A displaced Californian composer writes about music made for the long while & the world around that music. ~ The avant-garde is flexibility of mind. — John Cage ~ ...composition is only a very small thing, taken as a part of music as a whole, and it really shouldn't be separated from music making in general. — Douglas Leedy ~ My God, what has sound got to do with music! — Charles Ives
Sunday, October 29, 2006
The Well-Fed Composer
Here are some of the composers online with materials about the edible world: Charles Shere, with enviable connections to the wonder that is Berkeley's Chez Panisse, blogs about music, eating out, travel, theatre, eating out, literature, and did I mention, eating out? Dennis Báthory-Kitsz has written a nice diary of a week's home cooking, in a home with a kitchen that appears to have some distinction. John Mackey, a younger composer whose works I do not know, has made a point of including quite thorough photodocumentation of his meals in his blog. More gourmand than gourmet, Mackey's vivid photos may prove to be a valuable record of American eating habits in the early 21st century. (And, gawd help us, the consequent rise in American cholesterol and blood sugar levels.)
I'm sure that I've left someone off this list, but sorry: I've got to go fix something to eat.
* The two volumes (eating, drinking) of Baker's The Gentleman's Companion are in a literary genre of their own. The account of the Saigon absynthe cocktail is alone worth the price of finding a set.
Friday, October 27, 2006
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
These two pieces are links in a chain: the first is Ockeghem's lament for Gilles Binchois, the second is Josquin's La déploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem. In sequence, these compositions assert a historical continuity and re-imagination that characterizes and is unique to the European musical renaissance. They each combine settings of a contemporary secular poem in French (but one clearly rooted in the classical past of the Roman planctus) with a sacred cantus firmus in Latin. Ockeghem's upper voice sings a ballade (his only ballade) with a melodic shape more like those of Binchois than his own, and Josquin's upper voice begins with a citation, from the opening of the Kyrie to Ockeghem's Missa Cuiusvis toni.
(N.B. Actually, this chain could be extended further, with, for example, Nicolas Gombert's lament on the death of Josquin, Musae Iovis, thus setting the links -- corresponding to generations -- in alternating hues, one more clear and direct (Binchois, Josquin) , the next more complex and elusive (Ockeghem, Gombert)).
Sunday, October 22, 2006
The Public Theorist
I have written a few outrageous things about theory on these pages, as part of my on-going attempt to articulate the distance between compositional and theoretical projects. Theory is an important service discipline for composers, a mirror to our own work, and a never-empty source of new ideas, but in order to take advantage of theory, composers will inevitably play fast and loose with the most elegant theoretical constructions. In this context, it's good to encounter a theorist like Spiegelberg, who seems comfortable writing about music theory in a way that balances perspectives and never gets too far away from either the practical issues of music making or the mysterious issues of musical perception.
Getting 'em young
Thursday, October 19, 2006
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
More Movie Music
And: What can be usefully said about the concert music composers who failed to break into the movies -- Schönberg and Stravinsky, for starters -- is that failure due to a mismatch in musical or personal temperaments? A variety of expressionism, with a real debt to Schönberg has become a familar trope in film music, but it seems to me to be more an import of external stylistic features than any deep structure (which shouldn't be surprising: musical concepts of coherence and closure take a back seat to those of film narrative, effect, and pacing*). On the other hand, with the exception of the famed disneyized dinosaurs, Stravinsky seems to have had less impact on film music.
(I've set aside the music of those composers working in experimental film environments, which are presumably less constraining).
* On the other hand, why can't you try to have it both ways? There was an interview somewhere recently with a Hollywood blockbuster composer who mentioned starting a job with some fibonacci-derived materials, and then giving them up in favor of more or less improvising to the screen image. While there's nothing necessarily good or bad about using fibonacci sequences in music, I believe that there was something terribly empty in the gesture of just giving up on the potential for a score to incorporate structural relationships of both music and film genres. What a loss!
Monday, October 16, 2006
Identicles are, in and of themselves, usually fairly trivial, and perhaps most immediately useful for getting results on "name-that-tune"- or "drop-the-needle"-style listening exams. But the process of locating identicles can inform questions about the unity of a work or body of work. This process strikes me as intimately related to that used in discovering algorithms to construct a work or repertoire of works. David Cope's idea of a signature -- which he locates in the source repertoire from which he derives new works in the "same style" -- is perhaps a more tightly defined (in terms of parameters) and higher-level instance of an identicle.
