Thursday, January 31, 2008

Elementary Set Theory

The internet is a great way to meet people with common interests. In all seriousness, however, it is useful (or at least useful for an old anarchist like myself) to distinguish between ensemble works that may be conducted and those which may not: dirigibles, and non-dirigibles.

Momentary excess

It's an irony of our times that the most excessive compositional activity is no longer the composition of a singular monster of the imagination, a romantic ideal, but something rather more classical, to venture a series, indeed a repertoire, of pieces within a genre. There's no more juice in writing the great (fill in your nationality) symphony or string quartet, but writing 1001 Sonatas or 151 (and counting) Symphonies will still be taken as a sign of serious excess. Neither the single masterwork nor the volume discount masterwork-through-near-repetition necessarily represents a quantitative measure of greater or lesser originality, and in times like these-- in which the first performance is usually the last -- each working model carries the same probability that the composer's labours will ultimately be lost. But there is a distinct stylistic difference, and in that difference I recognize that the idea of writing many pieces rather than trying to writing the one ideal piece allows one to better embrace error as a resource and risk as a virtue.

Monday, January 28, 2008


I just sent off some materials for program notes. Jeez, composing music is sure easy compared with assembling p.r. materials. The organizer wanted a short bio, and I wanted to write something that was suggestive of my music rather than just compile a list of my embarassingly extensive credentials, awards, prizes and other brownie points (none of which would have been meaningful to anyone outside the fraternity). This is the kind of work that makes a more anonymous career, like data processing or motel night clerking, an attractive alternative.

The organizer wanted a photo, too, and being increasingly camera shy and/or adverse to graven imagery, finding anything more recent than adolescence was almost impossible. As a matter of fact, I was just about an inch away from submitting this nice picture of the young Brahms (a kid with a lifetime of bad haircuts and overeating still well ahead of him) instead:

Sunday, January 27, 2008

What's controversial around here?

When a topic on a new music blog inspires passion, you have to pay attention. I've learned, for example, that expressing any reservation about the music of Shostakovich will guarantee a passionate response, but not necessarily a response informed by any musical argument. Shostakovich was a composer with brilliant technique and a tragic biography; he just wasn't an inventive or subtle composer, in my book. Having been burned on Shostakovich, I have generally refrained from bringing up music that doesn't work for me and instead concentrated on music that does. Risking further passionate controversy, I will readily admit that there are a number of composers -- including Shostakovich, Krenek, Britten, Bernstein, Henze, Zorn, and Kernis -- whose music just doesn't take me anywhere interesting, and I really do demand that music take me someplace never travelled.

Two topics, musical economics and musical institutions, are guaranteed to fill my email inbox with messages, both of approval and disapproval, but seldom do they appear as online comments. This was particularly true of my items critical of composition competitions, for which I received a striking amount of support. However, disappointingly few were willing to go public about wanting better competitions.

As to economics, I will readily admit that it's a field well outside the expertise of this musician, but nevertheless I can't help but be fascinated with little data points that add to a thick description of the world that's bopping about my music. Marginal Revolution often touches on cultural issues, Brad DeLong is a very smart guy, I've learned more about the recent credit crisis in the US from the Irvine Housing Blog, and this paper, An Empirical Analysis of Street-Level Prostitution by Levitt and Venkatesh, which noted that prostitutes with pimps may have some advantages in terms of marketing and protection, raised interesting questions for me about the comparative advantages of composers as free-lancers and with managers or institutional affiliations, and specifically in those areas of marketing and protection (e.g. provision of health care insurance).

I probably catch the most flak for my critical stance towards big musical institutions. Let me be clear that I'm perfectly aware that a certain amount of institutional structure is necessary to make some musical things happen, but one has to be persistently vigilant that the institutions not turn away from their service function for the music itself and invest ever more money, time, and oxygen in their own self-support. In a way, it's curious that my institutional critique receives any attention at all, in that the critics and bloggers and devotees of those very same institutions often spend as many words on changes in, say, opera house management or gossipy materials leaked by publicists, as the do on the aesthetics of opera.

