Friday, December 29, 2006

26 Serpents Side-By-Side

Douglas Yeo, bass trombonist in the Boston Symphony and quite likely the leading North American serpent player plays Clifford Bevan's precis of the 1812 Overture, arranged for 26 serpents. Should someone happen to put a bit too much kirsch in your New Year's Eve fondue, I'm sure that this'll be just the right thing. In any case, this will be among the tunes with which I plan to formally end a year without recordings.

Now, all we need is someone to put the Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band's sweet and condensed arrangement of The Rite of Spring for their ensemble of three saxophones (tenor, tenor, baritone) and three trombones (all with various doublings and treblings) online. (For just a taste of the RRGTCB, their Buick LeSabre Dance can be heard here).

Thursday, December 28, 2006


Pliable has it right: "... give me one bar of Sibelius for one symphony of Shostakovich."

I'll go one further: If we had walked away from the 20th century with only the scores to the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies of Sibelius, we'd still be left with sufficient material to reconstruct everything essential that had been left behind.

(photo: Stravinsky at the grave of Sibelius, image stolen from PWS's blog, Tears of a Clownsilly).

A Year Without Recordings

2006 has been my year without recordings. I set out to avoid listening intentionally to recorded music. While there have been a few minor lapses -- some colleagues have sent me sound files, I listened to music played on the radio while waiting in the car two or three times, and I have put on cassettes for my four-year-old, and incidental music has been unavoidable -- in the past twelve months, I have never popped a music cd into a player, nor have I turned on the radio or television in order to hear some music.

What's the result of this experience? No great or earth-shattering revelations. A lot more time spent score-reading, both with or without an instrument under my fingers, which is a good thing for ear, mind, and soul. Also, I have the impression that I am a bit more sensitive to the localization of sound, and loudspeakers often sound somewhat disappointing now. (I went to my first pop concert in 2o-some years -- by Ben Harper, a hometown friend -- and his unaccompanied, unmiked singing (in a hall with a couple thousand people) was absolutely the best part of the concert: suddenly the sounds came from somewhere in particular!). And when I walk down the main shopping street in Frankfurt, a real haven for street musicians, I find myself gravitating always to those playing without amplification or recorded aggrandizement. I wish that I had gone to more concerts, but this has also been a year in which my health hasn't exactly cooperated, so music has largely had to be that which I have made myself, and there's nothing wrong with that.

But I can honestly say that I haven't missed a thing, and I suppose that that's the minor revelation that can be gathered from all this. While there is an important place in my musical life for music composed specifically for recorded media, I suspect that in the next year, I will still generally avoid recordings of music which can be heard otherwise. In much the same way that live performance has regained some of its magic in the past year -- if, paradoxically, that magic came from live performance becoming more ordinary -- when I return to recordings in the new year, I'd like it if the experience of listening to a recording would regain some its own magic.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


"Without modernism, nothing would get invented." - John Cage

"I'm a classical composer." - Alvin Lucier

Let x ∈ {serious, modern, classical, experimental, longhaired, scare the dog, etc.}.

There is some fashion among composers (and critics) to define their work negatively, i.e. as the music that is not x, or the music that follows x. (E.g. anti-modern, post-experimental, proto-scare-the-dog music).

Let y ∉ {serious, modern, classical, experimental, etc.}.

There is some fashion among composers (and critics) to define their work negatively, i.e. as the music that is not y, or the music that follows y. (Contra-pop, post-commercial, pseudo-entertainment music).

Further, there is some fashion among composers (and critics) to define their work as some union of an x & an y. (Post-serious anti-salon music).

Okay. Maybe I'm dense and just can't follow, for example, that Stravinsky will on one hand be the epitome of modernism in music and on the other the avatar of post-modernism in music. While perhaps as naive as the set theory above, this fool persists in the folly that there is still work to be done in a music which is comfortable with a label found in set x, unqualified by pre's, prae's, post's, ante's, anti's, non's, pluses, extra's, or ultra's, and unembellished by appeals to other genres. Discovering exactly what our work is strikes me as much more interesting an adventure than excusing the work for not being what it is not.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Small Prelude in G

(One of a set of 12 small preludes, composed in early 2006. See also the preludes in Ab, Eb, F, F# ).