While this is low-level, if not casual, stuff for analysis, I have found that watching out for identicles is useful for a composer. A composer has to find a balance in his or her work between asserting a recognizeably personal style and, at the same time, not getting stuck in a rut and too closely identified with particular stylistic features. Am I repeating myself? Is the music too much of the same? Or has it become too scattered, too disparate? Or even: is the music creeping into the identicle field associated with one of my contemporaries?** These are the sort of questions in which analysis that doesn't go too deeply into particulars is probably advantageous.
* Schumann's flute writing was long a textbook example of how not to orchestrate; recent attempts to recover the performance practice style of Schumann's time suggest that this is far from the case. In the conjectured historical style, the strings do not play through the entire duration of their notes, or at least not with a constant intensity, allowing the flute tone to emerge from the composite tone in a synthetic timbre with considerable character.
** It is interested to note how carefully circumscribed the identicle fields are about the individual composers associated together in groups or schools or circles. The individual compositional identities of members of the Second Viennese School, Les Six, the New York School, the principle minimalists, or among the post-Ferneyhough complexists were very tightly defined. This is, perhaps, one of the lasting weaknesses of the camp followers of the mid-century American symphonic style, of the flute piece in stilo Gazzelloni, or of Princeton-style serial bebop.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
The truly shocking thing about this is that I'm someone who has run hot and cold when it comes to talking or writing about music. There have literally been years when I've thought that there was nothing to be said or, at least, I had nothing to say about music. During those times, I've usually done my best to simply shut up. The Age of the Blog (2) just happened to arrived during a spell when this was not the case.
From time-to-time, in these pages, I have written things that are provocative. But so far, complaints have been limited. While I suppose that this is mostly a measure of low readership and low readability (3), I do have to wonder if in part this is because new music has entered the Age of the Blog at a time in its development when its capacity to provoke, excite, or, indeed shock, is at a low point. If so, we've simply got to get back to work.
1. Shamelessly sentimentality-betraying movie reference.
2. Shamelessly age-betraying allusion to the "Age of the Feuillton" in Das Glasperlenspiel.
3. Slight exaggeration. A reading level analysis of this blog notes that the average number of words in a sentence was 18.2, the percentage of words with three or more syllables is 17.55%, the average syllables per word is 1.62, the Gunning Fog Index is 14.32, the Flesch Reading Ease is 51.54, and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade 10.61. On the basis of the Gunning Fog Index, readership here is expected to be somewhat higher than (College) sophomoric, the Flesch Index indicates that it is slightly more difficult that the 60-70 score desired for general audiences, and the Flesch-Kinkaid grade is higher that that of the New York Times, but lower than that of Academic Papers. Okay, dudes, I can live with that.
Friday, October 13, 2006
Christopher Small: Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Wesleyan 1998) This was recommended by Adam Baratz at his blog Form/Content and I second his recommendation. Small is not afraid of the hard questions: "Is there something built into the nature of the works of that repertory that makes performing and listening to them under any circumstances go counter to the way I believe that human relationships should be? (...) Was even Mozart wrong?"
Bart Kosko: Noise (Viking 2006) This is unabashedly popular science writing, but the breadth is remarkable, going far beyond acoustical noise. I think the topic can very useful for those of us who spend our lives intentionally putting sounds out into the world or telling others to put sounds out into the world, i.e. composers.
There is something to be said about translatable authors and their audiences. Imre Kertész was awarded the prize while I was living in Budapest, and I was initially shocked by the cool response from Hungarians to the selection. I had thought that there would be near-universal pride in the country's first Nobel laureate in literature, but instead the reaction was very mixed. There were a lot of petty jealousies in play, and one often heard: "yes, it was time for a Hungarian to win, but why this one?" There was also a mixture of near- and full-blown anti-semitism at play. But the truth was, that very few Hungarians realized that Kertész was one of the few major Hungarian writers who work could be translated both out of the Hungarian language and the often parochial concerns of Hungarian literary culture for a wider, not-exclusively Hungarian, public. He is, paradoxically, perhaps not a major Hungarian writer, but certainly a writer of international stature who happened to write in Hungarian.
