Friday, February 29, 2008


The twenty-ninth of February is a day to cherish; it's an extra 24 hours squeezed into the calendar at regular, but sufficiently distant, intervals, so that when it comes 'round again, it's always a bit of surprise, and I think we could generally do a better job of celebrating the surprise of this welcome surplus by treating it as a day of exemption from the routine, an excuse to break any regular rhythms one has fallen into, and to dare do something one would otherwise not.

Rossini, my secret favorite composer*, was born on a 29th of February, so today is also an opportunity to celebrate the 52nd birthday of a composer for whom the interior figures and accompaniment were often of more interest than the surface, a profligate composer who also knew how and when to be usefully lazy, a composer who retired publicly from music to better delights in his kitchen, leaving, however, some musical sins of his old age, remarkably forward looking pieces of music, assembled with wit and wisdom surely connected to the leisure of a man whose life, from birth, could be taken at one-quarter the tempo of the 99.931...% of us without leapday birthdays.

*Everyone needs a secret favorite composer, and may even reserve the right to have more than one.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Public musicians and intellectuals

In the political blogosphere, there is a bit of lamentation that the US is now lacking in the prominent public intellectuals, that there is a fall in public discourse from the days of Galbraith Buckley to the Coulters and Moores of our time. But isn't it rather the case that the Galbraiths and Buckleys were never that deep and we've always had entertainers who have seized upon political themes, and run reckless with them?

However, even a quick look at one very small sample of blogging today, those by contemporary composers, reveals an encouraging state of affairs, with public discourse that is both elevated and approachable, as well as deep or light as the muse requires. From today's offerings alone (and Thursday is the slow day for blogging!): Charles Shere, a lifelong reader of Gertrude Stein, finds a way into her Blood on the Dining Room Floor, a work with an unlikely surface genre; Nico Muhly has a path to Peter Grimes that is both charmingly autobiographical (the prodigious are always charmingly autobiographical) and dares to introduce a few musical-technical ideas to a lay audience while simultaneously, if only suggestively, staking out some of his own aesthetic and technical territory; and Steve Hickens opens a dialogue about the complex issues located in what might be thought of as a three-dimensional space with axes for medium, genre, and the continuum between art and entertainment. And this is all is on top of widespread discussion of the New York Philharmonic's junket to the dim lights of Pyongyang.

I don't expect that composers will ever play a central role in partisan public political discourse (in fact, composers have often been embarrassing when playing such roles), but we should insist both that our music is important and talking or writing about our music is relevant to public life in general. At the very least, knowing our music makes the listener a more interesting, more critical listener, which seems to me to be a reasonable public good. A few of the more established political bloggers* have picked up on this; if they paid more attention, perhaps they would not be so glum.
* Curiously, I've noted more attention from libertarians (Tyler Cowan, Julian Sanchez) than leftists -- perhaps a legacy of the left's long embrace of popular culture, and the possible over-identification of that culture with only those musical commodities which receive mass marketing?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Classical Music: Cranked up to 11

Since the 15th of February, a new directive has been in place in the European Union to protect the safety and health of employees from endangerment through physical effects. It included a noise limit with an upper level of 87db. An article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung describes the problem for classical music, here and much of what follows is cribbed from there.

Orchestras regularly exceed such a dynamic level, with brass instruments especially problematic. However, the duration of the peak loudnesses is surely an additional factor, and live musics without amplification tend to have a differentiated dynamic profile.

Some orchestras have taken pro-active measures to better protect their players from possible risks. Plexiglass shields, for example, have sometimes been introduced (via player contracts) to protect the players directly in front of the brass, but the reflections of sound from the plexiglass results in an increase for the brass players themselves. Other orchestras have experimented with orchestral seating arrangements, with the needs to create a coherent, communicative, and well-mixed ensemble sometimes conflicting with acoustical safety.