Last minute shopping. Encouraged by reading Charles Shere's post on ice cream, gelato, and chocolate, I made a last minute attempt to locate one bar of Munz Orange as a gift for someone precious. (Sadly, I can't eat them anymore myself). I tried every Chocolaterie in Frankfurt. No luck.
In Thomas Bernhard's novel Wittgenstein's Nephew, the first-person narrator and the title figure make a mad drive across a serious portion of Austria in search of the day's issue of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. It becomes clear that for the two, a town qualifies as civilized if and only if the current issue of the NZZ is available on the day of publication in the local newsstands.
I share their estimation of the NZZ, but would also add the availability of Munz Orangentafeln to their criteria. No other chocolate firm manages to work magic with whole orange slices the way Munz does, the texture is unforgettable to tooth and tongue, and the balance between the citrus and chocolate universes restores ones faith that the earth will continue to rotate on its axis and voyage around the sun.
Quality. Would you drive across lower Austria to hear a contrabass concerto by John Harbison? Would you search through every little candy store in town in the last shopping hours before christmas in order to hear Placido Domingo in an opera about an Emperor commissioning a patriotic hymn?

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Small Prelude in F#

(One of a set of 12 small preludes, composed in early 2006. See also the Prelude in Ab, Prelude in Eb, Prelude in F.)

Friday, December 22, 2006

The times, they are a changing

On January 1st, the state of New Hampshire (that's the one with the "Live Free or Die" license plates) will make peonage a class A misdemeanor. That's right, it will now be illegal there to hold someone in involuntary servitude to work off a debt.

It is expected that waves of musicians will now return to the Granite State to enjoy their debts without danger of losing their freedom.

The German Lesson

So this East Friesian goes into a music shop. He looks around for a good long time, and the impatient clerk asks the East Friesian if he needs any help. The East Friesian declares: "I'll take the red trumpet and the white accordion." "I beg your pardon?", responds the confused clerk. Again, the East Friesian declares: "I'll take the red trumpet and the white accordion." The clerk thinks about it for a moment and answers: "You can have the fire extinguisher, but the radiator has to stay."*

*This was the first joke I learned to tell in German. Many Germans tell jokes about East Friesians. The Ostfriesen are part of the Friesian ethnic and linguistic minority who have traditionally lived on the northern coasts and Islands of Germany and the Netherlands. The Friesian language is a pleasure to listen to, and if you speak both German and English, it is to a large part comprehensible. Telling jokes about minorities is not right, but this joke is so sweet, that repeating it cannot be entirely wrong, and there are enough West Friesians in my family tree that I can claim some exemption. And I promise, one day I shall, in fact, write a piece for one red trumpet and one white accordion.


Composer Dennis Báthory-Kitsz has taken his We Are All Mozart project to eBay. He's scheduling a year's worth of commissions, and eBay item #330064845503 is your opportunity to commission a new work. Still need a stocking stuffer?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What alternative tunings can do for you

In the course of recording a radio interview, I was asked why anyone would want to bother with tunings other than 12-tone equal temperament. I usually have a nice long answer to the question, but here's more or less what I said today in an attempt at a short answer:

Paying attention to tuning is useful in three regards for me as a composer and musician. The first is that instead of accepting the quality of an interval as given, a musician has access to a whole range of qualities, from smooth to beating slowly to beating roughly, and from clear to vague in identity. An interval can be tuned so that the component parts of the spectra of the individual tones coincide or deviate when combined, and the degree to which they deviate may be controlled. In working with tones with simple harmonic spectra, Just Intonation or a tuning with intervals close to Just will yield intervals which have a quality, to my ears, clarity, quite different from that heard when the tuning has intervals which are distant from Just. Conversely, when working with instruments which have spectra that are not composed of simple harmonic relationships, tunings which map those more complex relationships may better fit into and represent that timbre. The second reason is that alternative tunings may introduce tonal relationships that are simply not available in 12-tone equal temperament. From one tuning to another, sequences of intervals may end up in very different places. For example, in 15-tone equal temperament, the sum of three "tritones" is not an octave and a tritone as in 12, but rather an interval that one recognizes at once as a twelfth. That makes a modulation possible that is impossible in 12. Finally, the quality of a tuning may make tonal relationships more or less explicit or more or less ambiguous. In temperaments, rational intervals are often represented by a shared pitch. A minor seventh in 12-tone equal temperament might, in some cases represent a functionally dissonant - and resolution-inviting - seventh with a ratio of 16:9, or the consonant third of the minor v chord or the fifth of the bIII, 9:5, or, as in some North American vernacular musics, a consonant seventh , 7:4. When the small differences between these intervals are "tempered out", a certain ambiguity comes into play, but in a Just Intonation, these functional identitites are made explicit through distinctive intonation. I find that having flexible access to musical materials that can so easily invoke ambiguity or explicitness is not just an intellectual game but is, in practice, musically very useful.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Another reason to boycott that competition (and any others like it)

I previously posted a call to boycott a competition, based upon the relationship between the entry fees and the size of the cash prize. Here's another reason not to enter:

The competition rules present no criteria for selection of the winning entry.

