I don't know of any German composers who are blogging, and a search of Blogger for "Komponist" went empty. In part, this must be because Germans in general are latecomers to blogging, but also - and this is only a guess - the whole Feuilleton culture here raises expectations about writings from artists, with high value placed on serious pronouncements about anything. (You know: Dichter und Denker. Alles über Musik, Gott, und die Welt. Dem Wahren, Schönen, Guten. Etc..) A more casual form of writing, perhaps posing more questions than answers, like blogging, may just not fit easily into the old job description of Ein Kunstler.

Academic composers and blogging

Very few composers with blogs have institutional affiliations, and those academics who are blogging tend to be low-intensity.

While I happen to be fond of the present mix of composers holding forth online, I do have some curiousity about why so many of the famous composer-incubators maintain net silence. I get a lot of emails asking for recommendations for schools, and I can give some private or anecdotal information, but it seems to me that these places are missing some competitive opportunities in not better presenting their activities online. Is the activity in the breeding and training rooms really so intense that there's just no time for public small-, medium-, and largetalk? Is there fear by the untenured that risking a controversial viewpoint before an unknown audience can be a career-buster? Are they afraid of leaking to many tricks-of-the-trade, bon mots, or lecture-filling anecdotes? Or is that music faculties - traditionally among the most structually conservative departments of universities - are just slow to recognize value in the medium?

Addendum - I should have mentioned Roger Bourland's blog Red Black Window, the exception - a genuine tenured composition professor from a really big school with a lively blog - that proves the rule. There is also that blog by the composer-critic-musicologist- who-shall-not-be-named, so I won't.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Criticism: Caveat Lector

There's been quite a bit of discussion about criticism around online newmusicland of late. Two separate issues seem to have come to the forefront: what qualifications should a critic have? and can a reviewing journal demand some advertising in return for placing a review?

The first question is easily answered: Anyone with ears, an opinion, and an ability to make the case for that opinion can be a critic. A critic doesn't need a PhD or any other degree in music, and as much as it might help, doesn't need to be a performing musician. It's all the same if the judgement of the critic is good, bad, or indifferent, the important thing is to present some sign that the critic's gray matter jello is wiggling, if not actually alive and warm. It's nice, but not neccessary to encounter a critical voice with an apparent passion for one music or another. And caveat lector: readers have got to learn to follow descriptions and arguments closely enough to separate BS* from the plausibly factual, and to decide if the argument supports the conclusion well. In other words, in order to read a piece of criticism, you have to read critically.** Basta.

The second question should be answered with no. The decision to review a concert or a recording or not to review it is the first, and most critical, editorial decision (remember: good, bad, or indifferent, all publicity can be spun as good publicity and is better than none at all). Knowing what is now known about Fanfare's lack of a firewall between advertising and editorial departments, and despite the frequent high quality of the writing, it has to be discounted as a source of reliable information. As long as placing ads can guarantee a review, editorial judgement will have to be questioned. While I suspect that reviews of recordings will soon move to non-print media, printed reviews ought to be in journals that either refuse advertising for recordings, or any advertising at all (a model might be Cook's Illustrated, which has no advertising, in order to protect the integrity of their reviews of food products and cooking tools).
* Yes, Virginia, there are some critics who have not actually attended concerts or listened to recordings before writing a review, sometimes easily retrievable background information gets screwed up, and sometimes a reviewer is just in a nasty mood.
** In my limited experience with teaching American undergrads in a survey course, this was a difficult concept to get across. When asked to express their opinion about a concert, many didn't understand that I had no vital interest in their opinion, but rather in how well they expressed it, how they arrived at it, and how well they were able to assimilate the technical terms and ideas taught in the course.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Sesquialtera, or Philomathes Beats His Brains About