The situation is particularly difficult in opera houses, with small and semi-enclosed orchestral pits and no more so than in the famous pit at Bayreuth, in which the sound projected to the audience is remarkably clear, focused, and attenuated, but the sound for the players in the all-but-enclosed pit is both muddy and extremely loud (the heat in the pit is also intense, and well-above existing standards for worker safety, but that's another topic). Instrumentalists playing there often report that it takes several weeks, if not months, time for their ears to recover from the experience.

Many musicians have taken to using ear protection, but this is usually a private initiative, and musicians lack concrete and reliable information and advice from acoustic and medical professionals. Given the diversity of playing environments, I would suspect that a greater investment in research and analysis of particular halls and ensemble layouts with recommendations based on that research would probably be more appropriate than a blanket regulation for a single decibel level.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Blocked in China? Forget the Olympics.

Following Pliable's lead, I pointed out earlier (here) that this blog is blocked in the People's Republic of China. Matthew Guerrieri found out that his blog, too, is blocked. As far as I'm concerned, if Chinese Internet users cannot view this or any other blog due to censorship, the Chinese government should not expect me to be a customer for their products or a audience to their propaganda, so I will avoid both as much as possible, and, in particular, will not watch any of the upcoming Olympics.

I encourage all bloggers to check this out for their own sites and consider a similar boycott.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Je m'appelle

Here's a minor annoyance: when I joined GEMA (which is the German rights organization equivalent to ASCAP or BMI in the States), I was told that I had to use my whole name (first, middle, last) because another Daniel Wolf (whose works include the apparently immortal Birdie McGinnis, Stand by the Navy and French Lessons) was already registered with ASCAP, and that there was an agreement 'tween the organizations not to duplicate names. I didn't mind so much, as I had often used my whole name, or at least the abbreviations (some close friends call me Deej, others Dan'l; Mrs. Robbins is the only person on the planet allowed to call me Danny, but that's another story), and it wasn't like poor Johannes Walter, who, born without a middle name (zweite Vorname), had to GEMA-fy his name with the addition of a "Caspar" up front, which was sort of cool (i.e. like the painter Caspar David Friedrich) until strangers started addressing him as Caspar (BTW, Caspar Johannes Walter is a superb composer. See here.) But it is a hassle to always have to insist to concert organizers that the name on programs, recordings, and broadcast reports always has to be in one form. GEMA and ASCAP and BMI are nothing if not companies with huge investments in computing technology. So, it ought to be clear to even the data base of littl'est brain that ASCAP's Daniel Wolf, who is long gone from this coil, is not adding any more titles to his catalogue, so as long as I never call a piece French Lessons, it ought not be a problem with matching my name, without middle name, to any of my titles.

On the other hand, maybe I really ought to write a piece with the title French Lessons.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

George Brecht

Jill Johnston has an article about George Brecht and the event-score here. Johnston's writings are always an experience of their own, as they are so cheerfully ill-behaved, mixing the autobiographical with the scholarly and running on from one thought to the next, allowing the argument to take its own course, rather than force it into a conventional essay format. I've long admired Brecht's notebooks (Walther König : Köln 1991- ), which began during his composition course with John Cage at the New School, which are both the best available record of Cage as a teacher and the record of an artist following the rigorous consequences of one line of inquiry.


Search is a new online open access "Journal for New Music and Culture." The editorial staff and authors in the first issue come -- without apologies -- from the complexier corners of Newmusicland. I'm pretty much a foreigner in those parts of our little republic, but from what I've read here and elsewhere, as much as the content interests me, I have to register some disappointment that the prose style common in those corners tends to slip into an acceptable dialect of current academic English, with well-made essays and all the essential emblematic phrases, instead of venturing even a bit of the formal experimentation that one finds in the music itself. In other words, it bores before it has a chance to provoke and it ought to be the other way around. So, to the gents (and the ed board and writers in the first issue happen all to be male) of Search: I wish you well, but I hope that you will take some opportunity to apply the same compositional courage summoned up by your music to the words you choose to accompany the music.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Landmark Triangulation

