Friday, June 29, 2007

Gesang der Junglinge

A report that when listening to music subjects judged as pleasant, the subjects tolerated a high level of heat. (Via Scott Spiegelberg).

Filling the Quota

Ron Kuivila used to describe a piece, or rather an idea for a piece as it probably was never realized, for solo keyboard. In this piece, each key would be allowed to sound only a fixed number of times, and then would become inoperative, thus ensuring a particular economy in the distribution of pitches in the piece. This could be realized in a score, or, when programmed appropriately, as a instrument on which to improvise. An improviser would have to have an excellent memory, or she'd find herself thumping away at more and more soundless keys as the piece went on.


There's an anecdote that my memory attributes to Stravinsky, in which the conversation turns toward a particularly prolific composer. Stravinsky (or whoever it was) responds to the mentioned profligate with the suggestion that if the government pays farmers not to grow crops in order to prevent an oversupply, they ought to extend the grace to composers, and pay them not to compose pieces.


It recently dawned on me that I was probably never going to have more space available to me than I have now. The world is more crowded than ever, I live in a part of the world in which living is done in close quarters, and I'm not likely to acquire wealth enough anytime in the near future to afford more space. The space available for stashing my scores and sketches and souvenirs and books and instruments and tools and toys is more or less fixed and filled. A certain amount of space will be recovered through electronically consolidating some of this, but my attachment to most of these artifacts is great enough that they cannot be easily let go. But more critically, composing new pieces means finding space to house then, both physical -- in my shelves and file cabinets -- and conceptual: Another string quartet, Deej? You've already done that!

Perhaps there is some opportunity here. It's always been hard for me to let go of a piece, to call it finished. While there's a certain (and very male) fear-of-death thing going on here, it's mostly because of a self-critical impulse and a fondness for tinkering about, usually with a handful of pieces on my desk at once. Changing something here, something there. I'm not in any race or rush over historical priority for any of the ideas that happen to land in my pieces, and I'm not shy about having been influenced, so dating my scores is not an issue. So what if I were to say now that I expect to compose X pieces of music, maybe even name the pieces or their genres, say 32 Sonatas and Nine Symphonies and Six Quartets, etc.? That'd then be my quota, and I could list them in my catalog as soon as a score was playable, but reserve the right to modify, edit, or replace any score within that quota, and I would only keep hard copies of the current versions. In this way, I'd never have more than Six Quartets, but they'd always be -- according to my current estimation -- optimal and improving.

Now, the chronology of my works may start to be fairly complex, or even have a fictional dimension, if, for example, I allow myself to write the First Quartet new after having finished a Sixth and then finding the First lacking, but what's altogether wrong with (a) trying to get things right? and (b) keeping idle musicologists of the future occupied? I know that Hindemith's theory-laden revisions of his early works was not always an improvement, but last time I checked, my relationship to theory was admiring but not obedient, and, Cub Scout's honor, I promise to do better than Mr. H..

Okay it's settled, I'll compose to the quota. Now I just have to find a friendly little welfare state willing to compensate me generously for all the pieces I will not compose.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The classical impulse

Matthew Guerrieri has a fine meditation on transformations of musical material, and notes correctly that a classical attitude and technique or a romantic attitude and technique does not necessarily coincide with the eras and repertoires of the same name. Indeed, I would trace a classical impulse even further, for example, in the work of Alvin Lucier, in which classicism describes well the aesthetic of clarification essential to his music.

Matthew focuses on Schoenberg's identification of Mozart as a precursor, and I was immediately reminded of Lou Harrison's preface to his his SUITE for Piano, written during his studies with Schoenberg:
In 1942-3 1 was working as a musician and teacher in the Dance Department of the University of California at Los Angeles and had indeed gone there in the hope that I might study, even a little, with Schoenberg. It proved that he was conducting a small seminar on one afternoon each week. I gathered up my courage and applied to his then assistant, Harold Halma, who took me directly to Schoenberg in his study. He had evidently been in deep concentration, and must have been startled, for he physically twitched during the introduction. I was relieved, though, to be accepted.

I was told that he refused to examine any work in "12-tone technique." Firstly, then, I took my Saraband and also my Prelude for Grand Piano and played those for him. He said, in obvious pleasure, "This is music I understand," and, turning, asked my fellow seminarians, "Why do you not bring to me such music?"

Meanwhile, I had been introduced by the lovely dancer Melissa Blake to Peter Yates and his wife, Frances Mullen. We shared intently many musical pleasures and, upon discovering that Frances Mullen was a fine concert pianist and sympathetic to new music, I began to concentrate on this Suite for Piano, to give her. I had composed much of it, and then found that I was composing myself into a corner in III, the Conductus. Emboldened by Schoenberg's own kindnesses, I arrived one afternoon with the work. I supposed that, for my bringing in a 12-tone work, he might throw the three or four of us "out" -- permanently ( as I was told he had done once or twice before in exasperation) -- or that he might throw out at least me. I played the Prelude. There was a rather long moment of silence, and then he asked me, thoughtfully, "Is it 12-tone?" I simply said, "Yes." He reached for the page, saying, "It is good! It is good!" (What a relief! I was not going to be thrown out!) He asked me to continue, and I played Movement II. Again, "It is good! It is good!" He seemed fascinated by the very wide, soft spacing in measures 4-8. By the time I had played to the point of my blockage in Movement III, he plunged directly in, already aware of my structure, and, with splendid illuminating instructions, permanently disposed of for me not only that particular difficulty but also any of the kind that I might ever encounter. Only a few years ago I wrote a sentence, in a paper for the East-West Music Encounter in Tokyo, which suggests something of what 1 felt he was telling me about : ". . . that deft, light musicality which to us ( as musicians) is the very happiest conjunction of our intellect and senses."

If, as I sometimes suspect, I was being "spoofed" about Arnold Schoenberg's patience, then I am nonetheless grateful for that, too, for obvious reasons.

He was a lovely and delicate man, very nervous when airplanes flew over U.C.L.A.; who once hushed us, too, in order to hear a bird outside.

There was more, and much of musical interest. When I was about to leave for New York, he asked me why I was going there and I replied that I did not really know. "I know why you are going," he said. "You are going for fame and fortune. Good luck! And, do not study anymore -- only Mozart!"