The Fredösphere notes the resemblance between the title music in Bernard Hermann's score to North by Northwest* and parts of Philip Glass's score to Koyaanisqatsi. A key point of resemblance is the alternation between measures in 6/8 and 3/4 metres sharing a common duration and basic pulse, creating a propulsive effect which features in a lot of other music -- familiar examples are to be found in Bernstein, John Adams and many others. In much early music a similar propulsive effective occurs between sections of a piece, also in the 3:2 proportion, or sesquialtera, three and two subdividing a common larger unit but not necessarily sharing a common pulse, so, for example, a measure of two halves will have the same duration as a measure with three halves in the neighboring section. As a matter of course there are more complex examples of such modulation in both old and new music**. Here's the master himself, Thomas Morley (from A Plain & Easy Introduction to Practical Music), with a list of proportions that probably includes all of those within a practical limit of accurate human performance:

Philomathes. Come then to Sesquialtera, what is it?
Master. It is when three notes are sung to two of the same kind, and is known by a number containing another once, and his half 3/2 6/4 9/6 the example of this you shall have amongst the others. Sesquitertia is when four notes are sung to three of the same kind, and is known by a number set before him, containing another once, and his third part thus. 4/3 8/6 12/9 And these shall suffice at this time: for knowing these, the rest are easily learned. But if a man would engulf himself to learn to sing, and set down all them which Franchinus Gafurius hath set down in his book De proportionibus musicis, he should find it a matter not only hard, but almost impossible. But if you think you would be curious in proportions, and exercise yourself in them at your leisure. Here is a Table where you may learn them at full.
A table containing all the usual proportions.

As for the use of this Table, when you would know what proportion any one number hath to another, find out the two numbers in the Table, then look upward to the triangle enclosing those numbers, and in the angle of concourse, that is, where your two lines meet together, there is the proportion of your two numbers written: as for example, let your two numbers be 18 and 24. Look upward, and in the top of the triangle covering the two lines which enclose those numbers, yon find written sesquitertia, so likewise 24. and 42. you find in the Angle of concourse written super tripartiens quartas, and so of others.
Phi. Here is a Table indeed containing more than ever I mean to beat my brains about.
Aha! The modulation between 3/4 and 6/8 is a proportion sesquialtera (and if we read further in Morley) between tempus perfectum, prolation imperfect and tempus inperfectum, prolation imperfect.

* Hermann, a marvelously uneven composer might just be the most important unadmitted (becaused he's academically unadmitable) influence on younger composers. In addition to his scores, he should be well remembered for his championship of the music of Charles Ives. The other film composer I always find interesting is Alex North.
** You know all the usual suspects.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Landmarks (15)

Henry Purcell: Fantazias and In Nomines (ca. 1680) for viol consort. Written when the composer was only around 22, these pieces demonstrate a complete internalization of tradition, particularly of Elizabethan vocal polyphony, but they look ahead at all points. Purcell was able to take a small number of ideas, motives if you like, and string them into a tight but continuously refreshed network. With only a couple of variation techniques -- simple transposition and inversion -- his focus was on the juxtaposition and succession of those ideas, so that each of the lines has its own contour, yet the genetic resemblance is ever present. This is music that looks ahead to later, invertible, counterpoint, yet is paradoxically both more primitive, in its tonal wanderings, and more supple in its combinational virtuosity.

Purcell was not the inventor of the viol consort and its (can I say it?) ravishing sound, but the Fantazias are a substantial part of the viol repertoire, and the progressive character of these pieces is suggestive of one of those future paths that music history happens not to have followed. (The historical viol consort effectively ends with Purcell, although the bass viol and its variants were still to have their day as solo and continuo bass instruments). But AFAIC, the potential of the viol consort to play a role in another new music is far from exhausted.

(It is cheating a bit to take all of the Fantazias and the In Nomines, but - aside from a bit more admiration for the compositional skill shown by the three-voice Fantazias - choosing among the collection is impossible. The list-maker here is also the rule-maker, so all of them may stay.)