One or the other among the three of you reading this page might have noticed the series of "Landmarks" (an index of all the Landmarks to date is to be found on the right-hand sidebar). I began the list without any conscious constraints upon it other than the individual pieces must be pieces that have changed the way I listen to and understand music and that continue to challenge. As time has gone on, the list has taken on a certain structure and life of its own, and each new entry has to conform to a set of rules that have emerged seemingly on their own. Each entry has to distinguish itself from its neighbors in some way, and some spread over time and geography within a very broadly taken "western art music" tradition seems to be implied. I've struggled with a few pieces that have been essential personally, but would seem to break some rules the precise nature of which remain obscure -- for example, to date, not a single composer has been represented by more than one work and I'm not sure if holding out for the K. 516 Quintet is in response to an implicit rule about this, or just biding time; or, I've often been tempted to add a Javanese work -- Gambir Sawit, the Patalon Wayangan, Gadhung Mlathi, or Gendhing Tukung -- or the Navajo Blessing Way, but my sense of the list is that adding any of these exquisite works might be taken as a form of musical tourism or worse. In any case, at any moment, I've got two or three pieces which are wrestling for a position in the series but the decision to actually add one always comes suddenly and unexpectedly: yes, damn it, this is important music and I have something, however small, to share about it.

Putting A Face On It

An item in the paper this morning mentioned a Scottish anthropologist, Caroline Wilkinson, who has reconstructed the face of J.S. Bach on the basis of Bach's death mask, a bronze cast of his skull, and other data. According to the report, the only great uncertainty in this project is the color of the composer's eyes, as some contemporary paintings rendered them blue, others brown.

Why we should be interested in what Bach -- or any other historical composer, for that matter -- looked like? A desire to hear what his organ playing, for example, sounded like, is natural (although tempered, in my case at least, by joy in the astonishing variety of interpretations possible for the written scores), but curiosity about the face that had once been attached to the musical works is something else altogether. I am frequently disappointed by portraits of composers; they never match the intensity of emotion that has built in my relationship to individual pieces of music, and the portraits always belong to particular moments in a life (think: portly, barbate Brahms), and so are hardly a match for an entire catalogue of music and rarely a match for a single piece in that catalogue, that life.

There are exceptions, of course -- that forward-leaning photo of Ives, the intense stare of Schoenberg, Cage's wide-open-mouthed laugh, even some caricatures of Wagner -- but a composer doesn't get into this business because of his or her good looks, and those looks, the physiognomy as Teddy Adorno put it, are not to be confused with our sounds, however handsome, they too, may be. If there is resemblance between musical and bodily physiognomies, it is probably accidental, and always a matter of surface. Need one mention the handful of composers who happen to be honestly ugly folk yet produce music that angels envy? Yeah, there's a face for every piece of music, but most need not become familiar.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Winter is longer

A WINTER ALBUM (online here) now includes a piece by Thomas Dent, KALTER TROST.


Wolf's Law: There are composers who don't care about what they eat and there are good composers. Several blogging composers feature food from time to time, whether it's a spontaneous recipe for seared whale or some seriously expensive dining, but the best is Charles Shere's food diary: simple, elegant, local, ethical, and delicious.

And some more food for thought for the paranoid: this posting by aimai at If I Ran The Zoo.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Another Lost Opera Scene

This scene was apparently cut from the final version of Nixon in China.

Stopped in my tracks

I haven't been able to put two notes together in any meaningful way for a couple of weeks. This isn't being blocked but being shocked. One source of this shock was my recent "hats off, Gents" moment after hearing Richard Ayres orchestral piece No. 37B . I'm willing to go out on a limb, having heard the piece only once, and say that it's the best and liveliest work by a composer of my generation, and that Ayres is the most technically accomplished and imaginative orchestrator around, with any given moment in the work both strikingly new and punningly close to the familiar. Moreover, his apparent ability to compose serenely in the middle of the minefield between the traditional, the systematic (whether experimental or complex) and the intuitive just adds to one serious case of composers' envy. (For some audio excerpts of other works by Ayres, see here). But even putting such subjective assertions of the superlative aside, No. 37B has been a call for me to radically reassess ideas about musical continuity (i.e. what follows what else), and here I am, in the middle of that reassessment. The recognition that I might have been seriously underestimating musics capacity for a variegated continuity is a terrific opportunity and I can't wait to hear what happens next.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Illusionist

