Sunday, June 29, 2008

Landmarks (34)

Gordon Mumma: Pontpoint (1966-1980), electroacoustic music. Premiered as music for a dance by Jan McCauley for her company, Cirque.

Mumma's own analog cybersonic circuitry is here used to modify sounds from two acoustic sources, a bandoneon (the free reed instrument best known for its use in the Argentine Tango ensemble) and a bowed psaltery. These two sound sources, each generally characterized by simple and stable wave forms, are modulated to produce sound events with spectra that are often far from simple and are subject to change in a variety of parameters over time. Moreover, Mumma modulates the position of sounds within physical space, a device which becomes critical to the formal development in Pontpoint.

Minimalism in music is too often limited to an association with musics using a reduced set of tonal possibilities. The minimalist impulse in music did not, however, originate in a nostalgia for tonality, but rather in interest in the intensification of the listeners' engagement with the material state of sounds and the compositional problem of translating that intensified experience into musical forms. To recover that impulse, I believe that it's very useful to return to the definition of minimalism as the elimination of distractions.

In Pontpoint, Mumma isolates individual sounds between silences, a framing device that better allows the listener to focus attention on the activity within a single sound by eliminating the distraction of the continuity between neighboring events . And although the global pace of activity, from one island of sound to the next, is leisurely, the pace of activity within single sounds is made both more intense -- invoking the same sort of tempo paradox that Monteverdi uses in the stile concitato -- and distinctive.

With the combination of three techniques: use of electronics to further individualize acoustic events, the isolation of events in time between silences, and the assignment of each event to distinct positions in physical space, Mumma shapes each sound into an individual island within an archipelago. Pontpoint thus achieves a remarkable balance between the larger form, which suggests nothing so much as a narrative or a journey, and its local punctuation by events or attractions of heightened contrast and detail.

Robert Irwin Plays the Game

"So if you start telling them what art is now, then all you've done is burden them with an old idea." Artist Robert Irwin lecturing, La Jolla, February 2008

Obscure Analogy Nr. 1

Conceptual poetry:Flarf :: Old Downtown Music*:Latter-Day Downtown Music**

*[New York School, Fluxus, Experimentalists, Minimalists...]
**[Downtown Improvisers, Samplers, Bang-on-a-canners...]

Saturday, June 28, 2008

White Bread

In many places on this planet, let's take Europe for example, it's hard not to be conspicuous if you're a 6'4" American. And if, somehow, information gets out that said conspicuous yank is a musician, well then, folks met in passing (e.g. neighbors, strangers in trains, people in shops and on street corners, schoolkids), are bound to ask if my music either rocks or swings, and I'm bound to disappoint with the news that, no, my music is rather more the kind that scares housepets. Yes, even in lands of famously old and high culture, the default setting for "musician" is assumed to be entertainer. Fortunately for my psyche, an American youth prepared me well for encounters of the sort. They are opportunities for educating oneself as well as the inquirer: how do I talk about music (mine, other) without technical terms, how do different musics (mine, other, 'nother other) relate to one another, if at all, and what functions can musics play in the real world? (You ask a lot of questions for a Comanche...)

Sometime I'll write a nice long item about my accidental displacement in Europe. It wasn't ever planned, not even expected. (In fact, I never actually had plans to venture past the American west and I still avoid the right coast as much as possible: my music may not be played on the island of Manhattan.) But the facts on the ground are these: I ended up here, a conspicuous presence, and it became necessary to see this as an opportunity. It has not, as far as I'm concerned, been a career opportunity; there is no land of milk & honey for experimental music composers anywhere, and I have none of the institutional affiliations that would make Europe either more milky or sweet. But Europe, in taking up the negative space absented by my own continent, has been an opportunity for better focusing a musical and cultural identity, coming to grips with tradition and experiment, with materials, methods, & forms, and, in my case, even with my inner white bread.

Yep, white bread. I shout a lot about being a Californian and, on my father's side, it goes back generations. But my mother came to California as a toddler, during the second world war. She was born in South Dakota, Irish Catholic mother, Dutch Reformed father, which means meat'n'potatoes, white bread'n'butter all the way. Okay, canned salmon patties on Fridays, that special midwest Catholic specialty, but you get the drift. (Not to disparage South Dakota -- home, after all of the National Music Museum-- but some friends report that, during a continental roadtrip, a request for dessert in a South Dakota diner was met with a plate on which sat a crustless slice of Wonderbreadtm soaked in Coca-Colatm. But I digress.) With this background, I probably have more legitimate musical connections to Lawrence Welk than to either rock or jazz, let alone the whole European art music tradition, but the path to legitimacy often follows a wide trajectory, even including Wonderbreadtm, enriched in twelve different ways, and American accordion bread (as one calls it here) is, in the end (or was, as the product is now being discontinued in Southern California as fashion and nutrition turn to whole grains and loafs with added nuts, seeds, and herbs) a unique technical accomplishment along a trajectory with no certain terminus, and a trajectory with roots as legitimately European as Boulez, Nono, Stockhausen, or even that 95% rye bread that makes Hessians so happy.