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Playing Favorites

Consider the orchestra as an assemblage of musicians from different guilds. Strings came from the quiet, indoor music, woodwinds from outdoor bands. The horn came into the orchestra from the hunt, the trumpet from the court and military, the trombone from the sacred Posaunen Chor. Although the instruments have now been playing together for a good long time, their individual orgins have not been erased, and these identities even continue to be associated with their "home" tonalities. The trumpet's D was as regal and celebratory a key for Handel and Mozart, as for Stravinsky or Britten, and Eb/Bb remain the favored keys for Waldmusik. C is always white-key bland, and sharp keys are generally considered to be "bright" while flat keys are "mellow".

These identities were not usually a function of absolute pitch height, which has gone up and down by wide margins over the years (in modern orchestras the tendency these days is to go up -- A 442, 443, or 445, while early music and pop music bands tend to go downward (a lot of early music and heavy metal can be heard around A 415 (a half-step below A 440)). But these key identities were often reflected in well temperaments, in which keys with fewer sharps or flats were smoother and sharp and flat keys were tempered differently.

With the establishment of twelve-tone equal temperament, the invention of mechanisms to maintain that tuning, and at least a century of repertoire in which transposition without change in real interval sizes was freely available, pitch and key identities ought to have lost much of their distinctiveness. But that's just not the case; these identities still carry substantial weight in musical thinking. Josef Straus's fine book on late Stravinsky is persuasive that particular pitches carried extra-musical significance for the composer. Arguably, these identities can be found in work from Britten to Nono, and from Stockhausen to Feldman or Reich.

In part these associations are a technical artifact (fingering a key with more sharps or flats will usually be more difficult than one with fewer sharp or flats), in part a psychological artifact (reading a score will be more difficult if there is more black matter on the page). Sometimes they are acoustical artifacts -- the c#'' on the old San Francisco Broadwood in my parent's living room had a character and a resonance that I will never forget. That c#'', on that piano, in that room, can be found again'n'again in the deep memory of many of my pieces. I suspect that most of my colleagues have their own repertoires of favorite notes or sounds gathered similarly from memory, artifact, association; not having them would be like jetisoning a part of yourself.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Fake Counterpoint

There's a term, "fake counterpoint", that I believe I picked up from Douglas Leedy, and recently noticed in a blog item by composer Paul Bailey. When I use the term, I refer to an ensemble texture that appears, initially, to be composed of multiple, differentiated, lines, but on closer inspection turns out to be a single line distributed onto an ensemble via doublings, octave doublings, simultaneous variations, and sometimes slight delays or "Japanese canons"*, loosely creating an illusion of "real counterpoint". It's something that's clearly related to ensemble practice in much non-classical music** (the opening to Renard imitates such a texture). I find "fake counterpoint" to be particularly useful in my own music, as a texture of its own, and as one intermediate to a single melody and an ensemble of different melodies.

Can anyone out there can help me locate the origins of the term?

*Henry Cowell's term, picked up by Cage and Harrison and their students, derived from the Hichirichi playing in the introductory, Netori section of some Gagaku repertoire in which the instruments are loosely alligned and can move ahead or behind one another.
**In school, you might have encountered the term "heterophonic",and it may or may not have been correctly applied. In systematic musicology, ensemble textures are described quantitatively as monophonic or polyphonic, and the individual lines in an ensemble are characterized as similar ("homophonic") or differentiated ("heterophonic"). These descriptions necessarily represent continua, and real musics have relative, not absolute positions in them.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

A Narrow Canon

Teaching music history must be an impossible task. There's so much of it, and there's never enough time to do it justice in breadth or depth. The best one can do, I suppose, is point out some landmarks, assign and recommend a lot of extra reading and listening, and help students aquire a few tools with which they can get a hold on unfamiliar music on their own when they leave school.

