Monday, April 30, 2007

Compare and Contrast

So if you ever went back to the States, what would you miss about Germany?

Bread. Paper ballots. And four-state traffic lights.

And what do you miss about the US?

The quarter-dollar coin, a product of pure American ingenuity right up there with the synthetic bowling ball and right-hand turns on red lights. The Pacific coast. And the California vowel shift.


For what it's worth, here's an interesting take on the political blogoplan* as an avant-garde movement. The author identifies it as a form of Fluxus-style agitation, which is a swell idea, even though I have to suspend my usual distrust of all things Fluxus to get there (AFAIC, the best work of artists associated with Fluxus happened when they were as far away from Fluxus as possible, although the connection between Fluxus and Lithuanian politics is genuine) and I'd throw a dose of Situationism in there, too.

New musical blogs do not strike me as having yet located the potential in the medium for avant-garde agitation akin to that of our political colleagues; indeed, considering the fact that we're theoretically promoting an avant-garde within our own medium, we have generally done a poor job of exploring the experimental possibilities of the blog form -- our use of language is dull, our ideas old, our enthusiasms mild, and our controversies and rivalries small. No manifestos. Not much in the way of setting violins on fire or topless cello playing or electrocutable piano keys around here nowadays. Heck, we can't even organize a decent boycott against competitions with over-high fees. Children: get to work!
*Blogoplan is the flat-earth equivalent for the round-earthers' blogosphere. The author is not literally a flat-earther, but someone who recognizes that we organize our daily lives around flat earth coordinates and illusions of simultaneous downbeats and in-phase tuning.

Niblock tells a bit more

Paris Transatlantic has a very good interview of composer and film maker Phill Niblock by Bob Gilmore. Very good, because Phill usually avoids being all-too-explicit about how his music (and films) work, and here he's even tossing about words like "structure".

Niblock is one of a small group of composers (I'd add Young and Lucier) who pioneered work that featured musical environments in which the familiar parameterization (rhythm is not pitch is not timbre is not dynamics is not rhythm) is blurred, broken down, or irrelevant.

Performance practice

This video of John Cage's 1960 appearance on I've Got A Secret, including a performance of Water Walk, is a great document of Cage both as a performing musician and a public figure.

It is also a good example of Cage's pragmatism: all of his scores were composed to be played, and in this case, when a union conflict made it impossible to plug in the five radios required in the score, Cage substituted an alternative, non-electric, instrumental technique. I am sure that this variation from the printed score will receive due attention from musicologists and historically-informed performance practice specialists in the future.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Piled higher and deeper

It used to be the case that a Master's degree, MA or MFA or MMus, was the standard terminal degree for composers. Then, sometime in the late sixties, US institutions started more widely offering doctorates in composition (PhDs or DMAs); without much public ado, that has become the de facto terminal level and doctoral programs in composition continue to open and grow. There are a number of reasons for this development -- on the input level, due to a perception that undergraduates are less well prepared than in the past, but also because a PhD program creates prestige, more interesting course loads for the professorate, and a supply of cheap teaching and research assistants. The big downside of this development is, of course, that there is no correspondence between the increase in advanced degree recipients and available jobs within academia or without, and that the academic job market is increasingly limited by the growth in the professional academic theory specialist and the move of historical musicologists into 20th century and more recent music, areas that had, until recently, been rather safe service teaching territories for composers.

I have noticed, however, that many of the best and best-known of my younger colleagues have chosen not to pursue academic degrees beyond the Master's (or even Bachelor's) level, effectively returning to the credentialing practice of my teachers' generation. On the one hand, this is a realistic response to the working conditions of a TA and the state of the academic job market, but on the other hand, these musicians are in fact spending their journeyperson years figuring out how to make a living (or half-a-living or some other fraction-of-a-living) directly from making music rather than teaching it. I suppose that some of these composers may someday re-enter academe, and perhaps be able to do so at a senior level, but the continuing presence of a class of non-academic composers is an important corrective, and is definitely a good thing.

(For the record, not one of my own composition teachers had a doctorate; in fact, two had no degrees at all and still carried full professorial rank and regalia; a good thing, I think. My own advanced degrees are a composer's MA from a World Music program, and a nominal PhD in Ethnomusicology, as musicology had not yet widely moved into the late 20th century and I had the odd notion that there might be a market somewhere for generalists. I toyed a bit with the idea of pursuing a Habilitation, to add one more degree to my pile of traveling papers, but that notion was met with blank stares by even the most academic of composerly American academics: a Habili-what?.)

Friday, April 27, 2007

A day, made

For one reason or another, this was one of those days when nothing quite went right, except discovering this by Tim Rutherford-Johnson, of The Rambler:
I love this post on “The Edge of the Beat” by Daniel Wolf: it just reads like exemplary, thoughtful blogging to me - it’s about nothing and everything, compact philosophy to keep the imagination ticking over, and loaded with astute observations.
The oddest thing about writing -- words or music -- is that response is entirely unpredictable. The items worked on most often drop like a lead balloon, uncommented, while other items, tossed together with half-a-thought go on to have substantial half-lives of response and controversy. Maybe this, learning to live with this arbitrary indifference, is the hardest part about being a composer or a writer or an artist of any other sort. But you get a few words like these once in a while and all is forgotten: Isn't life grand?