As long as we're talking about opera houses, my critique is the opposite of the famous one of Pierre Boulez, who suggested blowing the places up. In fact, I think that if they're going to be mammoth places for upper class spectacle, simulcast in cinemas and on pay-per-view, they really don't go far enough. I would suggest that they instead follow the model of mega-churches. Put a parking lot in front of the house and glass-in one wall of the theatre for those who like to worship/watch without leaving the familiar comforts of their cars. Embrace amplification and other contemporary theatrical technologies. Let George Lukas and Joel Osteen stage these things. Opera loves stage magic and there's no reason that operas shouldn't be as vivid as a Rodger Rabbit cartoon. Heck, maybe they should even incorporate as churches -- they won't have to charge admission, as tax-deductible love offerings and cinema/pay-per-view income will surely more than cover costs. And then, the rest of us, who happen to like hearing unamplified voices in intimate surroundings can get to it.

That's probably enough to feed the passions for today.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The truth about the Jedi

My old friend Tom Hilton has a brilliant and timely analysis of Jedi politics, here.

Our economic history

Blogging economist Brad DeLong, in explaining why he thinks historians should study economic history, writes:
...certainly since 1800 and perhaps since 1500, what is most extraordinary and salient about our global society is primarily economic and scientific, so you cannot do post-1500 history without knowing economics anymore than you can do early Byzantine history without knowing theology.
I'm not certain how much economic history music historians should know, but those two dates -- or a generation earlier for 1800 -- do ring all sorts of music-historical bells. They locate moments in which local European musical traditions innovate in connection with reception by new music-consuming classes and simultaneously begin to have reach beyond local communities, across European borders and, eventually, globally.

I have written before that our continuous music-historical memory extends only into the late 18th century, with musical repertoires predating that era all to be re-discovered, and, in their way, remade as contemporary musics. (The various forms of "nationalist" musics that emerge (and continue to emerge) in the past two centuries are less instances of the faithful transmission of local traditions but of local assertion of participation in the global music culture with local colors, often without much traditional precedent.) A partially economic explanation for pre-classical musical amnesia seems reasonable.

Art and literary history already follow economic history and identify modernity roughly with the turn of the 19th century. I'm now curious as to how music came to unique identify modernity with the 20th century. (No, the invention of sound recording can't be the initial impulse for this.) In fact, it might be more than interesting to rethink classical music history since 1789 or so without 1900 as the major turning point, but rather as just another marker of generational change in a more complex historical texture, with waves to and fro greater or lesser complexity, additions of new resources, ensemble or textural density, etc. while paying closer attention to the patterns of geographical transmission and reception.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Who's your teacher?

While some composers are entirely self-taught, and the best composers inevitably have to become self-taught, most classical composers have teachers, and -- usually with pride, but sometimes in defiance -- add their names to our resumes, sometimes even the names of our "grandteachers", attaching ourselves through that lineage to a tradition.

But the precise nature of the teacher-student relationship, however institutionalized in CVs and dictionary entries, is far from fixed, and indeed, often very mysterious. While there are some lineages in which the students' music can be heard to be continuing the work of the master, there are as many in which the relationship to the master's music is ambivalent, critical, negative, or simply not recognizable. But neither of these styles of musical relationships to the teacher and her/his tradition says one bit about the personal relationship, which may be tender or tendentious either way.

The composition classes at UC Berkeley in the late 1950s and early 1960's are illustrative. These classes were one of the birthplaces of the radical music which would come to include the more promoted minimalism of the early 1970's, and included a number of students (Young, Riley, Rush, Leedy, Oliveros) who have become well-known. The composition staff at UCB was, however, a bit difficult to square with the nascent radical aesthetic, including names like Andrew Imbrie, Juaquin Nin-Culmel, Seymour Shifrin, and William Denny. The first two of these names were active opponents of the young radical, while the latter two, although coming from very different aesthetics became important teachers. Shifrin, a friend from youth of Morton Feldman, was committed both to a high art tradition and an atonal style that is best described as academic. One member of Shifrin's seminar said "we argued all the time with Seymour, but we loved him to death, he was a mensch." And Denny was game enough for the new ideas that he accompanied his graduate students to a festival in Provo, Utah, where he took part in a performance of La Monte Young's Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, etc., by playing catch onstage with Terry Riley. A visiting professorship by Robert Erickson brought a more like-minded teacher into the mix, but the fact is that these young musicians found a positive impulse in working with teachers whose own music was far from their own.