The announcement prescribes only the instrumentation and duration. The aesthetic preferences of the judges, and the criteria through which the competition will be judged cannot be discerned from the rules. The is no doubt that the jury here will take their task seriously and make their decision in good faith, but they are real people, real musicians, with real preferences and expectations, and it is impossible for a composer from outside of their community to guess or second guess what those preferences and expectations may be.

Would you ever willingly enter a legal trial without guidance about your status and the rules or standards under which the trial will be conducted? Would you do the same for your music? (Read The Trial). Add to this the fact that a US$25 fee is still a significant amount of money to most people, musicians in particular, and making that investment without knowing if your work will get even the slightest bit of consideration is a considerable leap of faith. The organizers owe it to such potential applicants to be more specific about what they are looking for, so that a potential entrant can better assess the fit of his or her work to the competition.

While I'm certain the organizers of this competition had the best, most liberal, intentions in leaving things open, and asking for anonymized entries is an emblem of this openness, has anyone actually heard of such openness functioning in practice? In the end, composing is about making choices, and musically articulating those choices. Judging a composition will necessarily be a process of recognizing and evaluating both those choices and the ways in which they are articulated, and unless the judges are given some criteria themselves, there is no way of getting around the fact that they will judge with their own sensibilities.

(For the record: The author last entered a competion at the age of 17, sponsored by the local music teacher's association. There was no entry fee, and he won a first prize of $50. Since then, he has entered no musical competitions. He has never judged a competition, believing that that he lacks the temperament for the task (particularly the "gets along well with others part"), and has refused when asked. He is, himself, very competitive (poker, anyone?) and thinks that competitions in music can be fine, so long as no one takes the results too seriously. The intention of the critique here is not to end competitions but to build better ones.)

We're In Stereo

From Nature, via 3quarksdaily:

If you think only hounds can track a scent trail, think again: people can follow their noses too, a new study says. And they do so in a way very similar to dogs, suggesting we're not so bad at detecting smells — we're just out of practice.

Scientists have found that humans have far fewer genes that encode smell receptors than do other animals such as rats and dogs. This seemed to suggest that we're not as talented at discerning scents as other beasts, perhaps because we lost our sense of smell when we began to walk upright, and lifted our noses far away from the aroma-rich earth. A team of neuroscientists and engineers, led by Noam Sobel of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, decided to test this conventional wisdom.

The team first laid down a 10-metre-long trail of chocolate essential oil in a grass field (the scent was detectable but not strong or overpowering). Then they enlisted 32 Berkeley undergraduates, blindfolded them, blocked their ears and set them loose in the field to try to track the scent. Each student got three chances to track the scent in ten minutes; two-thirds of the subjects finished the task. And when four students practiced the task over three days, they got better at it.

Next, the team tested how the students were following the trails. They counted how many whiffs of air each student took while tracking the scent trail, and tested the effect of blocking one nostril at a time. The scientists found that humans act much like dogs do while tracking a scent, sniffing repeatedly to trace the smell's source. They didn't do so well with one blocked nostril, suggesting that the stereo effect of two nostrils helps people to locate odours in space.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Rzewski Scores

Composer Frederic Rzewski has placed a number of his scores online here. (A second site, here, does not appear to be working; Rzewski also has a note here (scroll down) on "copyleft"; I believe, however, that he intends the copyleft status to apply to his sheet music (which can be freely downloaded or printed out, or ordered from his manager, when properly attributed) but he has not released the performance rights into the public domain. I may be a broken record on this topic, but it is really the way to go for most composers).

Books on Composition (old item revisited)

Alex Ross has put up a swell quote from Charles Seeger's Dissonant Counterpoint. Seeger's essay has been an inspiration throughout my life as a composer and was one of the items on a list of books on composition, first posted here on February 12th:

These are a few of the books more-or-less directly about composition to which I have returned frequently over the years:

Cowell, Henry, New Musical Resources
De la Motte, Diether, Kontrapunkt (This, unfortunately, has not yet been translated into English).
Erickson, Robert, The Structure of Music, A Listener's Guide
(Erickson's later book, Sound Structure in Music, mostly about timbre, is also interesting, but for whatever reasons, I have never returned to it)
Harrison, Lou, Lou Harrison's Music Primer
Kühn, Clemens, Formenlehre der Musik (needs to be translated)
Morley, Thomas, A Plaine and Easy Introduction to Practical Music
Mozart, W.A., Attwood-Studien (The harmony and counterpoint notebooks of Mozart's student Thomas Attwood)
Seeger, Charles, Harmony (Sadly, very difficult to find!)
Seeger, Charles, Dissonant Counterpoint (article)