Perhaps it's time to rest on these bloggéd laurels and devote myself instead to cooking, croquet, and composing some Péchés de vieillesse.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Shere's good fortune

Charles Shere ends a delightful report on concerts of Schubert and Purcell with this:
And what came of that was the thing that unites Purcell and Schubert: their fundamental innocence, their good cheer, their generosity of spirit. This is something they share with Mozart and Satie and, I think, John Cage, and with so few other composers. They're not in business for their egos. They're as amazed at the beauty they discover as we fortunate listeners are. They are, I think, in a way, angels, Ariels. How lucky we've been to share two evenings in three days with them!

Toy Opera

This (and this) just might have more potential for the future of opera than the latest forms of digital transmission, populist kowtows, or diva-and-director-driven spectacles. Randall Wong, composer, sopranist, and Curator of Music for the Museum of Jurassic Technology, has joined the Toy Theatre revival movement, and the admixture of camp, surreal suspensions of disbelief, and old fashioned (or even steampunk) theatre magic, all re-made in miniature, would seem to lead inevitably to opera. The idea of being able to pack all of the hardware of an opera production into a valise for parlor performances is an attractive one, with highbrow echoes of Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp and lowbrow echoes aplenty. Besides, who can complain anymore about dwindling audiences when the goal is for the entire audience to be able to move smoothly together from the dining room to the performance in the parlor before the gents adjourn for cigars and brandy in the billiard room? I have the impression that Wong's music for his operas began largely with classical pastiche but is composed increasingly in his own voice. In any case, I can't fault anyone who'd retell the Orpheus myth with toasters and alarm clocks, or who'd render the sexually-retrograde world of Flatland in an appropriately retrograde theatrical environment.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Interesting new pages turn up all the time:

Mixed Meters, commentary and much story telling from David Ocker, veteran of L.A. new music.

Boring Like a Drill, a blog by experimental composer Ben Harper (not to be confused with my hometown friend, this Ben Harper).

Musical Assumptions, composer Elaine Fine.

The Edge of the Beat

My son and I have been assembling a paper model, and it's been the cause of yet another of my bouts with edge anxiety. You see, I've never figured out if you're supposed to cut on the line, or just before or after the line. These cut-out projects are rarely specific about whether and how the width of the line figures into the width of the piece you're supposed to excise.

This anxiety is akin to one familiar to most musicians - when, precisely, does a beat begin? and does one articulate that beat on, before, or after that beginning? and is this done consistently or flexibly?

The best musical ensembles internalize a common location for their beat, and the very best ensembles can do this with great flexibility. One trick of many European orchestras is to lay back, just behind the conductor's visual downbeat, creating an round or even neutral attack. By opening up that space between the conducted and the played beat, the orchestra can then respond flexibly in passages where a sense of urgency or sharpness is intended. By leaning closer to the visual beat, an impression of acceleration is created without actually rushing the tempo. If, however, the conducted and played beats are identical, there's nowhere to move but to rush).

This is an enormously subtle and subjective phenomena, and I suppose that, for most musicians, one that takes place at a pre-conscious or even involuntary level. Nate Mackey's fine epistolary novel Bedouin Hornbook (1986) had a sweet passing reminder that the word "conspiracy" is, at root, blowing together, and that physicality is essential. The Vienna Philharmonic is well-known for the conspiratorial precision of their ensemble rubato, and one suspects that the hesitation in this traditionally male-only preserve to permit women to become members is an expression of a very male insecurity, not only in preserving a male-only employment sector (a common phenomena in modernizing economies) but also a form of insecurity at a fundamental level of identity, where the physicality of music making has been confused with that of gender.

If it weren't worn by bellicose practice, I'd be amused by the Bushian slogan of "drawing a line in the sand". A line drawn in the sand is even more difficult to hold onto than a line drawn in a cut-out book or a conductor slicing the air with hand or baton. And although sand is tangible and discrete, our perception of sand is that of a mass phenomena with unsharp edges, the detailed reports of individual grains disappear into that edge.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Profligate Symphonists

One trend among composers who fancy writing Symphonies is to follow the Beethoven model and write a small number of substantial pieces. Subscribing to this particular edition of the masterpiece ethic often comes at some personal cost: the completion of each Symphony is another hour gone from a nine-hour clock, ticking away towards some certain end. Mahler, apparently suffering from anxiety over the number nine, still managed to write 10 or 11 symphonies, while the delightful Belgian composer Boudiwijn Buckinx has demonstrated a complete (and, now that I think of it, rather Belgian) exemption from Germanic symphonic anxiety by composing Nine Unfinished Symphonies. (For some reason, composers who choose to stop at four numbered symphonies have a more relaxed psyche, pace Brahms, Ives, or Lou Harrison, happily naming his Fourth the "Last".)

But there are a handful of composers who have no anxiety running well past Nr. 9, and seem to be untroubled by the masterpiece ethic. Hadyn is usually assigned the number of 106 Symphonies, the Bohemian Pokorny wrote at least 140. Nikolai Myaskovsky wrote 27 Symphonies. Havergal Brian wrote 32. Henry Cowell finished 20. Alan Hovhaness left the planet with 67 numbered Symphonies, and although several of them were definitely assigned the Symphony label with some large measure of license, being closer to concerti or other forms, or composed for unorthodox ensembles, Hovhaness more than adequately leaped over the cursed limit of nine. Another American, Rowan Taylor (1916-2005), may be the all-time champion with 265 (of which I've heard not a note). But the current champion is probably the Finnish composer Leif Segerstam who, as of April 10th, 2007, has produced 180 Symphonies (alongside 30 string quartets, 11 violin concerti, and 8 cello concerti).