A further complication is the quantitative aspect of a teaching relationship. Some students can go in week after week for years of lessons with the same teacher and never profit from the effort. Other students are sparked for life by a pair of words at the right moment from a composer who will otherwise be a perfect stranger. A lot of resumes are padded these days with "studied with" lines for a visit to Tanglewood or Darmstadt, in which the relationship was transient, while the more decisive orchestration or counterpoint teacher back home goes unmentioned. What of all the composers who have made a summer pilgrimage to the Stockhausen Courses in Kürten in recent years? Stockhausen lectured on his own works but did not give private compositional instruction as he did earlier. While one might now speak of a small contemporary "School of Stockhausen", it's not quite accurate to identify the members of this school as Stockhausen's students.

The relationship to a teacher changes over time, too. I had the luck to have some great composition teachers, and one of the pleasures of this life has been the gradual unfolding over time -- and a long time, at that -- of what exactly I learned from these good people. It's a continual surprise. I was recently writing a eccentric little passacaglia, and suddenly realized that my fussiness about balance and symmetries owed everything to Gordon Mumma, with whom I did not explicitly study counterpoint; indeed I do think that he ever used the term in my presence. But it turns out Gordon taught me a lot about counterpoint and his ideas about balance and density are inescapable parts of my toolkit.

A Recipe for Hard Times

In the face of a recession, it looks like the White House and US Congress will soon put together a massive economic stimulus package with some mixture of tax reductions and spending, the latter perhaps in the form of direct grants. The idea is to get additional money circulating in the economy as fast as possible through both spending and investment. The economist Lawrence Summers writes that: "...fiscal stimulus only works if it is spent so it must be targeted . Targeting should favour those with low incomes and those whose incomes have recently fallen for whom spending is most urgent." May I make the suggestion that a modest portion of this package be directed the way of musicians, and composers in particular? Our incomes tend to be low and, in these days, falling, and we're particularly well suited to spending money as fast as possible. Without a doubt, any direct grants sent our way will be disposed of with astonishing velocity.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

R.W., the action figure

I suppose that it's obvious -- if any composer were going to be a minature action figure, it'd have to be Richard Wagner (who, at around 150cm tall was pretty much a miniature action figure in the flesh). The manufacturer also has a Mozart on offer, but wouldn't a Gesualdo have been more like it?

Bring it on!

The ever-observant Robert Gable of Aworks links to a commentary thread on the recent US Democratic debates with this comment:
"The podiums are whisked away and it's a nice friendly sit-down between three candidates who want to chew each other's guts out." Wouldn't it be great if composers had the same kind of debates?
I'm all in favor of putting our disputes out in the open -- at the moment, we pretend in public as if there are no controversies and let those in positions of power manage our disputes through the quiet backroom processes of handing out scholarships, jobs, awards, and commissions. The illusion of harmonious getting along for getting along's sake contribute, however, to the false public impression that there is no heat, no passion, no action, and no innovation in our field. This is bad for the public life of our music. Simultaneously, the reduction of debate to the distribution of our pitiful spoils is bad for the life of the music itself, not to mention the livelihoods of those eclipsed by any local or temporal orthodoxy.

So, yes, let's have some public gut-chewing, or at least some verbal fisticuffs, for a change. I can imagine a couple of composer-on-composer forensic pairings that would make a presidential debate or a bloggingheads episodes look like a walk hand-in-hand through a field of daisies. Bring it on!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Your own chunk of the moon

Slate has an article about private claims to lunar real estate. Until very recently, the question of private travel to the moon has been a theoretical one and claims to chunks of property on our satellite have either been in the realm of fantasy or scams. With increasing likelihood for commercial travel to the moon -- whether for tourism, homesteading, or helium-3 mining -- claims to acreage up there are becoming everless virtual and evermore plausible and deciding who gets to own and exploit the moon may actually become serious.

Until then, however, music will still share some vital qualities with lunar real estate. Music tends to the ephemeral -- is it located in the air molecules we push around, or in a score, or in storage media (scores, recordings), or is it a platonic ideal of some sort? -- and the ownership of a music is unclear. Does it belong to the composer or the performer or the passionate listener? Is it a gift channeled from (the) god(s)? Is it a state or public good or is it a gift to humankind? Can it be bought, bartered, or sold? Is it a gift without market value? Heck, even the very idea that one could own a music is far from clear.

