Monday, September 25, 2006

You broke it, you own it

Henry Farell of Crooked Timber, in a review of a new book by Tyler Cowan, asks a rich question:

...if a significant number of people value art not only as passive consumers, but also because they can remix and reuse that art in novel and unexpected ways, should public funding of art be conditioned, say, on this art being released under a Creative-Commons type license where possible?
The more that one considers the knot that is identifying artistic work as intellectual property, the idea of a (when not the) public domain, and the question of whether patronage inevitably leads to ownership, the more one realizes what a total mess of a knot we're in, the kind of knot with a level of complexity that my four-year-old daughter typically creates with shoelaces.

I've completed a number of pieces with my own resources, on my own time, and satisfying no demands other than those of my own curiosity. This is work in which external patronage, whether private or state, has not played, does not play, and probably will never play a role. My investment in these pieces is one of time, musical and intellectual energy, and emotion. My attachment to these pieces is a private and emotional one. And yet, the premise of existing legal and economic frameworks is that the work belongs to the public, which may ultimately use, reuse, mix, and abuse it as it sees fit, and my custody over the work is both temporary and limited. My alternatives are to either assert a temporary claim to the work, in the form of ordinary copyright, or explicitly give up that claim, letting the public have more immediate and flexible access, through claiming a Creative Commons or copyleft-style status.

This is a profoundly unsatisfactory situation, especially in that it does not distinguish between properties which are real consumer goods with real market values and work that simply doesn't want to play that game. I believe that there is a fundamental difference between controlling the trademark on Ricky Rodent (or any other negotiable property) and say, La Monte Young's wish to controll the way in which his music is played and presented. The present environment appears to give the corporate owners of the cartoon rat more consideration that they do a living composer's wish to make his own music in the way he wants it. How do we stop having to play this game?

Sunday, September 24, 2006


Computer notation programs are now so obiquitous, that it's easy to forget how the work was done before we had these machines. Courtesy of Henle Editions, the most traditional of the traditional German music publishers, is a must-see video (WMV format) featuring one of the last virtuoso Notenstecher (music engraver) at work, scratching and hammering a metal plate in preparation for printing. Virtuosity here means eight hours work for a single page of music. This video, which I heard about via the Finale Users's list, is something I'd show to everyone studying music, if only to restore a little wonder about something we tend to take for granted.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


Orchestrators -- a set including but not limited to composers -- fall into three broad groups. There are members of each who orchestrate wonderfully and inventively, but they do tend to hold ideas about their craft that are incompatible with the ideas of their colleagues in other confessions. The three groups are

(1) The well-trained, who go by the textbook definitions of range, register, combinations, scoring patterns and devices.

(2) The idealists, who will write the sounds they want to hear, regardless of what the textbooks say, and expect the players to come up with ways to realise those sounds.

(3) The optimizers, who are not so interested in extremes as in using resources optimally. When Morton Feldman was composing a score for the Brandeis Chamber Choir, he asked Alvin Lucier about the range of the choir. Lucier responded with a list of extremes, which Feldman rejected. "What's the range?" he asked again, wanting to know not the possible ranges but instead the ranges in which each singer sounded at their best.

My own sympathies are with the idealists and optimizers, but they work at the peril of ever having a well-trained orchestrator judge their work. A well-trained orchestrator will condemn the optimizer for conservatism, and the idealist for impracticality. I once witnessed a well-trained orchestrator who rejected a score (I believe by Henze) for having a low double-B natural in the contrabass. His critique was that the composer was another one of those impractical idealists, asking for the impossible. The textbooks, after all, say that the bass goes down to E, and sometimes to C. Too bad that the well-trained orchestrator had never heard the Berlin Philharmonic live, with their full set of five-string tuned-in-fourths-down-to-B contrabasses!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Landmarks (18)

Christian Wolff: Burdocks (1970-71) for one or more groups of five or more players.

Burdocks is not a through-composed score but rather a collection of ten parts or pieces from which an ensemble performance can be assembled. The individual pieces are each quite different in character from one another. In part, they summarize a body of techniques that Wolff had investigated over many years, but some new ideas were added as well, chief among them the suggestion of possible solutions to questions of ensemble performance in a cooperative, non-authoritarian environment. Conventional staff notation is minimal here. Some pieces have quite elaborate graphic scores, some mix text instructions and graphics, some are primarily text, and one piece consists of the single word "flying", without further interpretive guidance. Wolff's series of scores in which continuity and simultaneity are derived from a variety of cuing techniques between ensemble members and with environmental awareness receives a provisional summation in Burdocks and, slightly later, in Changing the System (1972-73), in which the social dimension of the cuing process aquires an explicit political element.

Burdocks is orchestral but not symphonic; it is written for a community of musicians, but not one that has come together in a particular configuration to submit to agreed authority, as is required by the symphonic tradition. Wolff has described Burdocks as a "messy" piece (he named the piece for a weed, after all) and has also said that he had the image of the Scratch Orchestra in mind, before ever having heard the group. I have been involved three times in performances of Burdocks and have found that both the communal and anarchic potentials of the score play themselves out in unexpected ways through the rehearsal and performance process. Each time, I was left with the distinct impression that I had become a better musician, and perhaps, a somewhat better person.