I finally saw The Illusionist (2006), with its score by Phillip Glass. Two features in the score are worth mention -- the first is the slow burn of its build-up over the course of the film, from piano to not much more than mezzo-forte, with the most dense activity saved for the musical coda which accompanies the dramatic denouement*; and the second is that while the tonal and rhythmic materials (arpeggios, tuplets, top-of-the-minor-scale chromatism etc.) never stray from from familiar Glass territory, the orchestration is disciplined down to a scale appropriate to the turn-of-the-century Vienna shown in the film, with the musical continuity carried, in classical fashion, by the string ensemble, colored by winds, and just the lightest amount of orchestral percussion (I found that the use of tambourine, at one point, was touching; an oddly registered celesta, over the closing credits kept things nicely out of balance, and made clear that the credits were something apart from the film proper). Glass never writes fake Viennese music here, as many others would have been tempted, and his style never allows for even a touch of Wiener espressivo, but instead, and wisely so Ithinks, he uses the orchestration to allow the music to maintain Viennese classicism as a topic in the music.
* There is a nice musical-visual counterpoint throughout, but particularly in the coda, in which the tendency to tonal stasis in Glass's music gets mirrored by the director's focus on actor Paul Giamatti's face.

Monday, February 11, 2008

These Bagatelle Days

The Winter Album (online here *) is not alone. Universal Edition has just announced a new volume of shorter piano pieces by composers Georges Aperghis, Pierre Boulez, Ivan Fedele, Cristóbal Halffter, Michael Jarrell, György Kurtág, Peter Eötvös, Luis de Pablo, Salvatore Sciarrino. A page with score samples is here.

Two more pieces have been received for A WINTER ALBUM. Perhaps we should start planning the next volume -- A Spring or Summer Album? For what instrument(s)? Perhaps with singing? Any ideas?

Just another new music blog you can't read in China

Yep. I just followed a tip from On an Overgrown Path's Pliable, and visited WebSitePulse, which indicated that this blog also is blocked in the PRC. The failure of western countries not to press for liberalization in the PRC while pursuing all economic opportunities is perhaps the single ugliest story of the past two decades. The fact that this particular page can't be read in China is trivial, but in aggregate with all the other blocked sites, it's a tragedy.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Guilty Pleasures

Mozart, Fantasie K.475. If I were drinking and eating chocolate, playing this at home, for myself, would be accompanied by a shot of Laphraoig and bar of Munz dark chocolate inlaid with those huge slices of orange. Theorists and musicologists are troubled by this Fantasy -- they want to make it work as a composition, when it's really an improvisation, and one that refuses to grown up and become a real boy. In its refusal, it's playful and indulgent (hence the Scotch and the Swiss chocolate). Yes, they laughed when I sat down at the keyboard, the music meandered, stuffed with diminished seventh chords and tremolo'd dominants and cadential runs both chromatic and diatonic, but I broke their hearts with the Andantino, and the sudden changes from piano to forte soon lost their lightness as the legs of the lightly-framed fortepiano must have shaken in their wake. The Fantasie was published as a prelude, to the C minor Sonata, K.457, a piece carefully balanced between classical form and more progressive concerns, and one recognizes in this Fantasy the perfect satisfaction of a need to warm up, cogitate, and play before settling down into the well-ordered and -composed world of the Sonata.

Selling Musical Science

It's fascinating to watch how bits of scientific research on musical topics get picked up by the mainstream press. The latest example concerns three Australian researchers who have studied the use of vocal tract resonances in saxophone playing. Although seldom couched in scientific terms, it's no secret to teachers of wind technique that, in addition to embouchure and breathing techniques, vocal tract resonances play an important role in sound quality and range. Stuart Dempsters The Modern Trombone: A Definition of Its Idioms (1979), for example, emphasizes the importance of vocal resonances in trombone tone color. The team from New South Wales has demonstrated that altissimo range sax playing is achieved by the player tuning the second partial of their vocal tract resonance slightly above the desired pitch. What's interesting now is to read how the press treats this storu. A google on "vocal tract resonances in saxophone playing" will now turn up a long series of articles on the newly discovered secret of sexy sax playing.