These come from the visual arts, and say nothing explicit about musical composition, let alone tuning, but they are so rich in ideas that I can't imagine not having them near my desk:

Klee, Paul, Pedagogical Sketchbook
Weschler, Lawrence, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One
Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin

I'm not alone among composers in having found this valuable:

Thompson, D'arcy, On Growth and Form

These are more recent additions to my library, so have not yet faced
the test of time, but are certainly worth a look:

Andriessen/Schönberger, The Apollonian Clockwork: On Stravinsky
Ashley, Robert (ed.), Music with Roots in the Aether
Lucier, Alvin, Reflections/Reflektionen
Tenzer, Michael, Gamelan Gong Kebyar: The Art of Twentieth Century Balinese Music (a very important book on ensemble composition).
Wolff, Christian, Cues/Hinweise

I continue to be impressed by John Cage's contribution to the Hoover/Cage Virgil Thomson; Cage was a gifted writer about practical musical technique.

One of my students recommends this so strongly that I include it here despite my own reservations:

Mathieu, W.A., The Harmonic Experience

We still need a contemporary volume to replace Helmholz's The Sensations of Tone. William Sethares' Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale is an important book. Richard Parncutt's Harmony: A Psychoacoustical Approach is one of the more interesting pieces of scholarship in the field. It's out of print, but the publisher has admirably allowed for free downloads, via:

Addendum, December 2006:

Here are two books that I have recently found to be very useful:

Shere, Charles: Thinking Sound Music: The Life and Work of Robert Erickson
Scherchen, Hermann: Lehrbuch des Dirigierens

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Boycott this competition!

Scott Spiegelberg has posted an annoucement for a composition competition conducted by the Music07 Festival and the eighth blackbird ensemble in Cincinnati. The entry fee for the competition is $25 and a single prize of $500 and a performance by eighth blackbird will be awarded, although there is the usual caveat: the competition reserves the right to not award any prizes.

Even a lowly composer with a California public school education can follow the money here. While I recognize that organizing and publicizing a competition has costs, and a professional rehearsal and performance have costs, and sometimes a mechanism is necessary to insure that the entries are both serious and of a manageable number, all of those costs can be held in check and other mechanisms can be devised to manage the pool of competitors without having to ask the competitors themselves to ante up. If the competition is well-advertised (which is cheap these days with web communications) and the applicant pool is similar to those found in other competitions, the organizers can easily expect 50 to 100 entries, thus ensuring that the competition will finance itself, if not make a profit, via the entry fees. That is obscene.

Competitions like this should be services to the community of musicians, with the prize, performance, and possible PR to the winning composer, the ensemble, and the organizing festival an added net benefit for all. This should be funded by a source external to these three interests. Instead, one of the parties, and that in the weakest position with regard to supply and demand for their work, is being asked to cover this net even though the relationship between aggregate cost to the composers entering the contest and the maximum possible rewards declines rapidly with the number of composers entering.

The fact that such a competition will probably get a sufficient number of entries to make the scam work is either further evidence of the desperate imbalances in the new music food chain, or, even worse, further confirmation that P.T. Barnum's wisdom still holds. Still thinking about entering? I hope not, and I hope that you'll spread the word.

Leedy: The Leaves Be Green

Here's another reminder that the roots of the music that is widely called "minimal" are broader than the received history. Before the term minimalism came into play, terms like "static" or "repetitive" were more commonly in use, and especially among a loose cadre of west coast musicians, including students at Berkeley and in San Francisco (in particular, those who studied with Robert Erickson, William Denney, and Darius Milhaud). Douglas Leedy was a classmate of Riley and Young at UC Berkeley, but did not have their background in Jazz. A hornist, singer, and keyboard player, his interests turned more towards early western music and, later, to South Indian classical music. An accomplished classicist, he has also made a deep exploration of ancient Greek and Latin literature and the music much of it once carried. Leedy's The Leaves Be Green (1975) is a particularly rich example of this other minimal tradition, connecting to the virtuoso early English keyboard music, as well as through extended pedal points, repetition, and subtle microrhythmic variations to South Indian music and to the music of his contemporaries. The pure major thirds of meantone tuning are also an essential feature of this music.