The Composer on the Coffee Table

1986: When the copy of Morton Feldman Essays spilled out of the envelope, addressed by hand in Peter Garland's distinctive felt-tipped printing, I realized at once that the day would come when I would have to be an owner of a coffee table. Although the book, edited and published in a quixotic and bankrupting labor of love by Walter Zimmermann, was only a paperback, and its typos and transcription errors would soon become terms of distress for the picayune, it was, and remains, a gorgeous volume, faced with Philip Guston's portrait of his friend M.F., and a book that wants to be displayed, and nowhere else but on a coffee table. The essays in the book have since been republished, edited and corrected, but there is no substitution for the original edition.

Coffee table books are a special genre, and only a small handful of books about recent composers qualify. Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents, by Vera Stravinsky and Robert Craft certainly belongs, and is a real treasure, if only for the pages here about The Owl and The Pussycat, a last glimpse of the composer at work, his hands, his tools, his notes. I have been to more than one recital in which the accompanying pianist has insisted on playing from the manuscript reproduction found here rather than from the engraved sheet music. That reproduction, in the context of the photo essay about its creation, has taken on its own aura of authenticity.

Some books about composers have been relatively short-term occupants of my coffee table. The John Cage issue of the Revue D'esthetique and Philip Blackburn's Enclosure 3: Harry Partch and the Burning Books anthology The guests go into supper have all taken their turns in the table top rotation. If I could afford a copy, I would certainly book space for one or the other volume of Taruskin's Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, a book that my local library will only let me peruse in the reading room. At the moment, place of honor goes to the new Meyer/Zimmermann volume Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary (which the library has kindly let me borrow, but I am already loathe to return).

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Least common denominators

Here is a fascinating article, accessible to a non-specialist audience, by pianist and scholar Anatole Leikin on the evolution and institutionalization of performance styles. In this case, Leikin is describing the Russian piano tradition, but it certainly resembles the pattern found elsewhere. The kicker here is his description of the 13th Tchaikovsky Competition, in which a number of "brilliant pianists...stood out as the most fascinating and original artistic personalities" were all eliminated in the first round to leave the competition to less interesting pianists who are more closely compliant with the official style.

Summer Camp

In High School, as part of my rebellion against marching band and marching band culture and marching, I went to an Early Music workshop over several summers, up in the mountain retreat of Idyllwild, California. Although the experience of performing sections of the Machaut Mass or Isaac's devastating lament, Quis dabit capiti meo aquam or figuring out how to get my awkward adolescent 6'4" frame to do a bransle were perhaps as important to my musical thinking as any composition lessons, I never really had a composers' summer camp experience. Places like Tanglewood or Aspen had been long shut off to experimental music and were preserves of other networks of teachers and students, the Burdocks and Chocorua Festivals were one-offs and slightly before my time, the Cabrillo Festival of '80 was not a training program, and the Ostrava Days were far in the future, a real gift for the next experimental generation. By the time I got to Darmstadt, in '90, I had already grown out of my happy camper phase, and was happy enough to watch the complexifiers kick dust around in Gut City. I reckon it as a loss that I didn't have the direct exchange with my contemporaries that comes about in these summer programs, but perhaps this blogging enterprise has made up somewhat for this lost episode in my youth: Renewable Music, my virtual summer camp.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Instrument Building

From time to time I do some instrument building, either to follow up on an acoustic lead, as an adventure for its own sake, or to fulfill a need in a composition in progress. Lou Harrison put it this way:
"to make an instrument is in some strong sense to summon the future. It is as Robert Duncan has said of composing, "A volition. To seize from the air its form." Almost no pleasure is to be compared to the first tones, tests & perfections of an instrument one has just made. Nor are all instruments invented & over with, so to speak. The world is rich with models ~ but innumerable forms, tones & powers await their summons from the mind & hand. Make an instrument ~ you will learn more in this way than you can imagine."
The best job-job I ever had was working summers and holidays for Charles Chase at the Folk Music Center in Claremont, CA, where I helped to organize his instrument collection, did some instrument repair, and very often, Charles and I would get lost together in an instrument building project. For me, it was practical training in organology and potential instrumentation, with some poetics and old left politics on the side.

I learned quickly that I was not to be fine luthier, as that would have been a job for a parallel lifetime, and I discovered that I was not going to build my own orchestra, like Partch, or my friend Kraig Grady. But I am handy at repairs on the spot for a good number of instruments, and occasionally like to make an instrument or two specifically for my own compositions.

At the moment, my work in progress needs some high sustained sounds matching the pitches of my gamelan (I have a small sléndro set in my studio; doesn't everyone?) , and I've been experimenting with stroked aluminum rods, following an instrument design of Robert Erickson. The sound -- haunting, bright -- is right, but I'm not yet certain how to turn the ensemble of rods into a reliable instrument. In particular, I'm not sure how best to suspend the rods, but the experiments have just begun.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Systematic Mr. Johnson

Paris Transatlantic has a nice interview with composer Tom Johnson here.

Tom is a wonderful composer and perhaps uniquely combines rigor and joy in his music, and he's certainly one of the very few with a genuine sense of humor, abundantly on evidence in his comic operas, works that actually have the audience laughing. He's one of the persons in the Republic of New Music I value most, and it's sad not to see him more often. At a few uncertain points in my composing life, Tom has stepped in with a few words that have proven invaluable. He has never taught in a formal setting, be I suspect that his informal tutorials have been essential to more than a few younger colleagues.

Friday, June 22, 2007


The Music07/eighth blackbird composition competition that I flagged here and here in December for its entry fee has now concluded. According to one member of Eighth Blackbird, one of the sponsoring organizations, more than 120 applications were received. Do the math: the entry fee is $25. 120 x $25 = $3000. The prize is $500, which the judges have decided to award in full to two winners. That's a net of $2000.

If that $2000 has gone on to subsidize administration, judging, or the performance, then the sum of the fees is a sign that the organizers were not able to raise enough money to cover the costs of the competition and have decided instead to let the weakest participants cover all or a substantial part of the costs. If the $2000 was simply absorbed as profit, that's completely unacceptable.