The closer I get to shuffling off our mortal coil, the fact that I haven't managed a single example of a symphony starts to irritate at bit. Will I be one of those who leave no Symphonies behind? Or one of those -- like Cesar Franck who do it once, do it well, and never do it again, or like Hans Rott or Anton Webern, who did it once, and never got a second chance? (Remember the line spoken by Voltaire after a visit to a certain house of ill-repute: "Once a philosopher, twice a pervert"?) Or might I have a late surge and start churning out Symphonies with the speed of the prolific and greatly bearded Finn? At the moment, no one is knocking at my door, fatefully or otherwise, asking me to write a Symphony, but it's fun to imagine what I'd do if given the chance... let's just say that it will involve large amounts of water and a small supply of fireworks.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


I just read this in an item by Roger Bourland, the most augustinian* among composerly bloggers:
Moving to Los Angeles freed me from the tyranny of the East Coast music mafia, but soon discovered the West Coast music mafia was just as icky.
I almost let it pass, but then it hit me how often I'd heard composers talk of their colleagues in terms of cliques, cabals, or even -- as here -- criminal rackets. I sort of understood the message being conveyed, but I'm not sure that any of these identifications wouldn't fall apart upon in-depth inspection.

So when Roger writes of a coastal mafia, east or west, who exactly are the mafiosi he is writing about? When I was on the East Coast (from 1983-86, and then for a while in 88), the rivalries among East Coast composers made contemporary Iraq look like a quilting bee. Groups existed, trends existed, but seldom was an alliance anything other than convenient and temporary. Regional, stylistic, aesthetic, tonal or atonal, minimal or maximal, classical or romantic, uptown or down, pop-ish or jazzish, academic or conservatorial, experimental or electrical, straight, gay. male, female, ethnic, waspish, or or some/all/none of the above: for pretty much every form of identity, some grouping could be located. And for pretty much every grouping, some exception could be found. And for pretty much every grouping, someone's going to be left outside. But isn't this simply the consequence of the fact that different people are going to choose to make different music? The group that Roger himself co-founded in Boston, Composers in Red Sneakers, was a response by some (then-)younger composers to the existing musical scene there, and once the Reds has established themselves, there were plenty of locals, older or younger, or coming from similar or dissimilar aesthetic backgrounds, who resented the Reds for both their success and their clicquishness. It's an old story, and I have no patience with either the resentment or the fact that the resentful didn't take the initiative to start their own groups. And the west coast? He's got to be more specific -- are these film composers, or composers associated with the Monday Evening Concerts or the Independent Composers' Association, or composers along the CalArts/UCSD or USC/UCLA axes, the microtonalists around Erv Wilson, the Cold Blue-ers, or whoever? Again, I believe that any closer inspection is bound to fall apart. (Which begs the question: If musicians had really organized ourselves like a mafia, would we all still be working day jobs?)

So why the need to talk about groups of composers in these terms?

Often time, talk of cabals is an expression of resentment, dividing the world into me and an evil other, and locating one's status (usually "overlooked") in that division. On a mailing list with John Cage as subject matter, a musicologist who had interviewed the composer Lucia Dlugoszewski reported that Dlugoszewski felt that Morton Feldman had kept her out of the Cage/Feldman/Brown/Woff/Tudor group in the 1950's. This was an impossibility -- Dlugoszewski was a fine composer, perhaps even Varese's best student, but her aesthetic, especially in its dynamism, was completely different from the Cage group and, moreover, she had a professional and personal connection to the choreographer Erick Hawkins that more or less precluded a close relationship to the Cage group, with its connection to a choreographic rival, Merce Cunningham. But her reputation was never as great as any of the Cage group, and this -- perhaps coupled with some private grievance against Feldman -- was a convenient explanation.

Part of Roger's remarks may be an echo of another kind of resentment, that between students and teachers. I'm fortunate in that I chose my teachers well, and never had major aesthetic differences, or at least managed to keep them on a back burner. But many composers have ended up studying with teachers with whom they share only a mutual disregard for each others' work. Why anyone would end up in such a situation can only be explained by negligent selection in a buyer's market on the student's part, but why anyone would stay in such a situation can only be explained by masochism, and that's icky, if I can borrow a word from Roger.

I've complained often enough on this blog about the misuse of resources and abuse of power in musical politics (publishing, prize-giving, and distribution of fellowships and teaching jobs are the major areas of abuse), but I've also tried to steer clear of blanket incriminations. In general, the work of getting music played is taxing enough on our organizational skills that musicians seldom have the energy to conspire on matters more sinister, and the spoils for which we compete are so modest that whenever such indulgence is on display, which isn't often, the obvious loss of dignity is measurably greater than any material gains.