A PDF file of the entire score is available here. (Largish file)

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Charles Seeger, 120

Just noticed that Charles Seeger, composer, musicologist, ethnomusicologist, and general thinker-of-big-thoughts-about-music would have celebrated his 120th birthday on the 14th. Seeger's writings on music made a great impression on me as a student, especially on those sleepness nights spent pondering the question "what is music?" Perhaps the most encouraging quality of Seeger's work on this question was its provisional quality or incompleteness, with an refreshingly honest mix of authority and failure in the face of a difficult question. Anyone writing about music is touched by "Seeger's dilemma": that thinking and discoursing in the "language mode of communication" about the "music mode of communication" dominates, directs and, above all, limits research about music.

American music is also in debt to Seeger for his encouragement of the younger composer Henry Cowell, as well as the musical gifts of his more famous progeny. (The jury is out on Seeger's role in the career of his second wife, the remarkable composer Ruth Crawford). Seeger was also a founder or co-founder of several academic societies, including the American Musicological Junta Cartel Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology, perhaps in a restless search for the proper community in which to share his work.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Getting ideas

This morning, bicycling home after dropping my daughter off at Kindergarten, I noticed a couple things. First, there were the white trucks. On the way, I passed by four unmarked, white, lorries. Commercial vehicles around here usually carry some advertisement, or at least a logo. These were blank. All were parked near crossroads, and none of them seemed to have a driver or passenger in them. Then there was the siren. I pulled to the right curb as usual, but the siren was unfamiliar, and the red emergency van blasting the siren belonged to the State of Hessen Catastrophe Protection Service. I'd never heard of that particular bureaucracy before. Finally, there were the flocks of geese headed north. Five or six huge flocks, in formation, moving in the wrong direction, and awfully late into the year.

Okay. That particular collection of factoids was probably adequate and sufficient material to sustain about two hundred pages of fiction, or, in the right frame of mind, at least a good morning's worth of paranoia. It usually takes a configuration somewhat like that for me to get committed to writing a new piece of music. It could be a couple of notes, memory of a lost shoelace, and the shape of a sweetpotato. Or it could be a tempo, a broken timepiece, and the sense of uncertainty-about-when-to-panic when my son is too late coming home from school.

Mostly, my ideas are musical (the extramusical ideas are usually private and so worked-over as not to be recoverable by anyone) and take the form of what would happen if a bit of familiar music went a slightly different way. I enjoyed the adventure (and even the touch of paranoia) of the actual route I took home this morning, but I only really started composing when I started contemplating the alternative routes not taken. The photographer Ansel Adams said something about waiting to click the camera until he saw something that was literally not there, and there's something like that to composing. You take all that you hear and all that you know about how music works and then wait for the moment when the music does something altogether new.

Vriezen scores

Composer Samuel Vriezen has joined the brave and the wise and has started putting his scores online. At the moment, a long systematic chord progression piece called Within Fourths/Within Fifths and a string quartet can be found here. More scores are promised, so keep checking it out.

About those Landmarks

Question: How do you choose pieces for your "Landmarks" list?

The list of musical landmarks that's been compiled here was begun without any formally articulated criteria, other than the importance of the individual works to my own musical life. As time's gone by, the outlines of the criteria have become more clear to me, if perhaps murky to all of you. At the very least, it should be clear that the list is unranked, and the order, while sometime suggestive of connections or associations, is capricious, when not accidental. (That said, contrast between successive works may play a role). But some problems with the list have emerged. For example, there are some works of non-western music -- the Solonese Gambir Sawit or the Navajo Blessing Way -- that are extremely important to me, but including them in this list seems to risk some tokenism. If I were to include Etenraku, which is the best-known piece in the Gagaku (Japanese Court Music) repertoire, which I find to have one of the most gorgeous melodies ever conceived, it would be a bit dishonest, because other than it's familiarity, I can scarcely make a claim about a landmark status for the piece within its own repertoire.

What's next on the list? How many pieces will it include?

I always have a notion about the next two or three pieces on the list. At the moment, the Mozart Quintet in g minor, Ashley's Wolfman, Tenney's Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow and an amazing orchestra piece by Carola Bauckholt are bopping about my brain, but I tend to bop a lot of pieces right out of my head and surprise myself with something from left field. It's either a bit like playing chess without knowing the rules or playing hold'em poker without ever looking at your own cards...