(A reader of this blog has also pointed out that, in some states of the US, if the prize money is derived from entry fees, then the contest is a form of gaming and not legal; this also raises a question about interstate gaming, which is also restricted).

I discourage any younger colleagues in participating in this competition or any competition like it in which fees other than return postage and packaging are required. Organizers of composition competitions should raise third party funds to cover any prize money and any expenses related to the competition; expecting contestant composers to contribute to the prize money is gaming, and not ethical treatment of musicians.

You've been warned

According to, this rating was determined based on the presence of the following words: death (9x) [as is "death of classical music"], punch (4x) [as in "Punch and Judy puppet"], sex (2x) [guilty], and cum (1x) [the Latin preposition].

Hat tip: Musical Perceptions

Get rid of the packaging

Matthew Guerierri has a fine post about some experiments with audience reception of concerts with and without preparation. In short, it appears that the less audiences are prepared, the more they enjoyed the concert. Virgil Thomson warned us decades ago about the "Music Appreciation Racket" and I think not only was old Mr. Thomson right, but he didn't go far enough: it's not just the racket of telling us how and when we're supposed to enjoy music, but the entire racket of packaging music into neat commodities. Should it really be surprising that what audience want most from a concert is music and not someone telling them about music? We've gotten ourselves into a management/marketing/appreciation cul de sac that is -- by evidence of the best accounting of the managers and marketers themselves -- a poor business model for serious music, and it's time to get out.

Matthew remarks correctly that putting instruments into the hands of young people is one of the best investments we can make, so that a wider potential audience encounters sound- -- and, eventually -- music-making as a physical, pre-cognitive, pre-mediated experience. I would add that we ought to get out of the formula that classical music is that which happens between applause and intermissions and pre-concert talks and glances at program notes, and is actually something that musicians value and enjoy so much that they can't stop sharing it. How would it be, if one were to go to a concert and were to encounter non-stop live music making -- in the packing lot, by the ticket counter, in the lobby, as well as in the concert hall, and then back out again?

Paul Auster: some practical lessons in composerly legerdemain

Paul Auster writes like a composer. I've long been an avid reader of his novels (The Book of Illusions and Leviathan are particular favorites; Moon Palace and The Music of Chance are good books to start with) but have never been able to nail down exactly what he does that captures my reading attention so well. But there are two things I've noticed in his most recent novel, The Brooklyn Follies*, that I now recognize from work as a composer.

The first involves a bit of misdirection, like a stage magician, but also very much something done by the best composers. As in most of his books, there are a lot of coincidences bubbling at the surface, and the coarsest of coincidences often get direct acknowledgment from the narrator. This is Auster's misdirection: he's encouraging the reader to pay attention to sets of over obvious chance encounters, associations and resemblances while simultaneously, and under cover of protests of insignificance or innocence, he is composing ever more subtle and dense association fields or networks of relationships.

In The Brooklyn Follies, the narrator's nephew falls for a woman seen from a distance. Not knowing her name, he calls her "the B.P.M." for "Beautiful Perfect Mother" as he has observed the way in which she cares for and delights in her children as he watches her send them off to school each morning. The B.P.M. title is an immediate riff on the Blessed Virgin Mother, but B.P.M. is also beats per minute, and if B.PM. can riff into the B.V.M., it can also riff into R.P.M., opening an association field for anyone old enough to have played records on a phonograph. And, indeed, although the paragraph has nothing to do with a phonograph, Auster doesn't shy from that field of associations, locating the woman in "an enchanted circle of hugging, singing, and laughter", framed by a series of periodicities: "every morning", "as slowly as I can", "twenty times a day", and even suggestions of the phonograph's arm and stylus: "an arm wrapped", "dropped something". None of these devices -- as avant garde in their way as anything by Walter Abish or members of the Oulipo -- creates material that is essential to the narrative, but all of them are essential additions to the language, its economy, continuity, and internal coherence. As a composer I can only envy Auster's ability to play with themes and motives in such an economic manner while also being able to accommodate such extravagant misdirection.

The second technique Auster uses is one of dramatic changes of texture. He uses these changes to break continuity in a cinematic manner (he is also a fine screenwriter and director). The Brooklyn Follies is mostly in first person narrative (and self-referential at that, as the narrator happens to be writing a book with the title The Book of Human Folly), but suddenly, a third of the way in, a third person narrator steps in and introduces a chapter in scripted dialogue. But this scene is not really a break in the narrative, Auster lets us know, by explicitly giving the chapter that immediately follows the title of "Cigarette Break" (Auster is unafraid of featuring cigarettes in his work). The break switches back, however, to the original first person narrative. Again, a bit of misdirection, leading the reader to some jarring uncertainty, and using some of the most familiar mechanics of the novel form -- in this case, the chapter titles** -- to make the experience a bit less familiar. Again, a marvelous lesson in composition.

* Wise beyond his years, PWS of Tears of a Clownsilly has been reading this as well. Another one of those Austerian coincidences that may mean everything, or nothing at all...
** I should say something about these chapter titles and silent film intertitles -- silent film features in Auster's The Book of Illusions -- but that would be heavy-handed, wouldn't it?

The Cover Game

Here's a new game that's currently making its way through the Newmusicland cocktail party circuit: Name the next person getting a front page interview at the American Music Junta Center's* New Music Box. Recent interviewees have included an up-and-coming composer, a new music ensemble, and a conductor. My money is on a critic or someone who runs a new music label (if I had my way, that'd be Alan Rich and OgreOgress but I'd guess it'd sooner be one of the usual suspects).

* Okay, someone finally asked: what's up with me and the AMC? I like the AMC and the New Music Box, and I think that they are truly valuable. However, I don't think that a National Music Information Service should be a membership organization. It should be an advocacy organization and in cases of conflicts of interest -- for example, between composers and publishers -- it should advocate for the composers, as they are usually in the weakest position in the new music food chain. I think it might also be a benefit if the AMC was located somewhere in the middle of the country, rather than in NYC, but in these days of virtual real estate and virtual offices and online score libraries, this is much less of a concern.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

When should words make sense?