Our musical lives are richer because we have had compositional work that fit into a Perspectives, or a die Reihe, or a Source, a Computer Music Journal, or a Soundings, a Xenharmonikon or an Ear from either coast, or none of the above. (Not to mention this blog or that one or any other). Some music can be written about (and at length, such length), some music invites speechlessness instead, and neither condition is immediate and necessary grounds for either dismissal or celebration. I'm very particular about the music I do or don't like, but my musical life is lively precisely because I have a diversity of music from which to choose. And even within any of the fortresses of musical journalism mentioned above, closer inspection reveals surprising diversity.

Although, from time-to-time, there'll be tactical alliances, and even some real honest-to-goodness friendships, in the end, every composer is their own foot soldier, hit-man, consiglieri and Don in a one-man or woman musical mafia.
* Augustinian, in the sense that you'd need the confessional chutzpah of St. Augustine in order to admit to ever playing in a rock band named The Raspberry Steamboat.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Teaching musicianship and world music

I was recently forwarded a notice for an Institute on the Pedagogies of World Music Theories University of Colorado (Boulder, Colorado) May 29 - June 2, 2007 (link here).

This is very interesting stuff to me -- I once taught an introductory theory and musicianship class at Wesleyan, and in the context of the University's World Music program, I made some tentative steps in the direction of applying techniques from the world and experimental music traditions there. It was definitely the right idea, but not yet the right time to do it -- it was important at that moment for the individual musical traditions to assert some autonomy, there had been some bad experiences with naively throwing different musics together and hoping that they would complement one another, and the logistics of doing it right -- scheduling, especially -- were not simple. But the idea is the right one, and the way in which, for example, chamber musicans at Wesleyan practiced complicated rhythms with the assistance of South Indian Solkattu, was exciting, musical and not naive.

About the same time, I took part in discussions about the design of a core music curriculum and the committee came to agree on a few ideas that still strike me as very reasonable: teach repertoire, theory, and musicianship in parallel, expect students to explore at least one music tradition in addition to their native or chosen tradition, take a course in acoustics and music perception, keep the divides between the disciplines of performance, improvisation, and composition fuzzy, and to introduce a core sequence of four semester-long courses: melody and rhythm, modal counterpoint, tonal harmony, and 20th century techniques. Critical to this sequence was choosing a specific -- and fairly narrow -- historical repertoire as a source of examples (at Wesleyan, the counterpoint course would have definitely used 15th century counterpoint as its point of departure -- the local preference was for Josquin over Palestrina, and this kept some questions of major-minor tonality on hold until the third semester; on the other hand, there was never any consensus about the reference repertoire of the fourth course). This curriculum was never implemented, but I still haven't heard of a better idea.

Some bloggage

Of Sound Mind: Music, sound and ideas is a blog about experimental music.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


This year's list of Pulitzers has come out, and the most interesting factoids on the list, to me, were that the three finalists for criticism came from L.A., which is the cultural equivalent of a switch in the earth's magnetic polarity, and that the winner among the three was the L.A. Weekly's Jonathan Gold, who has been a pioneer in covering the extraordinary diversity of food culture in Los Angeles. (As far as food is concerned, L.A. is the center of the Universe).

As for the Pulitzer in Music, giving it to Ornette Coleman was probably as good as selection as is possible within the present, reformed, phase of the award.

A composer whose work I very much treasure used to quip "Pulitzer Prize... passport to oblivion!", and, in fact, the list of Pulitzer-Prize-winning compositions (PPWCs) includes a number of works that have long secured their places in said oblivion. I actually had some contact as a teenager with the composer Gail Kubik, whose own PPWC (1952's Symphony Concertante) had long faded from the collective memory, but the combination of his being a Pulitzer Laureate and his score for Gerald McBoing-Boing added up to something approximating status in our small world. I'm probably not alone in thinking that the PPWC list reached its apogee in 1947 with Ives' Third Symphony, but that was not Ives at his best and the awards had already made a decisive turn towards recognizing lifetime achievement as often as specific pieces: Congratulations, a bunch of the guys have gathered around in Jack Beeson's office at Columbia and decided that you, too, have joined the club.

(There are, some very good pieces in the PPWC list: Copland's Appalachian Spring, of course, and Thomson's score to Louisiana Story, and maybe Albert's Symphony: RiverRun, a piece that John Cage praised strongly).

Some people really worry about the PPWCs -- Morton Feldman taught a course surveying them, and I'd guess that he would have been happy to have had a piece win; composer Paul Reale has his own survey with comments here. The Pulitzer organizers have worried about the PPWCs too, concerned with the both the process in which works were selected and the character and status of the works selected over the years. The process has been opened up a bit, and the form that that opening has taken has been to allow, at intervals, work representing one tradition in addition to that of the more or less academic East Coasters, Jazz.

This is clearly a compromise in a politically delicate area -- significant work in the Jazz tradition should have been recognized long ago, and one solution would have been to create a separate prize for Jazz. But that would not have been satisfactory to many. Unless the Pulitzers had the will and resources to keep opening up new categories (as have the Grammys), it would have been a form of highly selective segregation, it would have raised serious questions about defining the category, and there has always been a small faction who insist that Jazz was "America's Classical Music". But the present compromise is equally problematic. Those who identify with the East Coast academic tradition have now had one of the rare places in which their work is recognized by non-professional become somewhat less secure, if not devalued, and the annexation of music outside of that tradition may be perceived as an aesthetic challenge.