Over at the website of the American Music Junta Center, Dennis Báthory-Kitsz has done a survey of composers on the subject of productivity, as part of his "We Are All Mozart" project.

Readers of this page know that I am not shy of terminology borrowed -- and often quite loosely -- from the dismal science, but in this case I'm rather uncertain about the importance of production in a gift economy, like that of new music.

In general, the exchanges involving works of music in our community are of such modest monetary value that even a description in the most micro of microeconomic terms would be an exaggeration. But the exchanges we make must have real value by some other measure, or we surely wouldn't be bothered with the enterprise, let alone engage in it with such passion. A more useful description might rather be in terms of an exchange of gifts, with any accompanying exchange of money a matter of incidental if not random noise. But it's difficult for me to imagine that the value of a gift can be meaningfully or consistantly related to a level of productivity.

Moreover, if I am reading Báthory-Kitsz's article correctly, the implication is that high productivity in music has value in itself. It's far from clear to me that this should be so. Indeed, it is precisely because I can hear new music as an opportunity - when not an imperative - for resistance to the prevailing musical culture (as well as the larger culture around that music) that I have to reject a simple attachment of music-making to the prevailing work ethic.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


The term aggregate is used in two ways by musicians.

The first, associated with Cage and Harrison, but probably coming from Cowell and Seeger, indicates an ensemble or complex of tones, articulated together. In Cage's music, the complex tones of the prepared piano lead directly - and explicitly so in the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra - to the use of collections, or gamuts, including combinations of single tones, aggregates, noises, and silences. A melody may then be composed not only of a single tones, but of a succession of events including single tones, aggregates, noises, and silences. (Christian Wolff has written about this best, and applied the ideas consequently in his own music).

The second usage, associated with Babbitt, indicates the consumption, horizontally and/or vertically, of complete sets of all of the pitch classes in the temperament. In Babbitt's music, this number is inevitably 12, although some relatively recent techniques for creating arrays of aggregates have introduced the possibility of so-called weighted aggregates, in which successive or simultaneous sets of 12 tones are deficient by at least one pitch class and, consequently, redundant by at least one pitch class.

The two usages are markers of fundamentally different ideas about how a musical universe is put together, as well as different ideas about the identity of the elements that make up that universe. In the Babbitt-style usage, all elements are "notes", sharing all properties and potentiality except for pitch, and aggregates measure successive exhaustions of the supply. The fundamental issues in this music are determining which aggregate should follow another, and making a case for that determination through through the way in which the successions are articulated. In the Cagian usage, aggregates are themselves elements in the gamut of a piece, and sets of elements do not necessarily share any properties such that exhaustion of a set would have any particular significance.

(There is, incidentally, some middle ground in this terminological field, in Stravinsky's "verticals" - in which simultaneously played rotations of row segments fan out from the unisons found on the diagonal of a row matrix -, for example, or in the "chord multiplication" technique associated with Boulez. The latter, of course, knew the aggregate idea directly from his exchanges with Cage, and there is some resemblance between chord multiplication and the aggregate techniques of Cage found in Winter Music, the vituosic piano and violin Etudes, and in the "Number" pieces for keyboards, the use of lists of possible chords. However accidental, there is also a certain aural affinity between late Stravinsky and the music of Cage in the late 1940's and early 1950's.)

Whither concert?

Most of my colleagues seem to be using the word "show" instead of "concert" these days. Hope you can come to my show on Thursday. Doing a show next week at Red Hat. Did a show with Ensemble Modern in Cologne. I suppose it came from playing in clubs and other non-traditional concert halls (in popular music, the word "concert" dates, apparently, as very 1970's/AOR), but it's definitely crossed over into use for regular concert halls. Personally, I can't bring myself to making the substitution. I'm not embarassed about the word concert, and "show" makes me think immediately of "hey, kids, let's put on a..." which is fingernails on a blackboard for my ears.

But is persisting with the use of the word "concert" elitist, or just quaintly retrograde? I dunno, but I do know this: My father used to define an intellectual as someone who could hear the William Tell Overture and not think of The Lone Ranger. Nowadays, anyone who can hear the William Tell Overture and think of The Lone Ranger is either aged or a postmodernist. Personally, I hear the William Tell Overture and think of Doodles Weaver. Elitism or just the product of a liberal education?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Looking back at the future

In the twentieth century, one couldn't avoid the notion that things were moving forward, optimistically improving upon all that had gone before, even when going forward meant taking a few cautious steps backward (small is beautiful, food is better when slow, and even music can be renewed). But our present century has begun with a deep pessimism: supplies of vital resources have peaked, technological fixes might not come soon enough, the rational is competing with unthinking fundamentalism, and there is great uncertainty about a world where theocratic and billion-strong nationalist states are emerging as unavoidable forces. How much of the present conservatism in music has been composed over this pessimistic background?

Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn aptly named the Varese-volume of their MusikKonzepte series Varese: A Look Back at the Future. They were spot on; the future in Varese's music has become a nostalgic one, with non-trivial connections to now-tired utopian visions ranging from the futurists to marxists. The most currently pervasive utopian visions -- whether of a new caliphate or a networked pax (corporate) Americana or the China that gets rich before it gets old -- don't seem to be inspiring much in the way of the new in new music. (I can't help but think of the title of that late Nono piece: La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura.)

It's a bit shocking to consider the possibility that some of the "most modern" music ever composed was composed in the 1920s and '30s. The cool serial and indeterminant works of the 1950's, dressed up in a flat international style, are often honest about their mysticism. Certainly so in Messiaen, Goeyvaerts, Stockhausen, but Cage's appeals to Eastern thought, Nono's to Marx, and even Babbitt's positivism each have mystical qualities of their own (isn't there an element of the mystical in the notions of projecting and hearing a set class or an agggregate?). The divisions of those years -- sacred/meditative, social/political, quasi-scientific -- continued to inflect music in the next generations.

Varese's, like the futurists, dipped constantly in the reserves of the romance of modern science and technology. Consider just his titles: Hyperprism, Ionization, Density 21.5. Varese's music combined great gestures stripped of their expressive referents, alongside suggestions of mechanical rhythms, but static and dynamic, and the continuous functions of portamenti, sirens, and the Ondes Martenot. But the futurists, like Varese, were also primitivists. While this is a trope shared with the Stravinsky of Le Sacre or Antheil's Ballet Mechanique or Revueltas' Sensamaya, the balance between these two elements defines almost all of Varese's music. (There is after all, nothing both more primitive and more modern than the rhythms of a machine.) From the Ondes Martenot-accompanied Popul Vuh text in Equatorial to the ethnological recordings interrupting Poeme Electronique, Varese was completely at ease in such juxtapositions. (Xenakis, too, would find a distinct balance between his most calculated or abstract materials and material that connects directly to his own folk music culture).

Varese's personality is the one among major 20th century composers that is most difficult to approach. The music has traces of his fury and his sensitivity; he was as attached to early, particular vocal, music as to the ultra-modern, and his own achievement was one mostly for winds and percussion; the small number of scores and their broken chronology are marks of a complicated psychology. What are we to make of the anti-semitism that turns up in his letters? Connecting to Varese and to his music becomes increasingly difficult, as difficult as it is to connect to the now-aged vision of the future his music everywhere expresses.

(These remarks are due to the chance juxtaposition, on my desk, of a summary of the recent, controversial, speech in Augsburg by the Bishop of Rome, and a copy of the score to Hyperprism).

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Putting it online

Here's a small list of contemporary composers who are putting a substantial number of their scores online. Many composers have samples of scores online, I've only listed those with complete scores for free downloading. Please let me know of more addresses to add (djwolf AT online DOT de).

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz
David Feldman (Postscript)
Daniel Goode
John Greschak
Jeff Harrington
Larry Polansky
Larry Polansky's collection of Rounds

Here are some historical collections:

Mildred Couper
Leo Ornstein

Here are some favorite scores by colleagues that I've put online:

Douglas Leedy, Piano Sonata 1994, Watergate Rounds
Markus Trunk, Boötische Riten

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Future of Sheet Music Publishing

As a student, I received a lot of advice about publishing sheet music. Funny thing was, none of those teachers giving me advice, all of it traditional (i.e. write your scores on ozalids, use sizes of paper other than letter or legal, do not photocopy, write a good cover letter), were conventionally published themselves. Already by the early 1980's, things had clearly changed in the music publishing world*, and no one on the composers' side of things seemed to be talking about it directly. The historical importance of publishing was clear -- publishers had helped composers secure their rights and the income from those rights, they produced useable (and sometimes beautiful) editions of the music, they dealt with all the details of getting materials here and there and back again, and, not least, they promoted the works in their catalogs. But are publishers still providing these services? And if so, are traditional publishers now the optimal providers of these services?

First some anecdotes:

About ten years ago, I joined a composer friend (whom we'll call C.)for a few hours at the Musik Messe (Music Trade Fair) in Frankfurt. C. publishes his own music, and he had hired space at the Fair to promote his scores to presenters and retailers. At that time, C's evening-length comic opera, in German, was in the middle of extremely successful parallel runs at a number of opera houses throughout Germany. I watched that afternoon, in astonishment, as one big music publisher's rep. after another sauntered over to the table and offered to "publish" his opera. What exactly were they offering? They weren't offering to typset the score, as the existing score had proved sufficient for performing. They weren't really offering to promote the piece, which, as one representative put it, was both a guaranteed audience draw and so easily presented on a limited budget that it "really sold itself". What they were offering to do was manage the rentals of the materials (all of which C. had prepared by her/himself), in return for half the royalties.

More recently, another composer friend ("D.") took a moment to show me a recent statement from her/his publisher. The balance of the statement was a negative number; it turns out that the publisher was billing the composer, D., for making corrections so that the score would fit the "house style" of formatting. The composer was not being asked to pay for wrong notes, or any other errors on the composer's part, but for comformity with the house editorial style. This wasn't publishing in any form that I could recognize, but rather a partnership between composer and publisher in which the composer was clearly assuming a portion of the financial risk.