The reaction in Turkey now to that country's first winner in literature appears to be similar to or even stronger than that in Hungary. Pamuk has been willing to talk and write truthfully about topics that are highly sensitive in his country, and the consequences have been serious. But even with his critical eye, Pamuk is always a writer for whom pride, wonder, and joy in his home, Istanbul, is central to his work. He has a special role in guiding westerners through his culture, and Istanbul in particular, and we are all aware of the danger, when such guidance is not available.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Monday, October 09, 2006
Music Notation: Sins and Fibs
First of all, many of us still do some or all of our work by hand, and there's no reason to change if it works for you. For the most gifted calligraphers, a switch to computer notation, will save some time, but if you're picky about the layout, probably not as much time as you'd wish. I felt that I had to switch for the sake of my eyesight, but the jury's still out on that one. Moreover, the composer's own, hand-drawn, manuscript, will always have an aesthetic caché of its own, an aura of authenticity, if you will.
Some of us will decide to roll our own notation programs. I tried this, myself, writing in a mix of postscript and forth on my old Atari, but the result wasn't especially pretty, and I am now, officially, a SWIRP, someone-who-is-retired-from-programming. David Feldman, a composer who does a lot of algorithmic works, remarkably, is able to program in Postscript so that he can go directly from algorithm to finished score.
(Many more composers design their own fonts, or at least tweak the designs of existing fonts. The font which composer and copyist James Ingram made for Stockhausen's scores is one good example. Clarence Barlow did all of his own text and music fonts for his Atari environment. Having your own house fonts as well as layout style can be a cool thing.)
Some notation programs are purely graphic -- play-back of a score is not part of their schtick -- but, and in-part precisely because they are not obliged to come up with a realistic play-back -- they can be extremely flexible on the graphic front. Score, the granddaddy of notation programs, still has a small loyal user-base, and can do almost anything in standard notation. Graphire Music Studio can do even more -- circular scores, exploding sections etc. -- with a more contemporary interface, while Lilypond, from the free/open source software world, aspires to reproduce the results of classical engraving techniques through some very clever algorithms. Lilypond has less capacity and is less flexible than either Score or Music Studio, but as open source, it's a moving object -- if you need or don't like a feature, you can add your own.
Notion and Harmony Assistant emphasize playback, but both have respectable out-of-the-box notation faculties, and both, I believe have features that may point to the next generation of notation and production programs. I bought Harmony Assistant myself, and have learned a lot from it, but I am still not fluent enough with the interface to really test its limits. Writing additional "rules" scripts for Harmony Assistant is very easy, and I am especially excited about its capacity to render microtones live directly from notation into digital audio. In the Linux world, Rosegarden has native notation capacity, but sophisticated users will probably want to export from Rosegarden into Lilypond.
Finale and Sibelius are the two best-sellers in the music notation world, and they can both keep most users perfectly satisfied, or perfectly frustrated, which ever comes first. I believe that there is some consensus that Sibelius will give most users an acceptable output straight out of the box, as the house styles and the entry techniques for newbies are well-designed for newbies, but more complicated things get rapidly more difficult to do. Finale, on the other hand, has a steeper learning curve, partially due to a long development history and backwards compatability, and the out-of-the-box house styles are notoriously inadequate, but once you've oriented yourself, the power of the program becomes quite evident, and I believe that more elements in a score are tweakable than in Sibelius. This makes it easier, in the long run, to attain a specific house style, whether you want to imitate Henle or the best Broadway arranger, or invent your own house style. (I believe that Finale also offers more flexibility as to entry, but am not certain. I like to use command-line entry in Finale, and, as far as I can tell , this is not possible in Sibelius, but I'm happy to be corrected on this point).
But not every element is tweakable... for example, barlines in Finale are present at a low level in the data structure, so they remain fairly rigid elements in the program. If you want to have non-alligned barlines, as in Ockeghem or Ives, you're in for some elaborate kludges. Or, you could try, as an alternative, the program Lime, which has some serious limitations on other details, but makes non-alligned barlines in a snap (and has a built-in-tuning table function for ready microtonality). Lime only costs US$65, and for many users, it may very well be sufficient for all their other needs.