Talking about music as property is always bound to be uncomfortable, and I suspect that we're in for some particularly uncomfortable times, as the parties with substantial material interests in this question are just getting warmed up.

In the western legal tradition, we've already been through three major historical steps in the development of ideas as properties. The first was biblical, in the Decalogue, in which God forbid the making of graven imagery (thus asserting state control over creative work) and in the latter books, in which authors receive attribution (again, the attribution is controlled by institutional apparatus; the veracity of those attributions has been controversial ever since). The second step was in the assertion of states, royal, republican, or authoritarian, that intellectual property was a public good to be licensed and authors were granted (very slowly, in the case of musicians), limited periods of limited control over their work, after which the work fell into a "public" domain (we owe the word "royalties" to this). The third stage came with the age of private capital, and private persons, individually and collectively, sought to create a number of measures and institutions designed to protect and extend rights as well as to maximize income from the protected properties. We're still somewhere in this stage, but witnessing significant changes in the circumstances: "legal persons", corporations, which do not live naturally long lives, are now asserting rights well beyond those demanded earlier by real persons and technological developments in the media and transmission methods for intellectual property are changing at breathtaking speed, with unclear implications for the future of control over and income generation from that property. Furthermore, we're witnessing an intense conflict between the beneficiaries of this third stage, associated still with a liberal assertion of rights around the turn of the 20th century, and those who view the new technological circumstances as an opportunity to move away from, if not eliminate, the notion of property, a liberal assertion in its own terms, but one connected with the turn of the 21st century. How this will all turn out is anyone's guess at the moment, but I think that the moment is an opportune one to step back from the legal questions and consider instead exactly what it is we would like to achieve from an assertion of property rights to intellectual property, and music in particular, and do so in ethical rather than legal terms.

The estimable Carl Stone has a nice item over at the New Music in the Box, about the appropriation of music by others into one's own work. There is indeed a long tradition of this in music (parody, anyone?), but the appropriation of mechanically or electronically recorded material seems to go several steps further, in that one is not borrowing a bit of code* from a piece of music (a tune, for example), but excising a vertical slice of a complete musical product, including both composition and performance or realization. The legal situation is heated, often turning on the question of the size of the borrowed sample ("how big is a musical breadbox?"), and has created a nice side job for a handful of academically-trained musicians in the creepily-named field of "forensic musicology"; likewise heated is the question of monetary returns from a sample. I think that this problem is eminently soluble, however. Creators of music differ on their degree of attachment to their work, with some unconcerned -- even enthusiastic -- about subsequent appropriation, others willing to sanction it based upon a fee, and other so attached to their work in a particular form that they wish that no appropriations be licensed, regardless of any fee proffered. I believe that there is an ethical responsibility to respect these wishes with regard to the creative work of an individual, simply because we recognize that a relationship to one's creative work can be intimate and intimate, and his or her music falls in a private sphere around a person that deserves protection regardless of the precise legal or economic status of the property. Furthermore, it is not difficult to assert -- via a notation in a score or a signature on some data format -- the precise wish of the composer: to permit all usage, to permit all licensed usage, or to limit usage to a particular instance.
* I've had a long argument with open source advocates about music, among them Richard Stallman, that music is substantially different from software in that the source code of music is always open to anyone with ears, so that protecting property rights for music is not a barrier to the further development of the underlying codes.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Orchestral Style

While opinions about the quality of contemporary opera singing differ, there's probably a general agreement that we're in a golden age for playing by opera orchestras. Opera orchestras are different herds from concert hall orchestras and have to master a considerably different skill set. As accompanists, they have to master fairly complex figuration, often long-winded and repetitive, and a great deal of the time off the beat, and they have to respond flexibly and extemporaneously to the circumstances onstage. While the opera orchestra definitely has moments in the forefront, much of their responsibility is for the music beneath the surface and that's too often undervalued (I am a great admirer of internal instrumental parts in the operas of Rossini). It occurs to me that minimal(ist) music, when it goes orchestral, is too often assigned to concert rather than operatic ensembles, which would have a natural edge with a music in which an unambiguous surface is often absent. With a few exceptions (Glass, Adams, and...) that's clearly an opportunity missed.