And then there are all of those big publishers, for whom an overpriced, spiral-bound photocopy of the composer's manuscript is considered state-of-the-art publication.** That and fifty percent of the royalties, of course. Plus, consider the case of any of those big publishers with a huge back catalog of work still under copyright protection: getting existing catalog items broadcast, recorded, or played in concert is going to have a natural financial priority over acquiring and preparing new works for the catalog, as the old properties represent sleeping investments that can be milked until the copyrights run out. As attractive as it would appear to share a publisher with Richard Strauss or Orff or Schreker, a more contemporary composer is always going to be at a disadvantage in getting services from her or his publisher, as that would represent a new and risky capital outlay.


I'll be blunt: Traditional music publishing does not now offer a good deal for most contemporary composers. This comes at an interesting moment, in which ownership of the means of reproduction is no longer monopolized by publishers. Because of this, more than a few composers have recognized the writing on the wall and begun to take alternative paths to music publication. The first alternative is for composers, alone or collectively, to go into the cottage industry of publishing their own work, printing and selling sheet music, essentially duplicating the work done by traditional publishers.

There are two objections that come up again'n'again when self-publication is discussed. The first is that giving scores away for free eliminates the possibility of making money from the sale of a score. Answer: unless you can guarantee that a score will sell many copies (many = at least 500) and that it will continue to sell for generations, then there is no money to be made in selling sheet music. That is why publishers will invest editorial time in a new edition of the Beethoven sonatas, designed to sell for scores of years, but not in preparing editions of your scores. Real money comes from commissions, licenses, and royalties. A very small number of composers might eventually be able to sell their original manuscripts, but don't do your retirement planning on that basis. This is one of the great lessons seldom taught to young composers. All together now: There is no money in selling sheet music. Real money comes from commissions, licenses, and royalties. The second objection is that self-publication is vanity publication. Short and snappy answer: let me know the name of a composer who isn't vain about her/his music. Longer answer: Publication of musical scores has never been the equivalent of academic publication vetted by editorial or peer review; editorial and peer review in music comes about from performances, broadcasts, and recordings. Publication, and that includes self-publication, is simply a means toward getting those performances, broadcasts, and recordings.

There are many examples of self- and composer-organized group publication (e.g. the Wa-Wan Press, Charles Ives' publishing his 114 Songs, or helping to subsidize the operations of Henry Cowell's New Music Edition). A more recent operation, and still a going concern, is that of Karlheinz Stockhausen, who, dissatisfied with both his sheet music publisher and his recording firm, set up his own shop. The initial impulse seems to have been a need for greater control over the quality of the publications, and dissatisfaction with production delays, but I believe that the added advantage of retaining all of the licenses and royalties soon became just as important an impulse. Stockhausen is far from the only cottage publisher -- Tom Johnson, Christopher Fox, Hans-Joachim Hespos also come to mind. In addition to self-publishing solo composers there are the entrepreneurs and collectivists, with catalogues of music by several composers -- Composer/Performer Edition, Feedback Verlag, Frog Peak Music, Material Press, or the Thürmchen Verlag. But all of these ventures are still basically dealing with paper -- whether published in advance or on demand -- and still have to deal with packing that paper, figuring out how to ship it from point a to b, and sometimes back again, figuring out how to pay for it (currency transactions can often cost more than it's worth) and doing it all within a reasonable period of time. (For musicians, a "reasonable amount of time" for getting a score is usually "now", and not infrequently, "yesterday").

The second alternative, and the one I believe that is most important to the future of new music is to get out of the paper-handling business and bypass the post altogether. Already, with my own commissioned works, the usual practice has become one of producing Postscript or PDF files and emailing them directly to commissioners or players. With the resources of my own home studio, I can produce scores in any format the players would like to have (American or European paper norms, miniature, short, or full scores, and sets of parts, transposed or not) and don't have to worry about packaging. This flexibility is particularly useful for new music, as some musicians prefer to play from score, others from parts, and almost every musician has their own preferences about how pages should be hooked together or pasted to poster board or shrunk or blown-up to suit eyes or fit music stands. Moreover, musicians can get a score as soon as it's been proofread (and -- admittedly a down-side -- often before that) or a score can be put online for even wider access. By putting the score online and making it available free to the public, the traditional composer-publisher-retailer-player chain is shortened dramatically. Players can peruse scores online, download and print out whatever they like, and any royalties or licenses, should they choose to publicly perform or record a piece, can go undivided back to the composer via their rights organizations. And in the best of cases, such a shortened chain of transmission invites more direct communication between composers and performers.

Is there still room for beautiful, bound editions of music? Absolutely, and sales to libraries and collectors may still be a vital market for some scores, but such editions are not essential to getting music played. Is there room left for traditional publishers? Sure, if they can provide services to those composers who cannot or will not do them on their own and are willing to share their royalties.