As I get closer to committing myelf to setting a text, I've stumble into the brambles of the choice of language itself. The text I'm looking at is in Latin, and not in a Latin limited to the small lexicon of Liturgical Latin, so it's likely to be understood by very few, if any, without a translation. Setting an English translation is problematic, as any translation is a selective representation of the orginal, containing none of the sounds of the orginal, and in this case, those are sounds to which I've become seriously attached. So it looks like I'll be setting the original, and that places me into even thicker brambles: aside from a prevalent aesthetic assesment that not being able to understand a text is not a good thing, there is not much help, in either the form of a theory or a practical tradition, out there -- see Virgil Thomson's book on English text setting, Music with Words: A Composer's View as a counterexample -- to help with a project in which the compose enters with an upfront committment to not making sense.

"Not making sense" is here something other than making nonsense (as in Deleuze's wonderful set of turns about Lewis Carroll, in The Logic of Sense), but rather the experience of a coherently performed language by someone who does not understand it. That is to say, an experience of language as something more like a music than as a means for explicit communication. This, in fact, is an everyday experience for much of the planet. Multi-lingual environments are increasingly the norm, and the spectrum of competency is a full one, so many people live in environments in which a good deal of the language heard is language not understood. Church Latin was such an experience, and perhaps this pope will revive it, ironically following the lead of those protestant fundamentalists who find inerrancy in the increasingly archaic world of the KJV and their political allies who commune with spirits of the American "founding fathers" in search of the "original meaning" of the constitution. N.O. Brown compared the experience in the west of a still small avant garde of reading Finnegans Wake (in which we at least get bits and pieces via a casual reading) to the experience of Muslims hearing the Quran recited, a book written in a language which is foreign for most believers, and for native speakers, archaic and including many parts which -- even when first written down -- have never made sense in terms of an everyday language.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Way Forward

Alex Ross has, to my mind, a very important review in the current New Yorker (online here). Ross took a road trip to check out the music making in the provinces and found that it was not just respectable, but adventurous and well-received. This is important because the future of classical music has to be as a form of live, not recorded, music-making, and that means music made locally. The fact that the American musical provinces are both more lively and less, well, provincial, is a natural development of a successful musical training system and, I believe, deep changes in immigration patterns in the US. In the past, a core of support for the top-tier orchestras in large urban centers was due in no small part to immigrants from Europe preserving links to their own cultural heritage and a concentration of intellectuals in those centers. The principal European immigrations are now long past and those immigrants have become well integrated in America writ large, and the concentration of intellectual life has been much reduced over time, and perhaps accelerated, as newer industries have tended to establish themselves in centers of their own.

Music made locally will also include music composed locally, and the practice of playing new, American repertoire has got to be done as an integrative process, into the classical canon, not against it. And this will perhaps come about as a parallel to the integrative processes in the population at large.

From my viewpoint, over here in Old Europe, I can recognize the need for European musicians and audiences to integrate their repertoires chronologically, while at the same time recognizing that my own musical impulses fit poorly into that chronology in comparison with a Wolfgang Rihm, a Thomas Ades, or a Magnus Lindberg. American musicians and audiences have an opportunity to take a very different branch forward and out of the same trunk tradition.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Tabling consideration of the budget, the cabinet adjourned to their gamelan rehearsal...

In the June 4th issue of The New Statesman is a list of "50 ideas for Brown's Britain", suggestions for the incoming Prime Minister. I can't help but note this one, from Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre:
In the interests of inspired collective decision-making, I would like Gordon Brown to bring his new cabinet to the Southbank Centre to play our gamelan; it's a wonderful team-building experience.

Further Corrigenda to The Harvard Dictionary of Music

So says Paul Bailey:
a cadenza is kind of like the circus train stopping in your neighborhood, either the elephants will do something cool or just crap on the side of the tracks.

Addendum (19/06) : The Lattice of Coincidence intervenes to confirm this definition: conductor Kenneth Woods discusses the -- by tradition, not by score -- practice of interpolating a cadenza into the first movment of the Schumann Cello Concerto.

The Lattice of Coincidence

I posted my item last night, about teachers and grandteachers (and Doktorväter and oedipal conflict), only to realize this morning that yesterday was Father's Day in the US, giving the post an unplanned and unexpected relevance. (In Germany, Father's day is on Ascension Thursday).

I will now admit that some of my most relevant words or actions have been unplanned and unexpected. Once, in one of those college parties that no one really wanted to be at but no one really wanted to leave, I was asked to make a toast. Aside from too much gin, I was unaccompanied that evening and single in a room full of couples. Struggling for meaningful words, I noticed the record player in the corner and my mind raced from the concept of HiFi to the word "fidelity", to which I then made an innocent and idealistic toast. Which was received with stunned faces. But for the gin, I should have realized sooner that the set of couples in the room actually consisted of a combinatorial repairing of an older set of couples, and any semblance of new love was a thin cover for older injuries. My toast was both innocent and cruel. Lorenzo da Ponte, that great moral dramatist, could not have chosen a more and less appropriate word than "fidelity", and it had simply sprung into my head.

When composing, even when deciding to use chance operations in the process, I can generally explain how each note got to be here or there, but there are always surprises, moments where despite all habit, calculation, or cunning, something appears that is both inexplicable and inexplicably right. And despite my inability to explain these moments away, they are usually the ones I most loathe to lose, the moments that turn patient labors into something more, well, musical.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Teachers and Grandteachers

I was fascinated to learn recently that mathematicians keep track of their "genealogies", tracing teacher-student relationships for several generations. (To make the genealogical analogy even stronger, in German, the advisor for a dissertation is actually referred to as a Doktorvater (0r Doktormutter).*

Composers and other musicians (especially pianists and violinists) often like to keep track of their teacher-student lineages, too. It's not unusual for a pianist to be able to trace their teachers and grandteachers back to Liszt, Busoni, Schnabel, or Cortot or a violinist back to Joachim or Auer. Compositional lines are often like divisions on a battlefield; the Skriabinistes here, the Second Viennese there, and the Boulangerie, like a fortress, over there. Even someone as self-assured as John Cage was always clear about his teachers: Weiss, Cowell, Schoenberg. Placing the teaching of composition into institutional settings within which young composers come into contact with teachers from a variety of backgrounds has watered this all down a bit, so that I'm not unusual in being able to claim parallel lines to Schoenberg, Cowell, Copland, and even Stravinsky**. (Although this may seem like an awfully broad swathe of music history, other prominent teaching lineages are quite alien for me -- Hanson, Piston, Hindemith, Sessions, Babbitt, Messiaen, or Milhaud.)