I figured out quickly that I shouldn't worry about PPWCs -- I came from the wrong coast* and had all the wrong ideas about what music might do, and PPWCs, if anything, were all about reinforcing a particular tradition about what music might do. But observing the musical politics of the process of selecting a PPWC is unavoidably fascinating. The jury this year included a significant number of members with interests in what might be called Jazz (I won't get into the politics of that label, nor will I get into questions about the status of recordings and improvisation) and the jury selected a composer who can be identified with that repertoire. Although the alternative works on the short list could hardly be any different, it's hard to escape the notion that the jury was selected precisely because it might respond favorably to a Jazz selection, and that's troublesome because there's no mechanism for deciding whether a given year is more likely to be a better one for Jazz. The least that can be said is that Jazz now has a relatively good chance to produce as many oblivion-bound PPWCs as the standard academic offerings.

I don't see any satisfactory solution to any of this, let alone an easy one.

* If anyone has any doubts about this, there is the example of the BMI competition. The only composer of roughly my own generation from the west coast and/or experimental traditions to have won a BMI is Larry Polansky, a fine composer by any measure. But it can hardly be a coincidence that the year he won was the only year that Lou Harrison sat on the jury. So I learned first not to worry about BMIs, then not about PPWCs, Guggenheims, or Fulbrights, and I'll certainly never have to worry about polishing my chair at the American Academy. But, and it's a great consolation, I can instead worry about the decline of bee colonies and my brother tells me that I have an uncle who met Merv Griffin once. Isn't life grand?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Things that buzz

I had intended, in setting parts of Virgil's Georgics, to avoid Book Four, which deals with bee-keeping. I'm honestly not that fond of either honey or the social structure of bee colonies, so I've never gioven bees much attention. Book One, about field crops, gave me a passage the setting of which seemed urgent, about war. Books Two and Three, which move on to legumes, trees, and livestock have other attractions I may pursue. But now, with news that the recent serious declines in bee populations (aka "Colony Collapse Disorder") may be due to their damaged navigation capacity caused by interference from the ever-expanding networks of radio communications -- mobile telephones in particular -- perhaps setting some of Book Four is more urgent.

The nectar and pollen business carried out by bees is essential for much more than the production of honey for human consumption, and a reduction in bee populations has ramifications for both agriculture and nature in general. If radio waves do in fact contribute to this decline, then, as marvelous as a cell phone may be, there is certainly a good case to be made either against blanket cell coverage anytime and everywhere or to locate frequency bands which do not lead to this effect.

I'm certain that many composers have used bees as subject matter, well above and beyond Rimsky's too-famous flight, or the numerous settings of Where the bee sucks from The Tempest. Insect sounds, in general, have figured in much recent music, much of that is nocturnal in character and uses electronic resources (for example, Richard Maxfield's Night Music, the first item on my list of Landmarks, but also works of David Tudor, Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta, and even the amplified string quartet in George Crumb's Black Angels).

Addenda: After doing a bit more research, it seems that the mobile phone theory is a highly speculative explanation for Colony Collapse Disorder, and among the several theories in circulation, one concerning pesticides applied to corn (maize) crops appears more likely, but is itself stil speculative. What is abundantly clear is that too little research is being done on the animals who take care of pollination. Although absolutely essential to fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains, beekeeping is the absolute low-end of the modern agricultural system in terms of prestige and profits -- a judgment Virgil would have abhored -- and is a prime example of politics and industrialization making the major mistake of choosing short-term interests over long-tem needs.

This morning, over breakfast, my daughter and I watched a pair of bumble bees pollinating the Mutsu apple tree in our tiny backyard. My appreciation for bees and their relations in the order Hymenoptera has increased immensely. Isn't life grand?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Stokowski pulled out all of the stops

Adding to the thread on orchestral seating arrangements, Gordon Mumma wrote in:
The organ was Stokowski's primary instrument, and as a conductor he never gave up trying different arrangements of the "stops" with his orchestra platform-arrangements.

As an audacious youngster in the early 1950s, I attended two of Stoki's rehearsals, and after one had occasion to talk with him briefly about his "platform" ideas. He said then that he had arrived at an " always useful concept".

As best I remember, he started with the brass: " to place them on the sides so that they never face the audience, and when that's necessary they can turn 90 degrees towards the audience for the special effects. The horns should lever be seated with a wall behind them."

(As a horn player, I could have hugged him.)

"Woodwinds can face the audience, but not with the oboes and bassoons next to each other. Strings are separated depending on the compositions; for polyphonic and contrarpuntal music the violins are best opposite, with the 'celli and bases apart from each other. The violas sound fine near the basses..."