And there are a number of other programs in the landscape which are less powerful, but also much less expensive than Fin or Sib. Finale offers its own scaled-down version. Capella, Igor, Berlioz, Mozart, and Turandot have each a loyal, often local, user community, and each can produce attractive scores. While in Hungary, I purchased Turandot, the local notation product. While certainly nothing as radical as Harmony Assistant, it has an interesting interface, and for common practice era-style scores, the out-of-the-box-styled output can be excellent, very close in fact, to that of the Editio Musica Budapest.
Monday, October 02, 2006
Since the mid-1960's, Young's works can be be heard as belonging to one of two major projects. I identify the first project as including the ensemble music and installations composed for the Theatre of Eternal Music, including The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys, which reached a provisional definition in the restrictions of a theoretical document, The Two Systems of Galactic Light Intervals Tracery, and, more recently, has received new impetus through a series of installations and live vocal/instrumental/electronic performances in which the selection of pitches is based instead upon symmetrical arrays of pitches found high in a harmonic series. The performance practice used in these pieces, in particular that used in Young's own vocal performances, as developed in this project is deeply connected to -- without ever materially quoting -- Young's long-term study of North Indian Classical Music.
The second project, and the one to which Chronos Kristalla belongs, was initially defined by The Well-Tuned Piano (1964- ), which can be understood as a particular instrument, a particular tuning scheme for that instrument, a developing technique for playing that instrument within that tuning environment, and as a single, evolving, composition. In much of Young's work, the distinction between composition and improvisation is difficult: the composition clearly changes over time, from performance to performance, but the improvisation (perhaps extemporization is the better word) is done within incredibly strict parameters, demonstrating a discipline that again finds a close parallel in his study of North Indian Classical Music.
The Well-Tuned Piano is a piece of music for a piano, but it is also something more than that. One effect of the tuning and the playing techniques developed by Young (in particular, the rapid chordal figurations, known as "clouds", which Young intuitively hammers in a highly sensitive play between interference beating, reinforced upper harmonics, and just intervals between the fundamentals) is to remove the instrument from the narrowly-defined timbral world of the piano. In this wider timbral space, the listener is often party to illusions of voices, horns, electronic instruments, and indeed, certain areas of the tuning have long-been associated by Young with instruments other than the elegant Börsendorfer: the "Opening Chord" of the work was clearly music for brass, and in Chronos Kristalla, the potential of "The Magic Chord" as music for strings has received an initial realization.
"The Magic Chord", an eight-toned complex perhaps most immediately identified by the poignantly narrow 28:27 minor seconds and wide 9:7 major thirds, is played here two octaves higher than it is played in The Well-Tuned Piano, and played entire in natural harmonics by the quartet. Tuning precision is achieved by tuning the harmonics (not the fundamentals!) precisely to a special synthesizer. The immediate sensation of the tuning, the tessitura, and the natural harmonics is astonishingly close to that of the Japanese Sho, the freed-reed instrument which provides the tonal backdrop for the Court music, Gagaku, a musical tradition with which Young has been familiar since the 1950's.
I have cautiously called this an "initial realization". This is for two reasons: the first is that the performance style of this music remains a project in development. The score -- the most detailed, more-or-less conventially notated score that Young has produced since his student years -- is to some extent a direct transcription from portions of a performance of The Well-Tuned Piano. The nature of that transcription, and in particular the transcription of the clouds from Young's distinctive keyboard style to an ensemble string texture, remains a work in progress. But as importantly, the larger potential of The Well-Tuned Piano remains unexplored. Young's intention to transcribe the "The Opening Chord" for brass ensemble is already known and it is not difficult to extrapolate from there and to imagine that the string and brass music could combine into something of orchestral dimensions, and that this orchestra might eventually be joined with the solo piano.
Not a monoculture
Browsers used by visitors to Renewable Music.