For mathematicians, these teacher-student lines can have import for the history of mathematics as many senior mathematicians work "through" their students, in that they use their students to fill in or carry out their own larger research programs and teacher-student paths can be useful in tracing the development of mathematical ideas and mathematicians talk, not unreasonably, about having "styles" of working which may be carried down these paths. A similar "carrying on" may hold for some music teaching situations (more so for performers than for composers, but I can imagine that this was the case for some students of Babbitt or or Stockhausen or Brün), but musical teaching, being ultimately an aesthetic concern, tends to invite elements of conflict or rebellion, often accompanied by complex motives, frequently psychological, even oedipal, in character. And that's where things get interesting, where the the history of that which we mysteriously call "style" is written. But, having had very little in the way of oedipal conflict with my own teachers, I'll spare you any further analysis.

* I think it's cool to be able to call Alvin Lucier my Doktorvater.
** Stravinsky rarely taught. However: Stravinsky -> Robert Stevenson -> La Monte Young -> me.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Tagged by the dog

Matthew Guerrieri has tagged me with the following meme seeking five blogs that "make you think":

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award' with a link to the post that you wrote.

In his tag, he expects me to seed the classical blog world, a large expectation given the superb but small audience here. But I'm game, and will stick to music blogs, although it's hard not to mention Crooked Timber, Ron Silliman's poetry and poetics blog, Debra Solomon's margins-of-the-edible culiblog, or SFMike's Civic Center (a photo blog of one of my favorite cities), all blogs outside the music world that somehow do wonders for my thinking about music (and then there are all those classics and anthopology blogs...). But Matthew wants seed capital among the music blogs, and the bloggers that get me thinking most are usually those whose work is most different from my own, so my list includes not a single blog from my own blogroll. Here goes, five thought-provoking blogs:

I'm obliged to include Sound & Fury, a blog by A.C. Douglas, with whom I agree on next-to-nothing (i.e. he's a perfect wagnerite, I'm the wagnerite who thinks Richy took a wrong turn after Die Feen). But heck, nothing clears up your own viewpoint better than a healthy disagreement among curmudgeons.

A View From the Podium is conductor Kenneth Woods' blog. It's specially interesting when he discusses repertoire that he's currently preparing

Nico Muhly, a composer who has an admirably anxiety-free way with connecting to musical worlds both older and more pop than our own.

Mixed Meters, by David Ocker, a recovered virtuoso with some real insight into the musical politics that too often gets in the way of making music.

Darcy James Argue blogs about a new music world parallel to my own, and he's also a pynchonite, which is a fine thing.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The bottom line

We probably can agree on the following: Print media sales and readership are down, coverage of classical music is being reduced, paid positions for classical music criticism and journalism in print media are being down-sized, or, in some cases eliminated.

But I don't believe that we can agree that this, on net, is altogether a bad thing. To my knowledge, no one has an accurate estimate of the size and nature of the readership for print criticism, let alone present evidence -- positive or negative -- of the impact of print coverage on audience development. To my knowledge, no contemporary print media environment has been able, in recent years, to guarantee blanket coverage of musical activity in a given community, let alone guarantee that a variety of critical voices be heard in the reception of musical activity. Examining the "newspaper of record" in any large community today will not yield an accurate portrait of the musicial life of that community. To my knowledge, no one has made a good argument concluding that the present format of print media criticism is an optimal form for either representing and analyzing works of music, their performances, and their context or for promotion and audience development.* Specifically, I don't believe that we can agree that the professional editing afforded by the traditional print system was inevitably a good thing: few editors have musical expertise, and it is far from clear that editing a piece of writing into the format of a given paper's style book will inevitably serve either the music or the readers best.

But may we agree that the criticism is not disappearing with its decline in print? The online alternative is emerging, however slowly, and it is emerging with both many clear benefits and a few substantial questions. The general parameters for the format of online music criticism have become reasonably clear, with the potential for better, wider, and in-depth coverage, illustrated with audio examples and external references, and including both comments from the readership and dialogue between artists, critics, and laypeople. However, what remains most unclear is also most telling about the present controversies: we have no idea of the size or nature of the present online audience**, let alone the potential audience, nor do we know if, when, or how online criticism will eventually, if ever, be a paid activity, i.e. "professional."

Pay close attention to the voices lamenting the present "crisis" in criticism. I believe that in most cases they are voices of professional print critics, and therefore are individuals with a personal interest in the transition from print, and in other cases they are the voices of artists and institutions who have been well-served by the traditional print practice. It would be useful to have a few dispassionate and disinterested voices speak about this.
* Indeed, one might reasonably conclude that in some enviroments, Los Angeles in the Martin Bernheimer years, for example, the omnipresence of a print critic soloist with an overwhelmingly negative disposition towards musical activities in the community led more to a substantial reduction in audiences and a general decline in player morale than to the improvements in music-making the critic was ostensibly encouraging. You tell musicians long enough that they play badly, then they will start playing to your expectations. You tell audiences long enough that the music making is bad, then they will stop coming to concerts. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the improvements in music-making and growth in audiences in Los Angeles in recent years were connected in some part to the retirement of one critic.
** "No idea" is an exaggeration; the present online audience is small and mostly insider/professional, still figuring out how, as I've put it here before, to generate public heat and light for the subject of our passions. The best that can be said for writing on music online is that it is still a new form. The worst
that can be said for writing on music online is that it is still a new form.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Slow is a tempo, nothing more

I had a first read-though of my sixth quartet and discovered a major mistake. In-between two very cheerful movements at a quick tempo, I had sandwiched a slow movement that did everything slow movements are supposed to do, except be the right slow movement for this piece. With lamento gestures, pithy points of imitation, and swelling chromaticism, the effect was one of cinematic melancholy, schmaltzy enough to spread across the bread slices of a hundred Hungarian kindergarden children just waking from their afternoon naps.

The task now is to find another slow movement, slow in tempo, but of a piece with, or making a meaningful contrast to, the sunniness of the outer movements.