* The early 1980's also mark the point in time when traditional engraving was dying off and computer "engraving" was not yet practiced widely.
** A particularly poignant example of this is to be found in the catalog of C.F. Peters. Why did it take so many years -- and years after the deaths of both composers -- to figure out that more money could be made by collecting piano (and prepared piano) scores by Cage and Feldman into modestly-priced anthologies than by continuing to sell handmade ozalids and photocopies of individual pieces one-by-one? On the basis of sales to academic libraries alone, such anthologies had guaranteed sales in the hundreds. But not only institutional sales -- buying up expensive Peters scores one-by-one with hard-earned paper-route money was a real bummer, and for the price of one score published the old way kids now can get a whole repertoire of pieces in a single volume. This is good all-around -- for the composers' estates, for Peters, for players, and for young people trying to get a sense of these musical landmarks.

Ives and Mahler

Someone will someday write the definitive book on Ives and Mahler, the two major landscape artists among composers. For the moment, and very tentatively, let me note one major difference between the two. Mahler's landscapes are always heard from a single, optimal vantage point, the vantage of a cool and detached listener. In Ives, the vantage point can also be dynamic: in his most complex landscapes (the Scherzo of the Fourth Symphony, Putnam's Camp, parts of the Second Orchestral Set and Holidays) the composer -- and, vicariously, the listener -- is constantly on the move, changing his or her perspective on the scene. Ives' landscapes are all drawn from memory, and sometimes even second-hand memories, so that this movement and the consequent fragmentation of the musical continuity has a double purpose, recording not only the disjunctions of acoustic events in real public spaces, but also those in private memory spaces. This is critical, in that Ives can use the pace of these disjuctions and the density of overlaid materials to carry his own commentary on the experience. In contrast, Mahler's commentary tends to be imbedded in more traditional means of musical continuity, albeit always imbued with his own distinctive nostalgia.

There is something of Emerson's "floating eyeball" in Ives' landscapes. Emerson, in Nature: I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all... But Ives' ears are not transparent, they are not anonymous, and they do not hear all; they are very much a particpant in the civic life of the landscapes. The impression of Ives' biography is everywhere, and the point of audition is very much human and selective. Moreover, Ives always appears open to the possibility that not only does the observer change position, the observer can also be changed by the experience. But then perhaps Emerson's metaphor was always more applicable to Mahler: In these cases, by mechanical means, is suggested the difference between the observer and the spectacle, -- between man and nature. Hence arises a pleasure mixed with awe; I may say, a low degree of the sublime is felt from the fact, probably, that man is hereby apprized, that, whilst the world is a spectacle, something in himself is stable.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Well, today, I've finished 45 trips around the sun. If anything at all has been learned in these 45 years, it's dwarfed by the extent of everything still to be learned. The possibility of surprise and change to come, despite my present and abundant ignorance, is as good a reason as it gets to keep working.

Is there any old saying more misleading than nihil novi sub sole ("there's nothing new under the sun")? My grandfather, now 97, is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, with a fictionalized account growing up on a 65,000-acre ranch in central-coastal California in the 'teens. My daughter, four, just delivered a stack of drawings; her discoveries in perspective, proportion, contrast, color, are daily reminders of the capacity to look at this old world in ever new ways. If I'm able to summon up even a fraction of the creative energy that those two have, then I'll be good to go for at least the next 45 trips.


Jeff Harrington was probably the first new music composer to stake his career online, a brave and pioneering move. (The first musician I heard talk about the internet as a resource was Ron Kuivila, who, back in 1993, kept going on about making music with "mosaic sites" -- with reference to that early browser -- as an extension of the networked music making of groups like The League of Automatic Music Composers and The Hub; interestingly, Kuivila has himself stubbornly avoided establishing an online presence for his own work). Harrington's was a brave move not least because it signaled independence from all of the traditional means composers have had for getting music out into the world as well as from many of the institutions that mediate between a composer and the public. His pioneering work includes making scores and electronic realizations or mock-ups of scores freely available: folks, this is the way publishing is going, and any composer who places his or her scores in the hands of a traditional publisher is simply allowing themselves to be ripped off and, eventually, neglected. Harrington's web site is well worth a visit with its rich offerings in scores and audio (I'm off recordings this year, so my aquaintance is with his scores).

Harrington is also a brave composer. A case in point for me is his Horn Trio. It's in the nature of a horn trios to be very difficult to write as the instrumental combination (violin, horn, piano) presents real challenges in balance, registration, and articulation. (I speak from experience: my own horn trio has been a work-in-progress for more than 2o years). Further, the repertoire is dominated by the example of the trio by Brahms, and for many, that of Ligeti. I think Harrington made a correct decision not to make a large, multi-movement work in the Brahms/Ligeti mode, and further broke that mode by avoiding any direct historical references. Instead, his trio is a single through-composed movement with a sustained motoric energy and figural character of its own.

Harrington's musical sensibility is very different to my own -- probably not surprising in that he's a Julliard-trained composer with a commitment to an idea of tonal music and a southerner with a deep personal connection to the vernacular traditions of New Orleans and the Delta -- but, after all, isn't the possibility of an encounter with another sensibility the great advantage of finding music online?