Out of curiosity, I did an online search for +"music history" +curriculum to get some sense of how college and University music teachers are dealing with the impossible. I looked especially at one semester courses in which the task was presumably even more than impossible. There were not many surprises. The unqualified term "music history" meant western music, and that meant Gregorian chant followed by mostly German and Viennese music (Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, Brahms). France usually appears (if at all) in the persons of Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique) and Debussy (that Faune again), while Italy is represented by Monteverdi in one course, in another by Vivaldi, and Verdi in the few in which operas were mentioned (from what I could tell, Wagner was usually represented by the Vorspiel to Tristan). No Russians appeared except Stravinsky, who was represented inevitably by Le Sacre. Smetana's Moldau and Dvorak's New World sometimes appeared. Schönberg got some attention (the Five Pieces for Orchestra or Pierrot, and A Survivor from Warsaw). American music, when there was time, was Ives, Copland, and Bernstein. Few courses got as far as the second half of the 20th century, but several threw in one or two lessons on "Jazz", which strikes me as drastically simplifying if not breaking the narrative to the disadvantage of both African-American music and the European tradition.

I wonder what can be done to both save some sense of a narrative and to do more than breeze through a very narrow canon. The difficulty is clearly one of our position in the narrative, in that never before has it been possible, let alone expected, that one have a sense of such a long and varied repertoire, and the very large dimensions of that repertoire are forcing us into a highly selective music-historical memory that is analogous to that which musicians of earlier generations came to naturally. The narrative is not that of the musics that had been, in their historical sequence, but the music that one knew, in the sequence in which one encountered them. Mozart and Mendelssohn both discovered Bach archaeologically, as a composer whose relationship to contemporary practice had been radically severed. The music they knew best was of their own generation and the generation of their parents, and it was a music with a strongly limited geographical reach. But it was a coherent repertoire with which they had such an intimacy with devices, conventions, and styles that it is very difficult for us to even imagine it. (On the other hand, the Webern that influenced La Monte Young, or Steve Reich, or even Stravinsky, was the Webern from the Robert Craft recordings, an odd and wonderful leap of musical practice in both time and place).

At the moment, I can recognize three alternatives. The first is to teach smaller repertoires in greater depth. Teach a period, or a century, or a nation, or just the career of a single composer, or even the music that a Bach or Mozart wrote in a single town over a few year's time. The second is to leave the notion of a repertoire to the side and concentrate on musical materials, techniques, and listening skills with which any music might be apprehended. And the third, I'll call the Europera alternative, after Cage's late operas, in which the music was assembled from the jetsam of the European operatic repertoire (hence the title, "your operas"). This requires getting over the notion that coming to musical repertoire in an historically and geographically unordered way is either unusual or intrinsically problematic, and focusing instead on the possibility that surprising juxtapositions of music can be intellectually and musically productive. Such a non-narrative, indeed anarchic, approach will probably not sit easily in any institutional context, but given the present difficulties institutions have with treating the subject with more traditional approaches, I cannot recognize any intrinsic intellectual difficulty with the idea.*

* There is one alternative I have omitted, and that is the approach of the experienced musician who can stand before a group of students and tell a story about the course of music history as he or she has personally understood or experienced it. Grosvenor Cooper (famous as one half of the team that brought us The Rhythmic Structure of Music), for example, was legendary for both his story telling and his ability to summon up, from memory, illustrations on the piano of whatever he needed.


Moday evening, after dinner with friends at a local Italian restaurant, some of our party treated themselves to Sambucco, served in the usual fashion: with a couple of coffee beans floating in the flaming anise-flavored liquor. The flames toast the beans a bit and add just a bit of coffee taste to the drink. That added bit was an ornament -- foreign to the underlying form, but still an elegant accent, and one that I'd regret leaving out, even if I'd be hard pressed to explain why it should be essential.