While I can't reproduce Wonderbreadtm in my own kitchen, I do have a favorite white bread recipe. To be honest, it's more like Italian bread, with great big holes throughout, and a hard crust, but if I'm going to admit one white bread to my life, it's this one. It's messy but requires no kneading and less thinking, and while the total duration is 16 hours or so, the elapsed working time is only a few minutes.

By hand, with a spoon in a large mixing bowl, mix together:

3 cups bread flour
1/2 teaspoon instant dry yeast or 1 teaspoon dry yeast
a bit more than 1 teaspoon salt

Stir in

1 1/2 cups cold water

Cover bowl with plastic wrap and a dark towel. Let sit for 12 to 18 hours.

The dough should now be covered with bubbles, very wet, almost like pancake dough. On a well-floured work surface or cutting board, pour the dough, dust the top of the dough with flour and turn over once. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minute.

Adding just as much extra flour as needed to keep the dough form sticking to the surface, shape the dough roughly into a ball. Again dust the top with flour. Flour a cotton kitchen towel, and lift the ball of dough onto one half of the towel, then cover the dough with the other half.

Let the dough rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. At least fifteen minutes before baking, heat the oven to 450F (230C) , placing a large cover-able pot, casserole or dutch oven into the oven. When the oven has reached temperature, put the dough into the pot -- seam up is nice, but it's not essential, and it can get pretty sloppy and still be great -- , cover, and return to oven. Bake covered for one half hour. Remove cover, and let continue to bake for 10 to 30 minutes, browned to your own taste.

This is a trajectory with its own variations, too: Omit the salt, Tuscan-style, or use some sourdough starter, San Francisco-style. Dust with corn meal instead of flour. Add some chilies or cheese or garlic or roasted onions.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Okay, it's your turn...

Heard anything good lately? Anything out there challenging, if not changing, the way you listen? What and to whom should we being paying attention?

Thursday, June 26, 2008


A small request -- does anyone know of an English-language source of information about the Japanese composer Toshiro Mayuzumi, in particular about his politics?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

First, they took away our smoke-filled rooms, now they want the fried food...

I know that it's right-wing snark, but this article about plans and logistics for the upcoming Democratic party convention definitely has me worried, for example, about these green catering standards:

Among them: No fried food. And, on the theory that nutritious food is more vibrant, each meal should include "at least three of the following colors: red, green, yellow, blue/purple, and white." (Garnishes don't count.) At least 70% of ingredients should be organic or grown locally, to minimize emissions from fuel burned during transportation.

Emma Goldman famously refused a revolution if she couldn't dance. I say, I'll watch my food miles, but I really don't want to go to a convention if it means I can't chow down on some dripping-in-fat goodness and everything you eat has to be color-coded. It's a party that happens only once every four years, so a quadrennial plateful of fried goat-cheese won tons with chipotle pepper caramel sauce surely won't hasten the end of either me or the planet.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Looking for Libretti

There is much chatter about libretti these days and, in particular, the lengths to which composer-folk are going to mine other media for workable opera scenaria & libretti. One fashion these days is to mine novels of the nineteenth and early 20th century, another fashion is to mine films, still another is the documentary opera, with legitimate pedigree in operas based on historical rather than mythical events as well as in the oratorio, but now charged with all the possibilities of non-fiction, liberating the composer from such conventions as character & narrative.

An observable rule of thumb has long been that superb material in a given medium rarely becomes a superb opera, but interesting-but-not-quite-superb material in another medium can sometimes excel as opera. On the other hand, superb opera libretti rarely stand alone -- stripped of musical context -- as readable literature, although one can certainly make a case for anything by Da Ponte*, Verdi's Otello, some of von Hofmannstahl, or, more recently, Alice Goodman's Nixon in China.


In the early 90s, a German composer friend & I would get together to talk shop every couple of months. The conversation would eventually turn to our parallel searches for opera libretti. My friend really needed to find a libretto, as he had not yet secured a professorship and an opera commission was a good way to guarantee paid work for two or three years. Under no illusions about my prospects for getting such a commission, I harbored the fantasy that I could nevertheless make something interesting for the stage. And, to be honest, and honestly unfashionably, the two of us shared the goal of writing a libretto that "women would like". We ended up sharing a lot of interesting reading material, but neither of us ever found the perfect libretto. My colleague finally got his professorship and I ended up doing a lot of childcare, so libretto hunts eventually disappeared from our conversations.

Since then, I've had more than a couple of ideas with potential -- The Winter's Tale, or Blake's satire The Island in the Moon, or -- following a suggestion in one of the Stravinsky-Craft conversation books -- Maximillian & Carlota, or Paul Auster's Mr Vertigo, with a perhaps too-obvious part for a yankee-English swearing treble, or (my favorite) the story of Byron the lightbulb that never goes out from Gravity's Rainbow. Lots of very good, and simultaneously very bad ideas, if you know what I mean...