Stoic Hands Rehearsing Ernestly

Rehearsing is fascinating, and often more engaging than "real" performing. Here's raw video footage of Edward Gorey rehearsing the puppets of Le Theatricule Stoique.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Landmarks (17)

Charles E. Ives, Symphony Nr. 4 (ca. 1910-16, revised ca. 1921-25).

Had long known the Fourth from recordings, the first complete recording, under Stokowski, was only a suggestion of what the piece might be, and the quad recording under Serebrier made a great advance, especially in finding a path through the second movement, as dense a landscape as Ives would ever compose, and one in which not only sounds in the landscape are transient but the observer moves, and is moved, as well. The fourth movement, perhaps the most mysterious music Ives would ever compose, was finally made clear by Peter Eötvös, conducting here in Frankfurt (a typical story: the yank had to move to Europe to hear this piece live). When the chorus began singing Watchman, my heart stopped, and has never beat the same again. I believe that that moment is for an American listener as close as he or she will ever come to knowing what O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! can be for Europeans.


Making this list of landmarks involves a bit of gamesmanship. Although the list is neither ranked nor limited in number of entries, each addition suggests a new set of relationships to the pieces already listed as well as pieces yet to come. A work -- or works -- by Ives was bound to come soon, but which one and when? The Fourth and the Second Orchestral Set are the pieces to which I'm most attached, but Ives' catalog is so full of astonishing works that any choice is practically a chance operation.


Fundamentalists and materialists have this in common: both are unable to sustain a poetic wonder and humility in the living world.
-- Mary Catherine Bateson (found here)

Monday, September 11, 2006

Memory and Allegory

Among the works of art which have been made to commemorate the events of September 11, 2001, I suspect that none will be the subject of more serious discussion than the large painting by Graydon Parrish, The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy: September 11, 2001, in the New Britain (Connecticut) Museum of Art. (For images with more detail, scroll down this page).

Parrish is an artist with prodigious classical technique -- French Academic technique to be precise -- and however classical his realist figures and landscapes may be, his subjects are contemporary (the work which established Parrish's reputation, Remorse, Despondence, and Acceptance of an Early Death concerned AIDS).

Parrish's treatment of his subject is allegorical: the images stand for concrete ideas, and the composed ensemble carries both literal and allegorical messages. Parrish's classical technique is exactly what is required to pull off an allegory. However, I am far from certain that the moment for an allegorical treatment of such recent history, one in which the real images are still vivid while the message remains unclear, has yet come. Because of this, Parrish's moves -- again, classical, with the male twins in the middle, for example -- come off as staged and forced.

That said, the work is one of an enormously brave artist, and I can hardly imagine making a public musical work to compare. Composers have an advantage over realist visual artists when it comes to memorials -- it's in the nature of our medium that we needn't make any committment to sounds as literal images or to compositions of those sounds as allegories* -- and choosing particular sounds exposes a composer in a very different way from that in which a viewer associates particular images intimately with the artist. Successful musical commemorizations of historical events are rare (Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw and String Trio, certainly; Adam's On the Transmigration of Souls, perhaps), with the temptation to go "over the top" ever-present (Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, for example).

* Some argue for a parallel status for visual realism and tonal music, an argument that just doesn't fly with me, Wilbur. See my last post on surface.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Surface, not veneer

Years ago, in an exhibition in California, a couple of small drawings by Don Weygandt stood out. They were just still lives, maybe even bowls of fruit, but they were so well composed that the relationship between his delicate lines and the space around them quickly erased the images from my mind, but those lines and that articulated space have remained with me ever since. Weygandt later explained that his own teacher had been an abstract expressionist, and that although he used concrete images in his work, his working method had been imformed deeply by that his teacher.

In a few sentences, Weygandt had explained something very hard to me, and something that is also hard about music: surface appearances, the immediate sensation or impression of a work, can often be incidental rather than essential to the work itself. In my own work, I have come to understand that the surface, which may be modal or tonal or anti- or atonal or none/all-of -the-above, is often simply the accidental by-product of compositional concerns that lie elsewhere. Often, the surface may be more than suggestive of some historical music, but that rarely comes from an impulse to imitate existing music, it comes instead from some fairly abstract ways of working with musical materials, and it is often unclear whether my methods have anything at all to do with the methods of the composers of the works my music resembles. (Which should not be too surprising, as there are always alternative algorithms for arriving at the same result). I enjoy the possibility of a musical universe in which "work like Mumma, sound like Monteverdi" (or the other way 'round) is a real possibility.

There is a notion with considerable currency in the music community that new music should be given a veneer -- packaged, one might say -- so that the work is more immediately attractive to a wider audience. Such a veneer typically appeals to aural habits or supposed natural preferences. (Advocates for a program of tonality-or-bust often make an appeal to nature that becomes tenuous when one starts to define precisely what that tonality may or may not be; written too broadly the definition collapses under inclusiveness, written too narrowly the definition evaporates in the real evidence of alternative tonal practices around the globe). I have to reject this notion, and not only because I wish to reserve the right to use whatever surface happens to project my ideas best, even when my choice is at wide variance from the surfaces on offer for standard off-the-shelf market commodities. I have to reject it because this is a fundamentally pessimistic, if not cynical, assessment of the human capacity to listen. While musical practice and music-cognitive research have defined to some extent the extent and limits of music perception as it has been practiced, it is far from clear to be that they have defined the extent and limits of music as it might be practiced; and that is something that can only be defined through new compositions.