Landmarks (32)

Harry Partch: Castor and Pollux (1952) for kithara, surrogate kithara, harmonic canon,
diamond marimba, cloud chamber bowls & bass marimba.

One of three Plectra and Percussion Dances, Castor & Pollux is at once Partch's most formally clear and compact composition and the work which decisively embraces the capacity of his instruments to enjoy a full spectrum of tonal relationships well beyond the simple harmonic relationships usually favored by practitioners of just intonation. [The emphases in Partch's music changed and developed over time: the initial impulse was to accompany the microtonal contours of a speaking/reciting voice; later, his harmonic ideas (the tonality diamond, in which a harmonic series is crossed with its subharmonic inversion, ironically duplicating the structure of the twelve-tone array) took precedence, but the translation of these tonal materials to his ever-increasing ensemble featuring idiophones and plucked strings, invited Partch to apply his tonal materials with ever greater freedom, eventually even using the word "atonal".*]

The form carries the narrative of the dance: the seduction of Leda by Zeus-disguised-as-a-Swan, followed by conception, incubation, and the birth of twins is assigned to a repeated structure of three duets and a sextet made of the superimposed duets: first Castor and then Pollux. This "process" -- Partch's own word, and it's use here is significant and prescient -- ritualizes the sequence of rape, gestation, and birth, in a pattern not unknown in some traditions outside of the west (the Javanese Patalon, for example, the overture to shadow puppet plays, in which each part represents a successive stage of life). One suspects that Partch, never a simple man, and someone who elsewhere referred to birth as a "decent and honorable mistake", was very much intent on this surprising mixture of emotional distance in the duets and celebratory violence in the sextets. I have never seen Castor & Pollux on the stage, but as the dance world is always in need of more work for evil swans, it ought to be a repertoire item.


I first encountered the music of Partch when I was 13, from a chance encounter with a public TV documentary. I was hooked and then quickly spent paper route money on the two then-available discs, and, a few years later, Partch's book Genesis of a Music. The workbench in my parents' garage soon became the scene of countless instrument-building experiments, as much a musical education as practicing my trombone or doing harmony exercises from MacHose or Piston. Eventually, through the good offices of Erv Wilson and Lou Harrison who owned sets of scores, I was able to transcribe a good number of Partch pieces into a notation of my own devising, and got something of a handle on how he did what he did. That was quite an education in itself, but perhaps more importantly, Partch showed me an example of a how "a music" (that indefinite article means everything!) could be built from research and experiment, negotiating between first principles and traditions.

* The cloud chamber bowls contributed to this in no small way, due to breakage, the parts for this array of suspended glass carboys had to be rewritten many times, with Partch each time re-imagining the harmonic, melodic, and timbral qualities of an unpredictably evolving instrument.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Gerald McBoing-Boing

With a score by Gail Kubik and a script by Dr. Seuss.

Stephen Scott

NPR has a nice spot here on Stephen Scott and his music for bowed piano. I can recall hearing this for the first time at a concert at Scripps College sometime in the late '70s, using techniques greatly amplified from those developed first by C. Curtis-Smith. The concert was introduced by Gail Kubik, of all people, an extremely conservative composer on the faculty at Scripps (best known perhaps for his Oscar-winning score to Gerald McBoing-Boing), who was nevertheless completely bowled over by Scott's music and the virtuosity of his Colorado College-based ensemble.