Lessons for the young

Neglect. There is probably no greater difficulty for a composer than negotiating an uneasy economy in which the personal value of ones work will never satisfactorily equate with a market value. Musical works and their authors are also subject to the unpredictable caprices of style (now in, now out) and the unexplainable inequities of musical politics (fighting over bloody nothing). It is no wonder that composers are often prone to melancholy, bitterness, anger, even paranoia, and the most inventive among us, sometimes directly as a result of those personal qualities which make one inventive in the first place, tend to suffer most.

The greatest rock and roll band of their time, Spot 1019, put out an album with the title "The World Owes Me A Buzz"; their sarcasm could not have been stated any better: not only does the world has no notion of any debt to you, most of your working life will be spent doing anything but that which you do best of all, simply in order to survive, and everything you will ever produce belongs to the "public domain" with your possession granted only temporarily.

I owe a lot to John Cage, both from his music and his way of organizing his work, but perhaps nothing more than his example of how to be a composer and not be bitter in the face of neglect. If I understood correctly, it was the combination of the negative example of his teacher Adolph Weiss and his own sunny disposition that made Cage determined not to become bitter, and by and large, he managed it.

If you can learn early on not to have any illusions about the material circumstances of our profession, you'll be at an advantage. It's useful to think about your work in terms of that which your compose out of your own desires and that which is composed as work-for-hire, and cherish the few opportunities when the two impulses coincide. It's also an advantage, methinks, to have a comfortable enough home and place to work. Realize that your work requires time, and purchasing time often means giving up something else. If you're social and familial, making time for loved ones is important, too.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


I'm ambivalent about biographies and autobiographies, and especially so about those of composers. While on the one hand, there is the fascination of a tale well-told, sometimes real -- and movingly so -- connections between my own experiences and those of the biograph-ed, and there are occasional flashes that brilliantly illuminate the music itself. But the other hand is an inevitable voyeuristic element, and that makes me decidedly uncomfortable. Fascinated, but uncomfortable about it.

I once began writing a monograph about a contemporary composer's music, but had to give it up because, as a writer, I couldn't get a handle certain aspects of his life that had bearing on his music (sex, drugs, religion, criminal rap sheet...). I'm realist enough to recognize that musicians are not their music, they can be cads and cheats and slobs and scoundrels without any of that playing out in their music and ideally, I 'd like the music to speak for itself, but the real world does have a tendency to penetrate the music, and sometimes that effect is inescapable.* I trust that this blog has reflected my ambivalence.

So with all of those reservations, let me note that composer David Cope has placed an autobiographical work, Tinman, online here, a series of 150 reminiscences . I am also looking forward to reading a pair recently published biographical works, as it happens, about dance -- Janice Ross's new biography of the dancer Anna Halprin, an essential figure in experimental dance, and one somewhat neglected by having worked on the left coast, and Carolyn Brown's Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham.

* The most civil exchange I've had online was with the late musicologist Philip Brett, a pioneer in queer musicology. We strongly disagreed about the role that sexuality played in John Cage's work, but I believe that our dialogue caused each of us to move a bit from our extreme positions; whereas I had previously been convinced that it was a non-issue, I am now convinced that there are in fact a handful of pieces -- among them The Perilous Night, Letters to Erik Satie with Sound Anonymously Received, and One^11 and 103 -- in which Cage's intimate biography plays an essentially role. I deeply regret not having met Prof. Brett

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Not yet musically conscious

Weekday mornings, after getting my daughter to Kindergarten, are delicate hours. Between precompositional insomnia and a biological clock still set to Pacific time, I get to bed late, and the early wakeup comes after a bare minimum of quality sleep, so the ends of all my nerves attached to any musically relevant perceptual organs are still numb. The only solution is to play some music. Although a wind player by training, morning hours are not quite the right ones for idle Bläserei, so I stumble to the piano and do some sight reading.

But what to play? Some musical traditions have repertoire which is classified as being appropriate to particular hours of the day. Both Hindustani and Karnatic musics identify ragas with morning afternoon, evening, or late night. Aside from liturgical music, western classical music is basically repertoire for evening concerts, music made for formal wear and decorum, for artificial light and a particular social setting. Not for morning alone, half-conscious, in slippers at an upright piano. In the absence of a specialized repertoire, I've invented my own. I read through The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, The Art of the Fugue, Mikrokosmos and Kurtág's Játékok. I've grown attached to the little character pieces gathered among the sins of Rossini's old age, many of the mysterious small pieces by Liszt, and Satie has always been there (I find that the early "gothic" pieces only work for me in the morning). Sometimes I'll croak out an Ives song, and small pieces by Mumma ("from the Sushi box"), Jennings, Cage, Feldman, Hovhaness (I especially like Bare November Day), and some of John White's Sonatas are more recent parts of the mix.