The main point in my reference to Stokowski is that he listened to the spatial sonic results of his work, for clarity, just as a good organist would do.
I'll add my two bits to Gordon's: While the organist's discipline was the basis of his technique, the fact that he gave up the organ for the orchestra has also to be figured in, and indeed, Stokowski balanced the mechanics of registration learned at the organ with the primary virtue and difficulty of the orchestra, which us that it is a breathing ensemble of individuals. Stokowski's orchestral sound was praised in its time (and often faulted in our time) for its seamlessness, but close listening always reveals that his unisons and tuttis were always full of grainy details, the product of independent breathing and bowing in the ensemble. And althought the visual focus was on the conductor, he had no difficulty in reconciling "his" global sonic qualities with a personnel policy that inevitably included individual instrumentalists (particularly in the woodwind) with distinctive personalities. One might say, if theoretically inclined, that Stokowski had completely internalized the complex physical behavior of a system, the orchestra, with qualities that might be well characterized by statistical thermodynamics.*

Stokowski is probably the 20th century conductor most out of fashion at the moment, and his style was so intimately connected with his independence from the pack and a unique skill set, that he will probably never be widely imitated, even when historically informed performance practice reaches the mid-20th century. But it is important to note that his style was, in fact, the most innovative of the time, his repertoire was extraordinarily broad (both backward and forward in time), and that he was always at the technological forefront in his concert work as well as in his broadcasts and recordings, less interested in carrying on traditional habits than in real experiment in order to bring out aspects of music that had not yet been heard.

(It should also be noted, especially to those who think classical music has to innovate its presentation style in order to survive, that whatever you're thinking about: pop repertoire, light shows, adding film, everything up to building a cult of personality around a conductor etc., Stokowski probably beat you to the idea by seven or eight decades).

*That's the most high-fallooting and naive thing I've ever written. Maybe I just should have said that Stokowski did with the orchestra exactly what my uncle the baker did with a batch of bread loaves -- if you looked close enough, each loaf was very different in details, but every loaf tasted unmistakeably like one of Baker Jim's.


This week I received (1) a request to review some music software here in return for a copy of the software, (2) a request to add a record firm to my blogroll, and (3) a request from a composer to add some banner advertising here, terms to be negotiated.

I don't do any of these things, but if I had, in fact, added the banner, it would have looked like this:

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Seating Order

One small addition to the recent discussion in comments on these pages about orchestral seating orders. The conductors Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez have recently been sharing a Mahler cycle in Berlin with the Staatskapelle. Eleonore Büning, in This morning's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, notes that Boulez has re-arranged the orchestra in the manner of Stokowski, "...the hierarchical-pragmatic variant, in which the outer voices sit far apart, the concertmaster no longer looking directly in the eyes of the solo cellist, so that everything is focused on the central control of the conductor." Barenboim, on the other hand, has stuck with the traditional German seating, an artifact of the historical assemblage of the orchestra, and the arrangement with which Mahler himself would have been familiar.

Friday, April 13, 2007

It's where you play and what you play

I walked past an accordion player today in the Frankfurt Leipzigerstrasse U-Bahn station and recognized him as a street musician I had often seen in Budapest. Not a virtuoso by any measure, but an slightly above average street musician. I greeted him with my rudimentary Hungarian and he immediately stopped played My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean in order to chat a bit.

Given the recent discussion over the experiment with a world-famous violinist busking in Washington D.C. and not earning much with the Bach Chaconne, I was bold and asked how he was doing. He said that he was getting about 200 Euros for three hours playing (I noticed that he was pocketing the money that had landed in his case from time-to-time to conceal the true extent of his success from potential donors). Considering that Leipzigerstrasse is a lively neighborhood but definitely not the center of town, and playing in one of the two station entrances limited his potential audience to only half of the U-Bahn users, I think he was doing well. He also kept his repertoire to popular tunes, old fashioned accordion music that could be recognized, and appreciated for what they were worth, in a passing moment. The Bach Chaconne on the other hand, for all its qualities, is not something that can be really appreciated as passing-by music, as its character is inevitably tied-up with its masterly use of pacing over a substantial duration.

So, before we start to draw too many conclusions from the D.C. experiment, please consider the possibility that a city full of bureacrats, pundits, and politicos in a rush may just not be the best place to busk and, when busking, it may be wise to play repertoire that catches the customers sooner rather than later.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


Paul Bailey has also been thoughtfully working through the recent death/non-death of classical/art music memes. Perhaps part of the difficulty is that the word "classical" has, for musicians, at least three usages -- for music of the late 18th and turn of the 19th centuries, especially Viennese classicism; for the western art music repertoire in general or some broader selection thereof; and finally for an attitude or aesthetic, one emphasizing discipline and clarity, and rather more apollonian than dionysian. My own usages tend to the first and last (with classical antiquity thrown in for some added confusion), and I like the possibility of connecting the classical aesthetic and working methods of a Mozart with those of Alvin Lucier.

But the second definition is probably the most prevalent but also the least helpful: it is aessentially a marketing category, the label under which the (evil, of course) institutional empire of conservatories, opera houses, management services, dinosauraurial recording companies, big-time critics, and the like all like to crawl. But I don't think that it's particularly useful to simply surrender the term and look for another marketing concept. "Classical" has simply too rich an association field to abandon to the bad guys, and besides, the way the world is moving, they're the ones who are scrambling as fast as they can for new marketing concepts for their old ways of doing business, so let them scramble into their post-s, neo-s, and cross-overs, and we'll just gather a little more closely around the classical camp fire.

Speaking of classics: here's a PDF of the score and a very rough midi-t0-MP3 of my recent setting of a bit of Virgil's Georgics. This is intended to be the soft and sober ending of a small cantata.


Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. has died, from a fall, at the age of 84, beating his long-promised "honorable suicide" via cigarettes. Like many in my generation, reading the Vonnegut canon was an essential teenage rite of passage, and then, when the time came to play at being an adult, the equally essential fashion was to dismiss Vonnegut as a passing and somewhat embarrassing adolescent phase, clever and charming, but not of substance or import. Now, with enough time gone to realize that adulthood isn't all that it's cracked up to be, it's clear that adult judgment was in this case not wiser than adolescent enthusiasm. Vonnegut's gifts as a writer were real, much more than their charming surfaces, and although his words sometimes appeared casual, even flippant, the appearance was deceiving and he handled the heaviest of themes with skepticism, differentiation, and all of the weapons a satirist can carry. (It is no small measure of the strengths of his novels as literature that not one of them has been successfully adapted as a film.) The Sirens of Titan, Cat's Cradle, and Slaughterhouse-Five are books to keep around.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Professional

A true story. Or so I've been told. A first experiment in video blogging; the low-tech and stammering product of an idle -- and possibly regrettable -- moment:

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Out of the League

Matthew Guerrieri considers the possibility of running major orchestras like Major League Baseball. With all respect to Matthew and his estimable canine companion, that's a really bad idea.

American sports leagues, and Major League Baseball -- with its congressional charter (i.e. a legal monopoly) -- in particular, are designed to value institutions, in this case, privately-owned franchises, over the game itself. Once a major league franchise is granted, it stays a major league team for eternity, with minimal incentive for individual team owners to ensure that their teams consistently perform well.

But this is one area in which the Europeans have a better business and sports model. Teams in a given league do not have secure positions in their leagues, they are continously under pressure to perform well -- the top teams in a league have the possibility to rise to next league up while the poorest performing teams in a league are each year sent down to the next-lower league.

Thus, in Europe, it is possible for a famous, but underperforming team, like Borussia Dortmund, to be threatened (as it is at the moment) with a drop into the second league, while less well-known but talented teams can move up into the big show. If we were to transpose this into American orchestral terms, underperforming orchestras, like the Boston of the late Ozawa era or the present NYPhil, would have had the pressure of second league status (and second league funding) as a major incentive to play better, while less-well recognized but better playing orchestras (like the two major teams in California) would have had clear public recognition of their major league status, which may well have figured into funding and salary issues.

Competition boycott on a roll

Over at the Olist (International Mailing List for Orchestras), there's been a healthy discussion of entry fees for composition contests, a topic that I've covered here before, and my call for boycotting contests with disproportionate fee-to-prize ratios has now been joined by several other musicians.

I don't believe that anyone has illusions that staging a competition comes without organizational costs, and it is entirely reasonable to expect all entrants to submit their materials in the appropriate format and to included self-addressed, postage-paid packaging for the safe return of those materials.

However, there are no circumstances in which an entry fee is justified: neither as a way of funding the competition itself, nor as a way of pre-selecting entries. Pre-selection is better done through a clear description of the contest criteria and materials required (that is to say, pre-selection is done on a musical basis and not on the basis of cash in a checking account). And using the fees to fund the competition is absurd: it is asking the weakest links in the music-financing food chain to ante up for everyone else.

Anyone planning a competition who is unable to raise third-party funds sufficient to cover both organizational and prize costs should simply not be in the business of staging a competition. Basta.

I made my first call for a boycott in December and have received nearly unanimous (if mostly private) support. But it has not yet been taken up by any of the organizations that are supposedly in the business of composer advocacy. So how about it, American Music Cartel Center?


There's been some confusion about my post on the Thanatophiles who are pushing the "death of classical music" meme. Let me now be a bit more specific:

The mid-20th century way of doing classical music was built on a strict hierarchy, at the top of which were a handful of name-brand musicians, managed by a smaller handful of name-brand managers, performing in a handful of name-brand houses, recorded by a small handful of recording firms, and reviewed by a handful of critics published by newspapers and magazines which were printed on dead trees. This way of doing business focused, inevitably, on a narrow repertoire of music, performed within an even narrower band of interpretive possibilities.

The "death of classical" meme is being pushed by those who are most immediately threatened by the demise of the old way of doing business. The best example would be a newspaper critic or radio presenter who has focused his (to my knowledge, never a her) career on big artists who play in big halls and record on big labels. When the action moves beyond those small circles, as it has, and the said newsprint critic has to start taking blogging seriously*, or taking download-able recordings seriously, the earth has shook.

This way of doing business has gone the way of the dodo, but in this case, a bit of extinction has made way for greater musical biodiversity: in the newer environment, the hierarchies have been flattened, allowing for greater numbers of artists to perform in a wider variety of venues, to be recorded, to have those recordings available in a wider variety of formats, more flexibly packaged and deliverable through completely new channels, and -- most musically important -- to offer a wider variety of interpretive possibilities. The production and market conditions have so changed that the successful realization of the Naxos business plan -- unlike that of the behemoth Karajan-era Sony -- does not preclude the success of its competitors. Yes, the earth has shook, but we're very much alive, with the potential to thrive, in spite of the death chanting partisans of the old hierarchy.
* If I still haven't been explicit enough, contrast the predominant assent to the death meme among the dead-tree critics who have been assembled at the ArtsJournal corporate blog with the optimism -- and hard statistics -- of Alex Ross, who has managed remarkably to do both his New Yorker paper route and to blog independently.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


As I've written here before, I profoundly disagree with the notion of a "death of classical music". This is largely because "classical music" is a moving target, always changing its nature, extent, and limits. It always has been and always will be. Likewise, there is no singular and fixed audience for art music. This is a story well told in the change, in Europe, from courtly to private to popular patronage, or in the relationship between emigration patterns and classical music institutions in the United States, or in the association of western classical music with industrialization in many parts of the world (East Asian countries and Venezuela offer the examples of the moment). Further, hidden by our lament for lost ages inhabited by giants of composers and their heroic interpretors, we tend to lose the perspective that there has never been so much activity in terms of both composition and interpretation as there is today, that there has never been such a diversity of activity, and as difficult as a life as a composer or performer may now be, has it ever been really any easier?.