Spaghetti Non-Western

This is a film score to wait for: According to yesterday's Süddeutsche Zeitung (which cites the dpa, which in turn cites the Iranian press service Mehra), the 79-year old Ennio Morricone has been commissioned to score a film about Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to be directed by Behrouz Afkhami. As much as I like the idea of a Morricone score -- in addition to his well-known film scores, Morricone has real avant garde street creds, even participating in Franco Evangelisti's Nuova Consonanza project -- I was kinda hoping for something more like an Indian musical. As Emma Goldman put it, "if I can't dance I don't want to be in your revolution," and unless the militants and Mullahs are willing to sing and dance, I sure don't want to watch their revolution.


I guess that if you're a big name dead tree critic you can get away with just making stuff up. Here's a Norman Lebrecht column on Stockhausen with an astonishing number of simple factual errors. Here are a few --

"Gyorgy Ligeti, hearing the first broadcast in 1956 as Soviet tanks rolled through Budapest, fled the country and turned up at Stockhausen’s apartment, where he lived for several months." Ligeti and his wife fled to Vienna in December 1956; in February 1957, Ligeti went on alone to Cologne where he arrived first at Herbert Eimert's house, and then stayed for six weeks with Stockhausen.

" Hymnen (1968) he experimented with Indian mantras and Californian minimalism." (Has Lebrecht even heard Hymnen? Got it confused with Stimmung, a piece directly related to Stockhausen's contact with the music of La Monte Young?)

"In Wednesday, a string quartet tried to make itself heard from an airborne helicopter." (The quartet is distributed among four helicopters, and their radio signals are mixed together for the audience in the hall.)

"Isolated, adulated, fenced in by his own myth, he left the final two days of his opera unfinished and apparently unwanted. " (All seven operas of Licht were finished and the music had all been premiered; Stockhausen had moved on to near-completion of his next project, Klang, and plans for complete performances of the Licht cycle were in progress at the time of his death.)

Lebrecht also gets the history and rationale for Stockhausen's separation from UE and DG spectacularly wrong -- they were either unable or unwilling to produce the works in his desired formats, to do so in a timely fashion, or to keep the works in print and distributed. Further, his speculation about the future of the estate and works is completely misinformed, as Stockhausen, with excellent legal counsel, created a foundation for these purposes and secured (through agreement or buy-outs) the agreement of his heirs.

Finally, may I simply note that Stockhausen's demand to keep the recording of his interview with Lebrecht is entirely wise, and not the plea of an eccentric. If a journalist is prepared to go into hard print with as many errors as Mr Lebrecht produces here, then any interviewee damn well will want to have the recording for their own potential self-defense.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Some Politics

I got an email asking for a blog item on politics. "Big politics in the sky", as Terry Riley once put it, as opposed to our narrow musical politics.


I just voted online in the Democrats Abroad primary. It's good that Dems Abroad have got their act together so well, and good for me personally, given the fact that my county back home has rarely been able to get me a ballot before election day. But it definitely does not have the same feeling as going to your local fire station or school or a neighbor's garage and doing your civic duty with a mark on a piece of paper that is eventually counted, by hand, by some of your fellow or sister citizens.


May I make one prediction about the election in 2008? Because of the accelerated primary schedule, I predict that the candidate who sews up their party nomination first will be the loser in the general election. Yep, voter fatigue and remorse will only increase with the length of their tenure as the nominee-elect, so the longer that uncertainty reigns in any nomination race, the better. The greatest gift that Obama and Clinton (or Romney and McCain) could give one another is a deadlocked convention.


One interesting thing about the Democratic debates was that the final three candidates, each accomplished attorneys, displayed three distinct lawyering styles -- Clinton was a model corporate attorney, an insider in command of her facts, Edwards an tort attorney, making a plea that attempted to match emotions to pocket books, and Obama a professor of consitutional law, interested most in articulating broad principles, but at the ready with case examples. I'm surprised not to have read such a characterization anywhere.