It might be argued that mine is an elitist stance, making unneccesary demands on listeners, but I disagree. For one, it hardly represents a the position of a real power-wielding elite of any sort; it is the interests that mass-produce musical commodities and compete for market share and profitability who can yield such real power, and can even be connected to real political power (if you have any doubt: just try to aquire a major market broadcast license). But more importantly, the idea that music can challenge listening habits and that listening to music is a highly individual activity is an optimistic idea. I am optimistic that listeners can attend to more than surface, that listeners can be open to the possibility of learning and changing through the listening experience, and that individual character and quality of response to music is the individual sign and symptom of a universal music-perceptual competence.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


Although the end-product of composing is usually* a public good** the act of composition itself is generally a private affair. Morton Feldman described his composing as a performance, and it's hard to to get around the performative aspects of many composers at work -- the speed, the preparations, the corrections, the tension between the calculated or planned and the spontaneous. But most of us choose to do this performance alone. Some of us like to share the work a bit along the way, testing it out with foreign, but trusted ears. A few of my teachers have shared their work in progress with me, and it was a real honor to have seen working scores by Cage and Feldman (in the case of Feldman, the composer's pride over the draft for Words and Music was evident in the enthusiasm with which he shared the sketches; the man was almost giddy). But only a very few of us will open the composing performance up entirely; the only examples I can think of are a handful of young composers scribbling away at cafeteria tables in Darmstadt, Wolfgang Rihm doing his scribbling during a concert, and David Cope, who, during a stint as an administrator, once lined the walls of a conference room adjacent to his office with a score in progress, and in-between bureaucratic wranglings, found welcome relief in tending to his piece.

Since starting Renewable Music, I have received some surprisingly strong feedback*** from colleagues on the topic of blogging. While most have been supportive of this project, some composers have been taken a bit back by the form. For some of them, a blogging style invites or even demands a breach of composerly privacy, through both talking shop too openly and through what might be called a "confessional" tone, including too much of one's private life. Although I have generally tried to exclude purely personal issues, and have tried to discuss my own work in progress in the most general terms, my fondness for the anecdotal has probably got the better of me and brought in details from the private sphere too often for the comfort of some. On the other hand, there are some excellent blogs by composers out there that make a good case for not drawing a sharp line between life and work, and if I had the needed lightness in my prose to bring it off, I could be persuaded otherwise. But that's not the case: I fight with every word, and usually lose, and so the public/private balance around here will probably stay about the same.

* There is, in fact, a profoundly important sub-genre of music that is made specifically for private use. Tom Johnson probably named the genre with his collection of Private Pieces (1976), but there are other important precendents to be found, both when composers have chosen to take the positive musical advantages of a private performance situation into account, and when composers have been forced by musical or other reasons to take refuge in a private environment.
** Legally, the public (the state, the crown...) even owns the stuff, granting us only temporary custody. Don't take this as support for the ongoing mickeymouse-made mess of laws designed to extend that custody for ever longer periods of time. The conflict between making the best of the intellectual property environment as it is and as it ought to be is a major practical and ethical issue for composers. I have no idea how it should be resolved.
*** I receive three or four offline email comments for every comment posted online. Another privacy issue?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Nature or nurture

I'm usually content with the full battery of biographical elements I can bring to an explanation for my preference, no my passion, for new and experimental musics. However, recognizing that such a passion is a deviation from the norm is not difficult, and in the apparent loneliness of my audition I sometimes wonder if I actually hear things differently from others, and if there's a physiological reason for my stubbornly "wrong" ears.

For unrelated reasons I won't go into, I recently had a full set of CT and MRI scans of my head. Contemplating the images is fascinating and, without expert guidance, at first a bit unsettling. All of the lumps and wrinkles and asymmetries stand out, and as you start to imagine what it all might mean you might start to worry: aha! that's where the sounds go wrong. But no worry, comes the expert opinion, all of these lumps and wrinkles and asymmetries are well within the range of normal human anatomical variation, the anatomy is perfectly normal. Now the disappointment sets in for a moment before I realize what this means: your ears are perfectly normal, but your life....

Monday, September 04, 2006

Landmarks (16)

John Cage: Cheap Imitation (1969) Through a set of capricious circumstances, Cage found a way of making new music from old, in this case, from Satie's Socrate. Denied the rights to perform his two-piano, four-hands, arrangement of Socrate as accompaniment to a dance by Merce Cunningham, Cage devised a new piece that retained the rhythms and tempi of the Satie, but systematically substituted a new melody (and a few portions of the accompaniment) for the old. Cage's technique was based upon a non-trivial analysis of Satie's tonal practice, as a marriage or matrix of diatonic modes and chromatic tonalities, and performed a transformation (in contrasting rates of transformation, "harmonic rhythms" if you will, in each of the three movements) that was a consequent projection of that analysis. Through Cage's replication of the temporal structure of Socrate, Cunningham was able to retain the choreography he had already devised for the Satie; the dance was subsequently renamed Second Hand, but traces of the original dance remained clear, in particular, an emotional solo moment by Cunningham, corresponding to the death of Socrates in Satie's score.