Monday, June 11, 2007


I've been wondering about the effect of compression -- the leveling-off of dynamic contrast required by recording and amplification -- on compositional practice. The maximum dynamic range of recordings is probably best illustrated by Nat King Cole's Orange Colored Sky, an amazing bit of sound design. Although the contrast between the small combo and the ecstatic brass section is at the limit, I think that there was some real sacrifice on the low end, with the whole thing being recorded hot, with needles in the red.

But I can well imagine composing for settings or environments with much greater dynamic contrast, pieces in which the audience is treated to both intimately close and quiet sounds and sounds of industrial-strength. We need more duets for bass trombone and lute, or for ch'in and sirens, or for chain saws and mandocellos.

Footnote -- of course, there is a large range of strategies available for getting around compression limitations in recorded and/or amplified music environments. Using a number of amplication systems with different capacities simultaneously, for example, is a feature of David Tudor's Rainforest, and the small-scale electronics I mentioned a few days ago.

Not my portfolio

We were invited last week to a neighbor's party. A very local family, Praunheimers for generations. People with good, ordinary, honest jobs, educated but without much interest in things intellectual or high cultural. The garden is nice, the grill is hot, the children are busy. In other words, the perfect time not to worry about my work.

But then comes the inevitable awkward conversation: a guest wants to know about composing. What instruments do I play? Do I have a band? And then some question that begins with Bach and ends with "the Beatles, who are of course already modern classics...". My opinion was required and the best I could summon was this: Like other craftspeople, musicians have their specializations. If your roof leaks, you want it fixed, and you don't care if it's done by a carpenter or a roofer or a plumber, and any of these could probably do something to get the leak stopped for the time being. But you want it fixed for the long haul, so you want the repair that's most appropriate, not just a stopgap measure. Each of these craftspersons has skills and experiences in particular problems and so it matters whether the leak is next to a window, or due to a broken tile or shingle, or a leaky drainpipe, you want the right specialist. You've asked me as a musician about my opinion of some music that I don't play myself, that I don't even know so well. I could tell you something, anything, but it wouldn't be a professional opinion, it would just be the opinion of another listener, with ears as good as your own.

Although honest, the guest was not happy with my answer. I probably should have said that after London Calling and the first Spot 1019 album, pop music had lost me.

Friday, June 08, 2007

A Time Capsule from Robert Erickson

It's always interesting to rediscover reports from past generations assessing the then-current states of affairs and making predictions about the future. Going through a pile of correspondence, I recently came across a letter from the composer Robert Erickson, accompanied by a draft of an article, The Way the Wind is Blowing, from 1982. While some of the specified genres and media have mutated a bit, it is surprising how prescient Erickson was about his central theme of audiences and it is striking how close he came -- a quarter century ago -- to some themes that have become obsessive in recent public discussion. I've transcribed, with minimal correction, this article, and it's online here.

I never met Erickson (1917-1997), but know quite a bit of his music and his writings on music. His development as a composer often followed intense periods of study and experiment -- initially with melody and counterpoint, then with time relations, improvisation, instrument building, and, finally, an intense exploration of timbre which is realized in the drones, hockets, loops and filagree fragmentary melodies of his later music. (I find that the mysterious sparseness of his last pieces , written during a period of disabling illness, are an experience somewhat akin to that of the startling Ninth Symphony of Malcolm Arnold; one sometimes wonders whether one is actually listening to "music"). Erickson is perhaps best known, however, through the impact of his students, who include composers from Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros in studied with Erickson during his years in San Francisco, through Paul Dresher and David Dramm, who studied with him in his San Diego years.

Erickson's life and music receive an eloquent account in Charles Shere's book, Thinking Sound Music: The Life and Works of Robert Erickson, and an analytic essay about his later works by John Mackay is online here. I heartily recommend Erickson's own books: The Structure of Music, A Listener's Guide, Sound Structure in Music, and (with John MacKay) Music of Many Means: Essays and Autobiographical Sketches on the Music of Robert Erickson. Erickson's scores are published by Sonic Art Editions (wouldn't it be great to have some of these scores available online for study and to promote performance?).

Loose Radicals

The first issue of a new journal, Radical Musicology, is online here. In the end musicologists, however radicalized, are just going to do musicology and it's tough for me to see exactly how this project will distinguish itself from the current cultural studies turn of plain vanilla musicology. But skepticism aside, there are a few readable items here. I like the framing "Fifth Column" by Ian Biddle (insisting that he's not writing that which elsewhere would be called an editorial):
And yet, musicology since Guido Adler has aimed squarely at wresting the study of music from the amateur, from that ‘lover’ of music, the hopeless enthusiast: in this sense, a least, the advent of musicology was not a moment of liberation or radicalisation but an intense institutionalisation...

Thursday, June 07, 2007

More on Globalization

Pliable, along his Overgrown Path, uses the example of the new BBC Proms schedule to raise some important questions about touring orchestras. He could have added to that the question of itinerant conductors. This tours are healthy for music management firms, but -- as far as I'm aware -- no one has made a convincing musical case for the present excesses, and all the best evidence certainly suggests that frequent flyer, non-resident conductors are are detriment to music making (the only beneficiary, of course, are management firms and orchestral managers who are able to consolidate their powers in a vacuum of artistic leadership).

Pliable rightly frames it in terms of the immediate environmental impact. It takes a lot of compact flourescent bulbs to make up for the impact of a single transatlantic flight. But it's not about ending tours or guest conducting gigs, but rather limiting both to a reasonable, and artistically defensible number in a time when information can travel cheaply, but flying an orchestra is an extravagance.

The other issue here is one of locality. Dennis Báthory-Kitsz has campaigned for supporting music by local composers, and this is a fine way of finding common ground with local musicians. Musicians outside of major cultural centers may often appear to be conservative in their programming preferences, but I've often had the startling experience that their scenes are, in fact, less hardened by brand marking and preconception about what repertoire is "appropriate" or not. The result is that musicians in Jackson, Mississippi or Santa Cruz, California, or Hoefgen-Kadisch in rural Saxony can do things that would be impossible in New York or Vienna.

(The image above is Dennis's bumper sticker. You can order or download your own from his website.)