As for the Republican debates, the parochiality of their style and the primitive reductionism of the content were astonishing, and, I've frequently found, impossible to explain with any success to non-Americans. The political range of both large US parties is narrow, as both are (clasically) liberal parties with bits of social democracy or social conservatism thrown in, and populism floating between the parties over generations. Both parties are nationalist in character, but take great sport in diminishing the other as insufficiently patriotic on decidedly different grounds. Both parties are actually coalitions of interests, and changes in power from one party to the other are achieved by slicing the coalitions just large enough to acquire majorities in winner-take-all districts and states. It appears that the Democratic currently have the edge, and this is in no part due to the managerial incompetency of the present Republican presidency. As an anarchist by inclination, I don't have long-term faith in either party, as both are statist enterprises, but in the short term, I can recognize that the Democrats are less likely to use the state apparatus for violence, self-enrichment, or the upward redistribution of wealth and more likely to assure equal access to resources, opportunities, and basic services and to act diplomatically in the world. It's a compromise, but all democratic politics is compromise.


Enough said.

Blogging New Music

For new musics to have a real and useful presence online we must better convey the fact that we believe that our musics are both lively and deep and that they are well worth paying some attention. Our web presences have to be thicker with sounds, scores, useful information and opinions, we have to be more active, updating and introducing new material at a more rapid and regular pace, and we have go to take greater risks, with both our sounds and our statements. We have to bring more voices to the table and cultivate contrariness and controversy.

Composing is (usually) an individual sport, and most composing bloggers have, naturally, been soloists, sometimes in isolated blogs, other times imbedded into their webpages. That's my excuse (well, that and a little problem with getting along well with others). But this isn't the only way to blog and a group blog, like that at Sequenza 21, has some advantages. I like the fact that Sequenza 21 does not have a staff style, and the loose community that has grown around it is a real achievement. But I miss a sense of urgency there -- days go by with no new postings, and conveying urgency is an essential factor in conveying the vitality of our music. The Score, the New York Times' attempt at a blogging platform for four selected composers, came in March last year, with little fanfare (to be fair, being hidden behind paid admission didn't help) and went out again in April with less fanfare and no laments. I think that the fit of blogging to an institution like the Times was not quite right (the exception, proving the rule, would later be Erroll Morris's blog, Zoom, but even that seems to have ceased activity).

A group blog for new music should bring some advantages -- a variety of voices and interests, even if the authors share some general aesthetic ideas, introducing some discipline to insure regular posting (so that readers feel invited to turn up just as regularly), perhaps a bit more editorial control for typos and layout (not to mention verbal excess, a la Dr Wolf), and finally a bit of coaching within the group to encourage both controversy and cooperation -- that it would be a shame not to try it.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Just What My Library Needs

From the inbox:
Dear Customer,
We've noticed that customers who have purchased or rated Treatise on Instrumentation by Hector Berlioz have also purchased Music Composition For Dummies (For Dummies (Lifestyles Paperback)) by Scott Jarrett.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The News

This evening, Roland Kluttig conducted a brilliant program with the hr-Sinfonieorchester: Elliot Carter: Three Occasions, Earle Brown: Cross Sections and Color Fields, Richard Rijnvos: Times Square Dance, and Richard Ayres: No. 37b.

Having the Carter and Brown played side-by-side by an orchestra that has the chops in ready reserve to go beyond reading the scores and offers reasonable rehearsal time to actually make real music was instructive. I have never heard orchestral works by either composer played as well, and when well-played, the differences in the achievements of the two composers were a revelation. Although the three Carter pieces were models of a certain style -- which might be called academic, with each note probably the product of reason and craft, each line appearing to do just what a well-made line should do, and the ensembles holding those lines together (or letting them come apart, as is often the case) with considerable clarity -- the pieces just didn't sound, with chord after chord just falling flat with a lack of resonance and character. Further, the amount of work given to the musicians in order to realize their notated parts suggests inefficiencies that are a scarce return on the investment.