The list, in principle, is open ended (I'm optimistic). This blog (and this blogger), isn't (then again, who's optimistic?). Did I answer your question?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

If I ran the orchestra (3)

Note to parents:

I went to my son's winter orchestra concert this evening. Once again, a massive over-supply of flutes, too many trumpets, only one viola, one bassoon, one oboe, only two horns. While this ensemble had some character of its own, and it doesn't matter too much with holiday music, when it comes to standard repertoire, some of those flutes and trumpets are going to be left on the bench. Do your kids a favor, encourage them to consider playing oboe or horn or viola or bassoon.

If I ran the orchestra (2)

From a wish list:

(1) Basset clarinets (or more properly, clarinets with basset extensions to written c (as opposed to basset horns, a different instrument, narrow bore alto clarinets in F with the same written c extension)) are useful. The Mozart Clarinet Concerto was probably written for such an instrument. Should be more of them.

(2) Ophicleides. The rattle made by these brass-winds is more terrifying than a tuba will ever achieve. Essential to the Symphonie Fantastique. (Check out the Norrington recording).

(3) Natural horns. Essential. With the proper handhorn technique, an entire repertoire, from Beethoven's Sonata in F to the Brahms Trio is taken to another timbral universe.

(4) Trumpets in (low) F. The move of orchestral players towards the higher-keyed trumpets (Bb and C, 4' keys, territory previously associated more with the cornet) is another timbral loss. The darkness of the F trumpet is particularly important in Mahler.

(5) Bassoon consorts. A few makers here and there are making smaller-sized instruments, at soprano/alto/tenor pitches, chiefly for children (or others with small hands), but opening up the possibility of full consorts of modern bassoons.

Addendum: Gordon Mumma wrote to add the following:

In your orchestra series, you justly
complement several neglected instruments.
Re the natural horn, it should be extended
earlier than Ludwig's Op. 17. It should be
heard it in J.S.B's Brandenburgs, and later
than the Brahms Trio into Ben Britten's
Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings.
Even my old HORNPIPE requires it, etc.

If I ran the orchestra (1)

After a small holiday (jaw, dentist, no picnic, no lightning), I've started practicing cornetto again. It's a fantastic instrument, if very difficult to control, but when matched with the right repertoire - especially long lines with lots of stepwise motion - it is unmatched among instruments in its vocal character.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Landmarks (21)

Walter Zimmermann: Lokale Musik (1977-81). A collection of pieces (from solos and chamber music through large orchestra), a project about the "manifold relationships between landscape and music", a private (autobiographical and psychological) and public (historical and social) working out (the German is better: Ausarbeitung) of those relationships in a particular -- and particularly complex -- landscape, that of Zimmermann's native Franconia. The source musical materials are traditional Franconian dances -- Walzer, Zwiefache, Schottisch, Mazurka, Rheinländer, Galopp, etc. -- collected by the composer in the course of fieldwork in rural Franconia. This is a musical corpus that was largely collected and notated in the 19th century, and has been played by instrumentalists for generations from notation, and as such is a repertoire in which the tension between a "cultivated" and an oral/folk music tradition is ever-present. The long-cultivated fields and over-managed forests of rural Germany carry precisely the same tension, and more recent history of Germany, in particular of Nuremberg and Franconia, under National Socialism, during the war, and through the decidely mixed working-out of history in the post-war environment (Zimmermann was born in 1949), casts an added shadow. Zimmermann's project is to listen beyond and behind these shadows, to recover the landscape through the prism of this music. His techniques are astonishly simple: removing tonally- and metrically-significant pitches from melodies, or having a pair instruments play tones whose difference tones articulate the traditional dance tunes , thus playing a melody by not playing the melody. His techniques are similar to those Cage used at about the same time to create new music by erasing parts of older music, in particular the syntax-driving cadential features (Cage used Revolutionary-era American music).

Lokale Music is a landmark, not only as a remarkable body of music, but as a model of a composing as a project that connects the musical to the historical, ethnological, social and psychological, and one in which these connections are never musically trivial.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Lucuna, Filled

Trevor Murphy was kind enough to include a link to this blog, noting a conspicuous absence of beer. Consider this now corrected, with a label from the Schierlinger Rye Beer produced by the house of Thurn und Taxis. While rye was once considered the optimal grain for beer, it was at one time restricted in order to reserve enough grain for bread-making and it is now extremely rare. I don't drink much beer these days, but if I did, this would certainly be my choice.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Goodnight Stories

My daughter, who'll be five in February, is very serious about having stories read or told to her. She pays close attention to every detail and takes great joy in discovering the slightest variation in a tale retold. Sometimes, it's next-to-impossible to find an end to storytime, and pleas of "just one more story" can enter an endless loop, delaying her sleep and a few child-free evening hours for the parents.