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

New Music and Globalization

The world out there is large and on its affairs new music barely registers. Nevertheless, the act of making our music is inextricable from the world, and our music either fits in, accepting the world as it is, or refuses the easy fit, disturbing the order of things, in however modest a way.
How far is anyone expressing or trying to express in terms of music (sounds, if you like) the value of anything, material, moral, intellectual, or spiritual, which is usually expressed in terms other than music? (Ives)
New music -- again, modestly -- is a response to the complex of developments which are thrown together nowadays under the word globalization. Questions of tradition, identity, and propriety and of the control over properties real and creative are, even for the least political among us, inescapable and urgent as the way in which we answer these questions can determine how our music is placed in the world, how it is consumed, valued, disposed. What does it mean for a music to identify itself as "popular" or "classical", "new" or "experimental"? What forces control the distribution of music? Who are the gatekeepers for training, prestige, distribution, payments? What is musical diversity and how does our music fit -- aesthetically, practically -- into an expanded repertoire? These questions are intimately connected to issues in the globalization complex, and our response cannot be left at a naive and inadequate expression of pro- or anti-globalization, but must work instead to optimize a process that is irreversible and has potential for good as well as bad.
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Sondern laßt uns angenehmere
anstimmen und freudenvollere.
Our sounds, our noises, whether comforting or disturbing, are, as forms of response, substantially different to the forms taken by either the politicos and bureaucrats at the current G-8 summit or the protesters, both peaceful and violent, shut behind barricades. Musical sounds are less direct that words exchanged or stones thrown, but don't the sounds have potential to be both more subtle and more honest? A musical disturbance strikes me as an infinitely superior and more subtle expression to those responses which have been reduced to either physical violence or physical barricades. But still, the honesty of our response should always be questioned: have we tempered our music to meet the demands of the gatekeepers?

(The above is inadequate, provisional, and quite probably preposterous, but the best I can manage at the moment. The piece I'm working on now, a string quartet, is the more coherent argument, I think. In particular, I've decided in the quartet to answer those gatekeepers who'd have us avoid or even abandon the idea of a music that is identifiable as classical and still make discoveries, perhaps even radical ones).

Morton Feldman Lost and Found

Very good news, it seems, about a notoriously lost piece. The following message was posted today by Chris Villars of the Why Patterns? mailing list (your source for all matters Feldmanian):
Steve Dickison of San Francisco State University, who co-
edits a magazine of music and poetry called "Shuffle Boil",
contacted me recently to say they were running a review of
"Morton Feldman Says" and asking whether I had any other
related material they could publish. I suggested that they
publish the text of the short talk, "Morton Feldman in My
Life", that I gave at Huddersfield Contemporary Music
Festival last November. In that talk, I speculated that a
tape of Feldman's lost electric guitar piece, "The
Possibility of a New Work for Electric Guitar", might still
exist in the archive of the radio station where Christian
Wolff said he once performed it. Quoting Wolff, I named that
radio station as "WKFA in San Francisco". Reading this,
Steve Dickison responded that there was no such station and
suggested that it would almost certainly have actually been
"KPFA in Berkeley". At Steve's suggestion I contacted
Charles Amirkhanian at Other Minds, who maintain the KPFA
archive. He immediately forwarded my message to Charles
Shere, a former Music Director who was at KPFA from 1964-67.
Amazingly, Charles Shere recalled seeing a tape in the
archive labelled with the title of Feldman's piece, which he
had thought was a piece by Christian Wolff. No-one had
realised the importance of this tape as probably the only
recording of a piece whose score was subsequently lost!
Later Charles Amirkhanian forwarded me this message from the
Other Minds cataloguer, Stephen Upjohn:
"We have a tape 'An Avant-Garde Concert, July 29, 1966' that
I recently cataloged that lists "The possibility of a new
work for electric guitar" by Morton Feldman and performed by
Christian Wolff as one of the musical selections. It has
been digitized."
Everyone involved is excited and amazed! Wonderful that a
record of this "lost" piece does still exist after all!
Not sure just yet when or how we will get to hear it, but
great to know it does exist!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


It's the height of the unfashionable, but I like writing pieces with several movements rather than a single stretch. This is mostly because I enjoy of the possibility of playing between the extremes of establishing separate identities for the individual movements and finding connections between them.

To what extent is a piece of a piece a piece on its own? Do the movements connect as a sequence or a cluster or a network? Are the connections made from material identities or resemblances, or something less concrete, like style or character? Or are the connections more made from mirrors or negations?

(I've never been certain whether I like the word "movement", with its rather physical connotations, rather than the German, Satz ("setting"), with its own field of associations.)

My work-in-progress is in three movements: fast, slow, fast. So far, so conventional. And the material connections are everywhere obvious (these pitches, those rhythms, that texture, this tune), even if their application retains my patented obscurity. But for all that cheerful connectedness, it's bothersome that I can't quite get the tempi of the three movements to settle into some nice proportion, rather than let the second movement arbitrarily cut into the momentum of the first, and then the third into the second. I've probably spent more hours trying to get this to work out then it took to write every note in the piece, and there's still no end in sight. But I remain optimistic, and will persist, following some good counsel (Cummings):
in time's a noble mercy of proportion
with generosities beyond believing

Response to criticism

The whole point of having gone through the polarizing musical years past is neither to begin new wars over turf, style, or substance, nor to accept everything as if we had no preferences, but rather to value practices alternative to our own while pursuing our own work in the most consequential manner possible.

Monday, June 04, 2007

In a Garden

One more remark about small-scale electronics: circuit benders and hardware hackers tend not to route their sounds through common mixers, amps, and loudspeakers, preferring instead to use individual loudspeakers associated physically with each individual instrument. The effect, when played in ensemble, is a vivid re-encounter with traditional chamber or orchestral playing, in which the room, the placement of individual instruments or voices in the room, and the position of the listener work together in complex and diverse ways rather than condense into a uniform sound image. (Cage: "Everyone is in the best seat.") Also: this departure from central sound regulation actually increases the potential for using loudspeakers, both physically close to their instrumental sources and physically remote from them, to create spatial illusions.


It used to be so easy for composers: song or dance, sacred or profane, Italian or French, Rameau or Fux, German or French, Brahms or Wagner, Stravinsky or Schönberg, classic or romantic, Riemann or Schenker, tonal or atonal, European or American, uptown or down, academic or experimental, plugged-in or unplugged, mainframe or portable...