I have not had a good handle on Brown's music, until this evening. I had played a number of pieces from Brown's early Folio, in an ensemble including the composer, in Hartford many years ago, and as much as I enjoyed, indeed treasured, his company, the music never really came together and he was far from clear about how we were to navigate the graphic notation. But tonight, the orchestra and conductor were both tightly together -- with sonority after sonority just taking off in terms of resonance, beating, and overtones popping out of the texture -- and flexible enough to place the extemporaneously-selected elements into a lively and intense sequence. The orchestra that played the Brown was cheerfully musical and this was due to the formal efficiency of the score, more than a few extraordinary sounds, and the clear direction from Kluttig. There are weaknesses in the piece -- the sequencing is in the conductor's hands, so there is some inevitable delay in ensemble articulation and the effect is usually monolinear -- but it was as if it were an entirely different orchestra from that which had played the Carter.

The News of the Day, however, was Ayres No. 37b (2003/2006) which -- never mind the neutral title -- was symphonic and of classical formal proportions. The composer, a gifted and exuberant orchestrator, invited the orchestra to do everything that an orchestra can do well, and the orchestra honored the challenge with equal exuberance. The writing for the brass and string harmonics was especially good, some passages for the trumpets touched my heart with a drag that resembled something in-between New Orleans funeral marches and mariachi playing. Ayres has also raised the process of muting a tuba to a musical skill of the first art. Ayre's score is a more than a bit of a madcap adventure, comic in genre, but with the entire range of comic expression in use, from droll to intense and from gentle to slapstick. A comic symphony is naturally more classical than romantic, and the rapid cuts and transitions, always moving forward, if sometimes detoured by cul de sacs and hairpin curves, seize that same cinematic impulse that was captured in the some of the best works of early 20th century neo-classicism. In fact, I kept asking myself: Why isn't real movie music ever this good?

A Most Modern Listening Machine

John Cage famously separated musical labours in composition, performance, and audition and then posed the question "what do they possibly have to do with one another?" When musicians get hooked up with electronics, our engagements typically reflect this division of labour: like many composers, computer-assisted composition has gotten more of my attention than computer-assisted performance, and even less, computer-assisted audition. Music Matters, a blog on music cognition that has passed under my radar until now, recently posed the very smart question: What should a listening machine be able to do? A listening machine is a marvelous and non-trivial idea. A "listening machine" of some sort has been the component of several online services designed to advise purchasers of recorded music that "if you like this, you'll like that". But such programs are usual just manipulating data bases constructed around the evaluations of real human listeners, and that's a very weak version of the idea, which is really about music cognition writ large. And that's something that should be very interesting to composers and performers, as listening is still filled with mysteries -- especially, methinks, regarding the extent and limits of our listening capacities and regarding the nature of musical time (especially regarding our conflicting perceptions of music as stretches of time and as moments -- "now"s -- in time, and how we reconcile the two).

||: Repetition :||

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

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

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

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

(An encore posting from December 2006).

Budget Cuts

Tim Rutherford-Johnson has a post on budget cuts by the Arts Council England. I am not familiar with the situation in England in any detail, but it is possible to recognize patterns that appear to be true across borders, and funding reductions for the arts are as global a phenomena as any:
  • the cuts are made first to the younger and more innovative groups; they affect musicians with the least institutional pull first;
  • working musicians -- ensemble players -- are greatly disadvantaged in comparison with the international class of name soloists and conductors;
  • and when the cuts are announced, the last voices in protest to be heard, if at all, are far too often those from the most select class.
Mr Rutherford-Johnson notes that musicians tend to be quiet rather than to protest, and offers the example of prominent theatre people who have taken a public stand against the cuts. Unfortunately, the source of this relative silence can largely be located in the very character of the working musicians' job -- you work hard, intensely, and steadily, often to exhaustion, and often in rather submissive ensemble and institutional environments, and most working musicians are, by temperament, invested in the essentially conservative act of cultivating a repertoire. When your lifestyle is wrapped up in such an environment, rocking the boat and risking significant change usually takes second place to paying the mortgage, even if the bite of that mortgage is ever-larger and the amount of work demanded from you increases, steadily indenturing yourself evermore into the system. People in the theatre (leaving film and TV out of this), in contrast, have the ironic advantage of working in a far less steady environment with fewer repertoire positions available to assure a steady income for the working actor. The next show is always uncertain and the last one may always be the very last one, so they have less to risk in raising their voices.