My responsibility in our bilingual household is for the English storytelling (or rather that approximation of English I make) and have tried to keep a broad repertoire. This includes all the trustworthy old songs and rhymes and stories, but lots of invention on my part and some off-beaten paths as well. Bits of Blake and Nash, Lewis Carroll and Gorey, to be sure. And lately, her favorite has also been one I committed to memory years ago, the tale of Jarl van Hoother and the prankqueen from Finnegans Wake. This little story (pages 21-23 of the Viking Centennial Edition) is a portmanteau of many fairy tales, beginning with a typical once-upon-a-time formula (It was of a night, late, lang time agone...), continues with the hero going through a typical set of three trials, and ends with everyone living happily ever after (The prankqueen was to hold her dummyship and the jimminies was to keep the peacewave and van Hoother was to git the wind up) and a heavy moral to boot (Thus the hearsomeness of the burger felicitates the whole of the polis).

While a selection from Finnegans Wake may seem like odd and overly-ambitious (if not pretentious) bedtime reading for a small child, a passage like this is actually perfect for a child. She recognizes the structure and all of the formulas or conventions of the fairy tale form, and and the same time, the strangeness and rough musicality of the actual words is an adventure and entertainment in which she takes great delight, and it's not more preposterous nonsense than much of the other literature she's already encountered or made up on her own.

It's also a great opportunity for Daddy to show off, and the climax of the tale, when Joyce's diction has modulated into stammering, short syllables and suddenly a paranthesis interrupts all with the thunderclap of a 100-letter word (Perkodhuskurunbarggruauyagokgorlayorgromgremmitghundhurthrumathunaradidillifaititillibumullunukkunun!), - the recitation of which is probably the closest I come to virtuoso performance nowadays - is always met with laughter and a smile that'll be kept forever.

(Originally intended to make a point here about the advantage of simultaneously acquiring traditional and experimental literature or music or cooking or what-have-you, but that's obvious enough, isn't it?)

Friday, December 08, 2006

Looking back at the future

Dirigibles: the civilized alternative to airplanes and emblems of a modernity gone another way. (Image: air mail postage stamps, Tuva, 1936)

Note on margin of a music sketch: Refuse to accept arguments about the end of modernism/post-modernism/classical music/art music/the avant-garde etc.. All options remain open. Still plenty of good music to be writ. And yes, Emma, you can have archaic, and eat it, too.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Was it Chopin, in the Salon, with a Candelabra?

There's a story, and it doesn't really matter here whether it's true or not, that Laurie Anderson, while TA-ing an Art History Course, would come unprepared for her lectures and simply make things up, telling outrageously interesting but untrue stories about the paintings, as she would flip from slide to slide.

Another story: A well-known composer-conductor had once taken the job of music director for a regional US orchestra. After having avoided it for a number of years, the Orchestra's Board Chairman informed him that he could not once again skip conducting the annual Messiah Christmastime sing-along. The sing-along was an important PR event and the patrons were expecting to see the music director. So, he showed up for the rehearsal, began professionally but perfunctly, everything in order until he came to the Pastorale Symphony. A few bars in, he stopped the orchestra, and said, "That's not what Handel wanted..." "Maestro?", he called to a small man in the back of the second violin section, "Did you bring your mandolin?". The rehearsal began again, the melody now augmented "as Handel wanted" with a tremolo mandolin.

Another one: I had one professor in college, a composer, who was a fabulous teacher. He was an engaging figure in the classroom, a solid musician, and always very perceptive and encouraging about students' work. But damn, when it came to music history, he would just make things up. It wasn't a matter of not having ever really learned the music history, or having forgotten it, or having learned an earlier, out-dated, version of things. He was deliberately making the narrative stranger and more interesting than it actually was. While I initially took it as a kind of one-man campaign against musicology (or perhaps, and more personally, against his more pedantic musicologist colleagues), I soon realized that he was always looking for ways to communicate to his students something more than the banal generalization or trivial detail about music. His carefree attitude toward history was intentional and -- for those who listened closely -- always something substantially more than the BS it often appeared to be.

I have wondered, since starting this blog, what, exactly my own obligation towards "the truth" (i.e. historical facts about music, as well as we know 'em) ought to be. As a composer, my obligation towards music history is, gently put, to use it, recklessly, mining it for models and ideas, and then to make something new with those models and ideas, perhaps altering them beyond recognition in the process. To borrow a trope from literary folk, composing can often be the record of other music misheard or creatively re-imagined. Thus my compositional relationship to past musical practice may be three-dollar-bill inauthentic, and a casual mix of the historically informed, uninformed (when not willfully ignorant) and the wildly conjectural.