That said, I agree that -- as wrong as it is -- the "death of classical music" trope is widespread, and that spread is a phenomenon that should undergo some sociological and ethnographic study. In particular, we need to ask who are the individuals and institutions declaring it dead? and what are the individual and institutional needs that are fulfilled by declaring it dead? A death certificate is the first step in an assertion of inheritance and there are plenty of interests with a strong interest and potential for profit in making such a claim.

Declaring the death of a repertoire puts a clear boundary around that repertoire, and the (usual) suspects with a motive for closure and implicit control over that repertoire are clear. (There's nothing more controlling than an embalming, and musical embalming is always done best in a conservatory, or in a recording firm that has grown so large that it no longer has the flexibility to react to the most rapid changes in music or the musical marketplace).

While it's clear that much of 20th century classical musical life can be characterized by the active rejection of new composition in favor of the interpretation of older work, we desperately need some smarter ideas about the ways in which repertoires integrate or reject innovation, and perhaps we can get some ideas from religious and literary scholarship about the ways in which communities for whom the canon has been closed still maintain a creative life.

We still understand very little about the impact of the various technologies for "fixing" a music -- from oral transmission, to notation, and onto sound recording in its changing modes of exchange. A bit of music may or may not have some platonic ideal behind it which these various technologies reproduce to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy, but these technologies raise all sorts of questions about both liveliness and morbidity and further questions about how to distinguish between these two states in an environment in which a parasitic attachment to past liveliness is -- for better or worse -- a substitute for getting on with real change.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Hard to recall

I was in London this past week, for just a bit of unashamed tourism. As it happens, I looked at a lot of theatres, not really for performances and not a single one of them in any depth, but the impressions were vivid and comparisons were unavoidable -- a Punch and Judy player near Covent Garden, that opera house itself, the reconstructed Globe Theatre, the construction site about the South Bank complex, and the commercial theatres all about the center of the city -- and thinking about theatres turned my mind to the classical notion of a theatre of memory (about which Frances Yates has most famously written), a technique of memorizing some material by analyzing the material into bits and associating each bit with a location in a real or imagined physical space -- rooms in a house, niches in a temple, plots in a garden, etc..

Architecture was especially well suited to theatres of memory because real buildings offered at least three dimensions of organization and each of those dimensions could be summoned easily by imagination. When the material you wished to commit to memory was not reduceable to a single list or a two-dimensional matrix or table of relationships, then sometimes such added dimensions of relationships could come in handy. London offers a particularly rich variety of real architecture from which to borrow for memory-work -- from the Punch and Judy stage, upon which the figures only enter or exit, and in a sequence of characters defined rigidly by tradition (i.e. a Punch and Judy play is structured like a simple list), to the Globe, a theatre in which the audience spaces are rigidly classed, and the stage can be parsed simply (left/right or inside/outside, or upstairs/down) or in more complex combinations of spaces, or even theologically (heaven, earth, and hell), or cosmologically (sun, moon, planets, and figures from the zodiac). The Globe clearly offers a number of ways to structure a two or three dimensional matrix of information. But perhaps the largest potential theatre of memory available to a Londoner is the map of the Underground system -- representing a network of extreme complexity with lines, branches, stations (including a number of rather mysterious discontinued stations), junctions, and a naming system that is so often divorced from immediate connections to the places near lines or stations that one sometimes wonders if the Underground is itself a theatre of memory for some long-forgotten text of indeterminate dimensions of complexity.

One measure of the complexity of a bit of music is the amount of difficulty required to commit the music to memory. This is not necessarily the best measure -- certainly not with a memory as poor as my own -- and may sometimes even be misleading. I am able, for example, to write out the score for Steve Reich's Clapping Music or Piano Phase, with a combination of memory and a bit of logic, but those scores hardly represent all of what one would want to recall about the music as experienced. Steven Schick's description of the process of memorizing Ferneyhough's Bone Alphabet might be another counter-example, in that the piece as learned and performed was quite something quite distinct from the piece as a compositional performance.

But this form of measurement may still have its uses: a lot of music strikes me as being assignable in memory to a list of Punch and Judy-like single dimensionality and relatively little music demands more than two dimensions of classification. I am altogether uncertain that there is any music with the complexity of the London Underground, unless we move from bits of music to considering entire repertoires (Javanese Karawitan is a useful example, in that the better musicians are continually assimilating repertoire and making material connections between pieces in the repertoire with each performance; the entire repertoire can be heard as a single work of continuously growing dimensional complexity).