BTW: I've recently switched to Opera, which I like very much. The only downside I've found is that the Blogger editor only runs properly with either Firefox/Mozilla or IE.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
New Music, a Mixed Economy
I am at the limit of my economic expertise here, so the following is a tentative clarification of my position. It was, in fact, a rhetorical exaggeration when I identified our new music economy as a gift economy. It is, in fact, a mixed economy with elements of gift, market, and command economies all playing a role. Some composers will, in fact, find that their works can be measured in terms of supply and demand, and the labor involved can be measured as an investment, from which one can estimate cost, return, and perhaps even profit, in terms of money. Other composers may have their works supported by some command processes, with compensation related to their productivity as a composer, but in non-negotiable monetary values. This form of patronage, whether state or private, institutional or private, can be direct -- immediately supporting muscial labor in the form of commissions and recordings, or indirect, for example by hiring composers as teachers or administrators, and expecting some creative work on the side. (Even Milton Friedman, as market-oriented as they come, recognizes the societies must support the maintenance of their "monuments"). However, I am satisfied that our work largely falls into a gift economy, and this is not an altogether bad thing. For one, it is more inclusive, not limiting the category of new music to some narrowly defined class of professionals or full-time specialists or those in the biggest urban centers or associated with the biggest institutions.. Not all of us can become a Philip Glass, with his market successes, but more importantly: not all of us would want to. I like receiving compensation for my musical labor, but it is not always expected, and the level of compensation is for a large part, non-negotiable, when not entirely capricious. Moreover, when Dennis writes that:
Calling it such (and acting upon it as such) is a capitulation of responsibility for participation in the de facto trade society. It rejects understanding the dynamics of the 'micro-economy' and setting out to change it, enlarging opportunity and enhancing the ability to move from micro-economy to sustaining economy.
I have to respond that I see no significant act of responsibility in participating in the trade society. Our participation is that society is already de facto, as we have to feed, cloth, and house ourselves, and we will do what it takes within that society to make survival possible. Some musicians will to build structures or institutions for their music within that economy, and the more power to them. However, I happen to see my responsibility as participating in mechanisms and processes that are alternatives, if not active resistance, to that de facto trade society.
(I'll note that as bad as it seems to be for new music in the real world, in many ways it's never been better. There is more -- and more diverse -- music available, in one form another, to more people. The possibility of a work of serious music dropping off the face of the planet is less likely than ever, as once it has entered the web, in whatever state, it is apparently eternal. It is, in fact, the popular music monoculture which is doing poorly. After decades of consolidating their businesses, they have found themselves unprepared to compete in a marketplace in which shelfspace is virtual and consumer choice is practically unlimited and the recent power grabs at places like GEMA are signs of desperation at shrinking market share in a market that is ever-more difficult to oversee.
I disagree with Dennis, here:
Low productivity is a symptom of a greater compositional disease, a disease whose vector is starvation and sickening of opportunity. Like a body that feeds upon itself to stay alive under stress, the body of new nonpop composition, presentation, and audition has been feeding upon itself for nearly a century. If nutrition is so badly needed for this patient, it matters little where it comes from. Consciously increasing productivity places nutrients in our feeding tube.
First of all, I have to challenge the assumption that this condition can be dated "for nearly a century". The economic situation for composers has never been good, and without patronage or a day job, very few composers would have ever composed anything, even the most famous cases of hyperproductivity. But more importantly, we each come to music with different sensibilities, interests, ambitions, experiences, and talents. Some composers simply don't have many pieces in them, and they are not necessarily lesser composers because of it. While some composers do improve their art by composing more pieces, others improve by working more intensively on a small number of pieces, composing and recomposing, getting every detail right. Some compose out of lightning bolts of inspiration, others simply work long and hard. The problem here is that productivity will inevitably be measured by quantity, whether in number or length of pieces or in the amount of time spent on a piece. However, not all composers are gifted in the same way, so no single measure of those gifts is going to work. (There's that word, gift, again). Do we value Webern, Varese, Ruggles, Kurtag, Chowning any less for the small size of their catalogs? Do we value them more for their scruples? Do we value a Clemens Non Papa or a Hovhaness more? I sure don't view my own low quantitative productivity as symptom of an illness, but rather -- and perhaps, optimistically -- as a sign of the standards I set for myself. I'd estimate that I compose about a minute of music every day, but most of those minutes I cheerfully abandon, for the potential of making something better.
I think that new music plays an important role the real world, if only, at the very least, it is constant irritation to that world, a constant reminder that affairs can be different, indeed, better. I have to return, once again, to Nagg's joke, in Beckett's Endgame, about the tailor, who takes longer to make a pair of trousers than God took to create the world: "But my dear Sir...look at the world...and look at my trousers!"