This is private music making, for myself, and as much ritual and therapy as musical training, and although my personal repertoire is often a bit dark in character, this is all joyful music-making, something that Herr Doctor Wolf recommends to all.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Good Fortune

Before I fall into my routine of rants, let's take a moment to note some of the real good news out there, in Newmusicland, and beyond:

The most important festival for new music is now the Ostrava Days in the Czech Republic; it has talent and attitude.

Wordless Music, in NYC, seems to be doing very good things, too.

There are many musicians specializing in new music that ought to be mentioned, but none is more important than the Belgian pianist Daan Vandewalle. Another pianist to pay attention to is Satoko Inoue.

Following in the tall shadows of Kronos and Arditti is not easy, but there are a number of younger quartets who play new music as it should be played. I think that the Quatour Bozzini deserves special attention.

The musical blogoplan is full of daily surprises. Among my composing colleagues, I always learn something new from the blogs of Charles Shere and Nico Muhly, with perspectives different from mine (note to Magister Muhly: your blog always makes my Opera browser crash!). Loose Poodle is an indispensable guide to film music, a world at a cheerful tangent to my own.

Outside of musical blogs, I give thanks for Blogging Heads, for a dose of smarts and civility in US public political discourse (I recommend the conversations between Joshua Cohen and Glenn Loury in particular, and one can easily avoid anything with Mickey Kaus or those folks with National Review credentials), and at random: Crooked Timber, Strange Maps, Cosmic Variance, Language Log, Savage Minds, and Silliman's Blog. I'm still looking for good blogs about dance and classics and I wish there was more at Errol Morris's blog Zoom,

Someone else's career

A friend just emailed with this observation:

Deej, know, you'd have had an entirely different career if belief in your work had been the operating principle rather than doubt...

While I have to agree that doubt -- or at least a good, steady dose of self criticism -- is operative for me, I don't think that the notion of belief, or in this case, an absence of belief, is meaningfully opposed to doubt. Doubt, for me, is the recognition of opportunity to do something else, or to find an alternative approach, and to be open to the possibility of failure. David Feldman (another good friend) has talked about this aspect as having a tragic aspect, in that the methods I use may create music that almost replicates some familiar music, but ultimately falls short. I find that rather interesting, and sometimes even comic rather than tragic, and if there is a tragic element, it is in the simple fact that "familiar music" has become rather strange. We cannot satisfactorily recover the context in which it was made and understood. I have a tremendous attachment, for example, to repertoires of music in which a body of conventions of figure and affect were understood and in play, but my personal attachment is not the same as and not a substitute for being a part of the communities in which those conventions were functional and meaningful. The same goes for my accidentally ex-pat status in Europe: I'm here, but I'll never be from here, and the best I can do is approach the musical culture here with the distance of an ethnomusicologist rather than that of another Yanqui composer on the make.

What then, about belief? There are communities of believers, and they often share repertoires of music, believing in the conventional and habitual as well as the special elements in those repertoires. Although I've been tempted, I don't happen to identify with any such community. And, although a "new music" necessarily implies a positive or negative challenge to an existing repertoire, there are individual composers who are able to assert their musical choices with all of the authority that comes with belief in one's own work. Although I've been impressed by the examples of some of my composing colleagues who have such belief in their own work, I can't really follow their examples, and I am, in many cases, left with considerable doubt. (Stockhausen is the canonical example -- either he believed what he claimed to believe or he didn't believe it and it was all an elaborate marketing scheme; neither possibility strikes me as particularly attractive.)