Exclusion of ornament became, in the 20th century, a central emblem of modernity in all the arts. Economy of means, and an absolute identification of form with function became virtues. In music, erasing the distinction between surface feature and deep structure, and being able to account for every single detail became important to composers as well as to those analyzing the music of the past (Schenker would absorb details of surface into a series of Matryoshka dolls containing ever deeper layers of melodic diminutions; Schoenberg would absorb melodic passing tones into the harmony, so that each vertical structure could be duly named and reproduced.) Such analysis was duly associated with notions of value.

In being able to explain away every ornament, each detail, what has been gained and what has been lost? And what about the music that resists that encompassing and economizing impulse to identify, catalog, and explain all? Is it necessary to evaluate or to compare music which is illuminated by the analytic impulse with music which is not?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Apropos of nothing, here are a few answers to actual questions culled from my inbox:

Are you the Daniel Wolf who arranged ... (something) ... for guitar?

No. At least not yet. What's it worth to you?

What's your favorite band?

Spot 1019.

Your favorite sport?

Either Croquet or Mumblety Peg. (Really: I am presently typing one-handed due to a recent meeting between a croquet mallet, a croquet corner flagpost, and my left hand.)(Really.)

Your favorite game?

Poker or Liverpool Rummy.

What your favorite line from a movie?

"Look at 'em: ordinary fucking people, I hate 'em." (10 points to everyone who can name that film.)

Why do you live in Frankfurt?

One thing led to another.

With your surname, you must be German?

No. My father was born a Hays, his father died in an auto accident, and he was adopted by his step-father, Mr. Wolf. Aside from one Dutch grandfather, the rest of the family is either Irish or a predominently Anglo-Irish mix. And as for confession, there are Catholics, Unitarians, Dutch Reformed, Mormons (briefly), Presbyterians, Anglicans, Home-churchers, Puritans, Methodists, and Freethinkers.

Where would you prefer to live?

West Cork. Morro Bay. Naxos.

What herbs go into Frankfurter Griesoß?

Sorrel, borrage, chives, pimpernel, chervil, and any two of the following: watercress, dill, lemon melissa, parsley.

If you were drinking, what would you be drinking?

Wild Turkey or Laphraoig. Talisker if you're pouring. Straight.

What music do you envy most?

At the moment: the Mozart G minor Quintet, the Javanese Gadhung Mlathi, and John Cage's Cheap Imitation.

What should every schoolboy know?

No incest, folk-dancing, or buying into gap openings. In ordinary four-voice voice leading, a complete seventh chord cannot be following by a second complete seventh chord. A map is not the territory named. Every language has the same potential to express a given content, and that business about n Eskimo words for snow is bunk. Hot wok, cold oil. Marry a wealthy woman. It's impossible to live in Germany without access to a power drill. Keep your kitchen knives sharp. Facility with bicycle repair is useful. A french horn player need never be lonely. If it's not smoking, then using a y-connector is okay.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Karl Kohn

Congratulations to composer Karl Kohn* on his 80th birthday. Kohn is a fine pianist and, with his wife Margaret Kohn, a virtuoso duo-pianist with an astonishing repertoire (Debussy, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Boulez, Reich, Ligeti). Although I've known pieces by Kohn for almost 30 years, his compositions have always been rather mysterious to me. He doesn't leave many tracks through which one might reconstruct the composing process, and his style has never been one that is easy to identify with a going fashion. It's not tonal music, nor does it appear to be systematically atonal, but there are elements of contour and metric drive that speak from an intimate association with tradition (Kohn was born in Vienna, and is perhaps the youngest of the composers who can readily be identified with the great emmigration). For all that attachment to European tradition, I believe that one can also detect a growing presence of California Deserta in Kohn's most recent music, a presence which I value highly.

* It should probably be duly noted that early in his long tenure at Pomona College, Kohn was visited by the young composer Frank Zappa (like Zappa, I lived on the San Bernadino County side of the border to Los Angeles County). Without ever worrying about institution affiliations, it can be fairly said that Kohn became Zappa's only formal composition teacher.