But what about this blog? Is my obligation here something more like that of a journalist, to be able to end each item with a Cronkitian "that's the way it was"? If so, I'm not sure that I'm altogether suited for the job. Certainly, I have neither the patience nor the energy to get into a heated argument over "rules" of notational practice (damn it, they're conventions, not rules) or terminology or historical performance practice or reception history. That's just not my portfolio.

(That should hammer the last nail in the coffin of my so-called academic career, the lid of which was already firmly closed by some earlier posts on music theory).

On the other hand, I do like a good story, and I will do my best to keep telling them. As to veracity, my caveats have been made, and I won't let a little truth get in the way of truthiness and a bit of suspense. So don't be surprised if you turn up here one day and learn that the culprit was either: (a) Gesualdo in the bedroom with a sword, (b) Lully in the ballroom with a dance master's staff, (c) Hugo Wolf in a brothel with the French Disease, (d) Charles Ives in Central Park (in the dark) with a Baseball Bat, (e) Anton Webern on the porch with a cigarette, or (f) Harry Partch in a boxcar with a tuning fork.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

||: repetition :||

For a time, say '78 through '84, my music used a lot of literal repetitions, notated often between happy pairs of ||: :||s. Repetition was a useful element in music which was more immediately static than dynamic, more about being somewhere, than going somewhere. Of course, no repetition was ever precisely identical to that which was being repeated, the most careful of human performances always carried traces of subtle alterations, and even in the most mechanical repetition, the context, of time delayed and experienced, altered the identity relationship in a fundamental way.

For a time, say say '78 through '84, my music used a lot of literal repetitions, notated often between happy pairs of ||: :||s. Repetition in music was useful for creating contexts that well self-sustaining and self-similar. Canons were a particularly useful extension of repetitive techniques, as the music was simultaneously asserting something about where one was, where one had been, and where one might be going. Canons became increasingly important to me in the late 1980's, and now I can't imagine working without them, but they are increasingly loose, rather than strict, in character. Letting a voice which had been trailing gradually move to a leading position in a contrapuntal environment (John Cage, borrowing an idea about Gagaku from Henry Cowell, called this a "Japanese Canon"; Morton Feldman would brilliantly use this same idea, borrowed perhaps from simultaneous Torah recitation in the Orthodox Schul, Jo Kondo's idea of a "shape" and its "shadow" was definitely in the same ballpark) was literally like getting ahead of oneself.

Before I get ahead of myself: For a time, say '78 through '84, my music used a lot of literal repetitions, notated often between happy pairs of ||: :||s. Attracted initially by the impossibility of the exact repetition, I became more attracted to the idea of an explicitly imperfect or quasi-repetition. An example of quasi-repetition which continues to haunt me is Jo Kondo's Sight Rhythmics, in which the same piece is "repeated" six times, but from each "repetition" to the next, one element in each measure is altered, with alterations accumulating until the sixth "repetition", called a Skolion, in which the material is rewritten altogether. But the changes here always remain clearly within the territory, the ballpark if you will, of repetitions rather than variations, because the sensation is always one of sameness rather than the variety a proper variation would demand.

But I'm getting ahead of myself: For a time, say '78 through '84, my music used a lot of literal repetitions, notated often between happy pairs of ||: :||s. I've recently been writing some music in which there are lots of literal repetitions, but repetitions which find themselves in conetxts which change enough that I'm not comfortable fitting them between pairs of ||: :||, no matter how happy they might be. The context has changed the material enough identifying any of it as a repetition now seems somewhat dishonest. I suppose I ought to write something now about not dipping into the same river twice, but having come 'round to recognizing that the same river is not a particularly useful idea (as a river is more of a process than an object), let's leave it at that, and you'll have some idea of the ballpark about which I'm currently bopping. Or something like that idea, but entirely your own...

...that topic

I have a draft blog item that's now over a year old about how a composer comes to decide on the duration of a piece of music. The same topic is now receiving a healthy discussion over at Sequenza21's Composers' Forum. My item has remained in draft form because, honestly, I haven't figured out a way to talk about it without falling into language (length, density, duration etc.) that is inevitably more or less suggestive of concerns other than music. So let me leave it at this: the relationship between the the character and number of musical materials and the duration and pace of the context in which those materials appear, whether intuitive or calculated, is perhaps the most personal decision a composer can bring to her/his work and a telling mark of his/her own musicality.