It used to be so hard for composers: song or dance, sacred or profane, Italian or French, Rameau or Fux, German or French, Brahms or Wagner, Stravinsky or Schönberg, classic or romantic, Riemann or Schenker, tonal or atonal, European or American, uptown or down, academic or experimental, plugged-in or unplugged, mainframe or portable...

Now it's so hard for composers: never before have we not been faced with a set of hard binary choices about our work.

Now it's so easy for composers: never before have we not been faced with a set of hard binary choices about our work.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Electronic Folk Music

Gordon Mumma (in his segment of Robert Ashley's video "Music with Roots in the Aether") spoke provocatively of electronic music as a folk music. Provocatively and presciently: taking a informal survey of electronic music activity today reveals not only a continued but dulled presence of electronic music in institutional contexts conducting work within the frame work of large research projects, but also a ferment of activity among composers working independently and in informal networks -- whether using off the shelf or custom-built hard- or software, and often using their wares as much despite as according to the manuals and design specs.

This page, about composer Lejaren Hiller, is a welcome introduction to a pioneer in algorithmic and computer music, and an important document of two pieces co-composed by Hiller, the Illiac Suite (1956-57, with Leonard Issacson), and HPSCHD (1967-69, with John Cage). Both of these pieces involved "borrowing" mainframe computing time for purposes far from those foreseen by University administrators I don't know much of Hiller's music, but I have the impression that he was someone, perhaps a bit like Henry Cowell, who was willing to try anything with very little in the way of preconceptions about what music was supposed to be.

This page documents laptop music, with a healthy consideration of the question of whether the use of a laptop, or even laptops using a similar software package, is suffient to identfy a musical genre. I would add to this history a piece by Mumma, Than Particle (1985), for an early laptop computer and live percussion, and also John Bischoff and Chris Brown's history of networked music making in the SF Bay area. In retrospect, identifying the tradition with the particular class of hardware we now know as lap tops is tempting, but it's important to remember that they are simply the latest examples in a long line of smaller computers, and that the early heroes, working with their Kims, Apple II's, Ataris and Commodores were working in an atmosphere of strong resistance from the main-frame cultures in large institutional settings (as late as 1992, people from IRCAM were insisting that no significant music could be made on portable computers; unfortunately for the pundits at IRCAM, the people with PCs were actually making pieces while the mainframers were struggling to finish anything, and with the implementation of CSOUND and MAX and all the like on computers affordable by private persons, this debate was settled decisively).

Getting an overview of the activity in the live electronic music scene involving circuit bending and hardware hacking is all but impossible, but there are two invaluable guidebooks to the techniques involved: Nicolas Collins' Handmade Electronic Music is an all-purpose introduction and Reed Ghazala's Circuit-Bending is a through document of a single artist's instrumental designs. There are too many websites to review available via a search for either "circuit-bending" or "hardware hacking", including several commercial sites (it's become a cottage industry). For example, Peter Blasser has several hacked instruments available for sale, as well as some paper circuit board you can print out and hook up for yourself; SubtleNoiseMaker is a blog about all this.

Electronic music has both a short- and a long-term memory, and for many "electronic music" is the relatively recent genre of dance music, about which I know very little, but many of its practitioners take a remarkably long view of both musical and technological history. When I was in school, the writing on the wall was that analog technology was out; well, the wall was wrong and the new landscape for electronics is inclusive and cheerfully revisionist. Old technologies -- whether on original instruments, copies of originals, or hard- or software emulators of the originals -- are a real presence, and its not uncommon for the neo-electronic musicians to shop talk about Gesang der Junglinge or Symphonie pour un homme seul in sentences which also mention Barry Gordy or Can. Indeed the all-encompassing environment and long duration of some dance genres suggest non-trivial connections to La Monte Young and Marion Zazeela's Dream Houses, the Warhol/Morrissey Dom or Morton Subotnick's work for The Electric Circus. But the present activity is widespread on a scale unimaginable a generation ago, and, although there are stars in the genre, the possibility of entry-level work, basis, or even folk performance, is unprecedented.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

It'll never fly, Orville.

It's good to have someone you trust around or about who's willing to listen to recent work and offer a quick response. It doesn't matter whether the music is all but doornail-dead finished or still a mess of sketches or fragments. It doesn't even really matter whether the response is good, bad, indifferent, critical or constructive, to the point or totally off the mark. Running sounds or a score by another set of ears is useful, if not essential, when there's any doubt about the project, and equally useful when you've mislead yourself into being doubt-free. It places the music in the world for a moment, to establish some concrete relationship between you, it, and the world; it's like dipping a toe into water in order to figure out if you're really going to commit yourself or decide instead to back away and try later.

Although I never managed to get an "A" in "gets along well with others" (I could have modeled for the picture in the illustrated dictionary next to the definition of misanthrope), this small bit of social exchange has become an essential part of my working method. Other composers like to play with their cards close to the chest, and hesitate sharing their work in progress. I envy that confidence, but in my case the line between doubt and confidence, particularly when considering a fairly outrageous idea (e.g. the latest Quartet begins with a parody of a well-known bit of neo-classical parody and ends -- after a series of moves I can only characterize as Fellini-esque -- with variations on a piece from the ritual repertoire of Bali Aga), is unclear, and sharing the sounds for a moment can force an overdue confrontation with reality. And only after that confrontation am I able to follow or ignore the real world with the required confidence or even audacity.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Whither criticism?

Here, at a Daily Kos diary, is an extended piece on Britten's late opera Owen Wingrave. The topic is not my thing, but I do think that this article is of note because of both its content and location. The essay takes advantage of the blog format to include links, highlight quotes in a useful way, and, most importantly, to go into depth about the topic not possible in conventional music journalism. The location is important, too, not least because it suggests that a blog community like the Daily Kos can smoothly expand into an area like arts criticism at precisely a moment when professional journalism is generally withdrawing its commitment; moreover, an essay like this is the work of an amateur, in the best sense of the word, someone who might not have the qualifications or polished writing skills of a professional critic or musicologist, but who is nevertheless able to bring passion and patience unafforded the professional to his or her chosen topic.