Karl Rove, the political advisor to the current Bush told the journalist Christopher Hitchens that
"I’m not fortunate enough to be a person of faith", a sentiment that I find impossible to follow. If one identifies having faith as fortunate, then one seems to be, however indirectly, asserting a form of faith. I suspect Rove, however, was simply admitting to a cynical, Straussian, use of believers for his politically ends, which is even worse. If I have any fortune at all as a composer, I suspect it is the fortune of being a person of doubt.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Moondog remembered

I've just finished reading Robert Scotto's biography of Moondog (Louis Hardin), Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue. The details of his life are really outside of my portfolio -- a sometime street musician, blinded as a youth, with a thing for Viking-inspired garb, and apparently some ugly opinions -- but his music is charming and, in its own way, important, an example of a music benefiting from the constraints of an aesthetic niche, but also making interesting connections to other contemporary musics, in Moondog's case to music life in New York from the Rodzinski years at the Philharmonic to 1950's jazz and 1960's minimalism.

Moondog specialized in composing rounds and canons, sometimes to a ground, and usually over steady percussion accompaniment, which he played on a kit of triangular drums struck with a clave and a maraca as mallets. The counterpoint is quite strict, tonal or modal, but with frequent quintuple and septuple metres, which I've found makes the music especially suitable for teaching musicianship. (I recommend the rounds (Moondog called them madrigals) on the second Columbia recording, Moondog 2.) Scotto poses the question of how a technique so focused upon a minor genre like the round can be used to generate larger forms, and it clearly troubled the composer, but it really shouldn't trouble us, as good things are not diminished by small packages.

The best part of the book is the attached cd, with some rare recordings, including some of the madrigals performed by an all-stars-to-be grouping including Moondog, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, and Jon Gibson. (Drawing a connection from Moondog's piano piece, To a Seahorse, to some later minimalism, is almost inescapable.) Unfortunately my copy came with defects in the surface, making half the tracks unplayable... has anyone else noticed that the quality of cds has been slipping, just like lps in their last years?

Monday, January 07, 2008

A WINTER ALBUM, expanded

A WINTER ALBUM of small piano pieces has now been joined by A Mind of Winter (after Wallace Stevens) by Steve Hicken. The album -- no publisher, no editor, but plenty of presence and some community -- is online here, and is not yet closed to contributions.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Late 20th Century Ringtones

If you could have any bit of fairly well-known late 20th-century serious music as a ringtone for your cellular/mobile phone, what would it be? David Feldman, without skipping a beat, said Lucier's I am sitting in a room ("...different from the one you are in now..."), which should have been obvious, but it would nevertheless be interesting to encounter a bit of serial bebop or classic minimalism while in a crowded cafe, underground, or shopping mall. Perhaps the more interesting question would be: what is the piece of late 20th-century music least likely to be used as a ringtone? And no, 4'33'' doesn't count.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The uses of enchantment

More musings from a fever'd mind. The talk these days is of Barack Obama's win in the Iowa Democratic Caucuses and his victory speech, and for good reason: we were treated to a bit of now-rare oratory in which speech sometimes aspires to the condition of music. In these moments of aspiration words acquire definite pitches, sequences of words melodic contour, and vowels are sometimes extended in time to allow a contour to form a distinct rhythm. But Obama, to his complete credit, has absolute control and never quite allows his speech to become song. His rhythms never relax in an easy metre and his word choices favor quasi-repetition over exact reiterations. He is a serious man and respects the line between logic and rhetoric, applied to convince an audience of an argument, and rhapsody, which -- as Plato warned in the Ion -- is designed to go beyond conviction to the non-rational states of possession, whether by muses -- amusement -- or the gods -- enthusiasm.

Music and speech are too easily confused, and that confusion has its uses, both for better and for worse. Music and speech often share acoustical features and -- perhaps evolutionarily "piggy-backed" upon one another -- a set of perceptual and cognitive organs, but beyond those organs, music and speech appear to light up entirely different pathways through the brain. The important counter-example of sign languages shows that an acoustic component is not necessary to language and the capacity for music to function in entirely non-communicative contexts as well as to use sounds that are linguistically meaningless shows important material and semantic distances of music to speech. Nevertheless, there will always be forms of music which are informed and enriched by a relationship to language, and there will always be forms of speech will aspire to the condition of music.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A WINTER ALBUM is online

A WINTER ALBUM of small pieces for piano is now online here. It includes works by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz, Jon Brenner, Steed Cowart, Elaine Fine, Hauke Harder, Ben.Harper, Jeff Harrington, Aaron Hynds, Lloyd Rodgers, Jonathan Segel, and Charles Shere. A few more pieces have been promised and -- thanks to the magic of the internet -- may well still appear in the album.