The melodic character of Socrate is, at times, white to the point of anonymity, and the sectional changes of tonality and texture are often, if deliberately and charmingly, awkward. Cage's imitation of Satie breaks through both the anonymity and awkwardness, managing to hold restless and unpredictable chromatic modulations and local modal fragments in a surprisingly lucid balance. A friend once played Cheap Imitation in a late night concert and reports that although the tonal moves of the score are practically unpredictable, he had the unique sensation that he no longer was reading the score, but the piece played by itself, his hands guided by something independent of his usual score reading routines. Although, by temperament, deeply skeptical of such claims, I have played the score for myself or friends many times, and can independently verify the experience.

Cage's score was initially for solo piano, he subsequently authorized solo versions for violin and guitar (for Paul Zukofsky and Ned Sublette, respectively) and later (1972), made his own arrangements for orchestra of 24-95 players, without conductor. The failure of orchestras to successfully realize the piece without a conductor was a matter of great musical and social disappointment to Cage. Fortunately, I believe, Cage was able to channel that disappointment into the development of the variety of alternative techniques for coordinating conductorless ensembles that feature in many of his late pieces.

It's probably unneccesary to note that I find Cheap Imitation to be a particularly beautiful example of musical renewal. It is understated and lyrical but relentless and systematic, old but new, locally modal but globally chromatic, all of a piece but unpredictable, and posed, uniquely in my experience, between a meditative stasis and tonal turbulence.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Innovation and genre

It's often overlooked, but in the common practice era, music theatre, both opera and ballet, was a major source for innovation while concert music was largely a domain for the conservation and perfection of established forms. Opera and ballet, while never dispensing altogether with conventions of their own (after all: singers must breath and dancers must land after leaping), were natural testing grounds for new possibilities in orchestration, texture, figuration, harmony, and even spatial effects. In the music theatre, the attraction of finding new and dramatically useful effects simply overruled any prior constraints on form or content.

I don't think that it's mistaken to observe that these roles have largely been reversed in contemporary serious music, and this is acutely so in the US. This probably wasn't a necessary development, especially when one notes the importance of making challenging music for the stage for composers from Debussy and (at least early) Strauss to Thomson and to Philip Glass and John Moran in the opera, as well as from Stravinsky to John Cage in dance. I'd add to that the experimental music theatre of Kagel and his students, the "theatre piece" of the 1950's and '60s, the theatre and television works of Ashley and perhaps a handful of contemporary European operas (Zimmermann, Rihm, Andriessen, Lachenmann). All of these connections between music and theatre pushed the envelope in both domains but, as far as I can tell, none of the "major" US operatic premieres of the past couple years can be characterized by significant musical innovation. In fact, the typical characterizations are in terms of lyricism, narrative and dramatic effectiveness, a high level of competence in orchestration, and a generally conservative tonal language, and seldom, if ever, for innovation in musical technique. While one can easily speculate about the causes of this conservatism -- one suspects that marketing, institutional structure and identity, and private networking each play a role -- and there is some precedence for new work to be created in parallel in both conservative and progressive idioms, the dominant presence is a conservative one and should be recognized as such.

I must admit that I come basically empty-handed to this topic. The only concrete suggestion I have is that music theatre might usefully investigate the innovations in narrative complexity and episode structure currently taking place in television and other electronic media. In any case, the possibility that further innovation might be closed is a disconcerting one, and the topic should be open to discussion.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Hit and Run Theorists

Composers have a certain amount of luxury when it comes to music theory. We can invent it, and we can consume it, but we don't really have to commit ourselves to a theory in the same manner that a professional theorist would. Let me be clear: theories of music are extremely useful to composers in laying out possible materials or relationships and ways of ordering or evaluating those materials or relationships, but the way in which we use those materials in an actual work of music can be, in a word, arbitrary. And composers can be fairly promiscuous in their choice of theoretical partners: if it works in a piece of music, we don't really care where an idea comes from. (On the other hand, there are examples of composers who have tried to trim their works too closely to a particular theory, the late, revisionary, Hindemith is the best example, and the results were, at times, unfortunate).

That said, composers can be marvelous theory teachers, and I would hope that those composers who are in academia will not stand blindly by as their tenure-track lines are handed over to professional theorists. There are some talented composers out there who could use the day job, and their perspective, arbitrary and promiscuous as it may be, is a practical one, and one would wish that the teaching of music has not been so hardened by specialization and institutionalization that we can't liven up our personnel choices from time to time, with some inter- and intradisciplinary flexibility. (Performers and musicologists and ethnomusicologists can also be wonderful theory teachers, and composers and theorists can usefully teach music history or ethnomusicology or coach performance as well).

There's a story about John Cage and David Tudor. Cage was preparing for his first extended invitation to the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan. He asked Tudor about how he should act there, and Tudor replied "Like a hit and run driver". As someone whose own visits to academe have become rare, I'd say that's a fair approach to music theory as well.