Part of the problem was (and is) that I suspect that I'm probably best suited to writing a comic opera. My literary tastes are comic. I like the fact that comic opera can enjoy all of the conventions of the form without embarrassment, and I like numbered arias and ensembles, and I do think that recitative can pace and give a motoric and melodic assist to dialogue. But face it, comic opera -- with a few, very special exceptions, and even they don't always work: Von Heute Auf Morgen, The Rake's Progress, Le Grande Macabre, Europeras I & II -- has not been the leading genre of the last century. In fact, sometime after Rossini, comic opera just gave up the ghost when it came to being, well, funny. Serious music became exclusively serious and "comic" was largely left to "entertainers".

In late 1999, I stumbled upon a webpage with excerpts from handpuppet plays by Edward Gorey. I had known his small books and drawings, the stage design and costumes for Dracula as well as a ballet, and the fine details of both image and text in that work had not prepared me for the radically reduced world of his puppets and their plays. His puppet plays were essentially dances for hands, accompanied by disturbing words. His puppets were basically rough lumps of paper mache, usually painted white, with a pair of holes for eyes, sometimes a nose, and female figures sometimes had a smaller lump -- a hair bun -- sitting on the back of the bigger lumps. These heads were simply placed on top of simple hand-sewn gloves, and would, with some frequency, fall off during performances (one evening of puppetry carried the title "Heads Will Roll"; when a puppet would lose its head, the other puppets on stage would give comfort to the stump). I immediately wrote to Gorey on Cape Cod, and a few weeks later received a libretto, an "opera seria" for handpuppets in 13 scenes of rhymed verse based on the "Lake of the Dismal Swamp". The opera -- despite Gorey's label, it was definitely a comic affair -- practically wrote itself, and I found myself writing tonal music and real songs for the first time since high school. The performances, in an old clapboard hall in Cotuit, Mass. were done by local players who had worked with Gorey for years, amateurs in the best sense of the word. It had a run of good ten performances, but the performances were also, sadly, a memorial to the librettist, who -- unusually but deservedly -- got top billing over the composer.

The White Canoe, my opera for handpuppets with Gorey, is a great little piece, but I've since been reluctant to allow another performance. It doesn't require a lot: four singers, three instruments, and four puppeteers, but it has to be done right, and I can wait. In the meantime, I'm still looking for another good libretto.
* Here's a question: Has anyone ever made an opera based on the life of Da Ponte?

[Parts of this post were mined and revised from an early post with the same title. If you can't steal from yourself, from whom can you steal?]


Gordon Mumma at the 1978 Saw Festival in Santa Cruz.

Become an Artist

A Public Service Announcement for the San Francisco Art Institute with Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello), produced by George Manupelli and William Farley (1982)

Monday, June 23, 2008

At the Arditti Limit

A definition: A repertoire, score, or score segment reaches the Arditti Limit whenever its notational density is great enough that any sample of a faithful performance of said repertoire, score, or score segment will be indistinguishable from any other sample of the same repertoire, score, or score segment or, in fact, any other music also exceeding the Arditti Limit. (See also Erdodic).

As a strongly subjective characterization, the Arditti Limit is difficult to calculate precisely. If however, the amount of ink on a page of music has enough mass to move a bathroom scale needle upwards from the position of the same needle when weighing a blank page, it is reasonably safe to assume that the page has exceeded the Arditti Limit. If the page is ever mistaken for an Ad Reinhardt black painting, it is reasonably safe to assume that the page has exceeded the Arditti Limit. If a musican complains about the coffee stains on a page that has not yet been touched by coffee or any other sheet-music destroying liquid, it is reasonably safe to assume that the page has exceeded the Arditti Limit.

Typical response to the Arditti Limit, observed in Darmstadt, 1990:
Young Composer A: "How did it sound?"
Young Composer B: "Great. But like, you know, it sounded great in the same way any other fiendishly difficult piece played by Arditti sounds great."
Slightly Older Composer C: "It sounded just like any other fiendishly difficult piece played by Arditti."
Even Older Composer D: "It sounded like Flight of the Bumblebee on acid."
Really Old Composer E: "It always sounds like Flight of the Bumblebee on acid."
In the age of high complexity (ca. 1987-91), students of composition developed a number of techniques for pushing a score closer to, if not exceeding the Arditti Limit. While I was not a party to the formal discussions of the era, I am assured by informed persons that the principles governing these techniques included:

1. Insuring that each and every single note had at least one, and preferably more than one: accidental (preferably microtonal), dynamic, articulation, fingering, and playing method or special effect.
2. Insuring that each and every single note fell under at least one, and preferably more than one hairpin dynamic and n-tuplet bracket.
3. Using a basic rhythmic pulse no greater than one sixteenth note in duration. Drawing all barstems as wide as possible.
4. Notating polyphonically for each instrument, using as many staves as required to best obscure said polyphony.
5. Drafting the manuscript score in as small a scale as possible and then further reducing the score via photocopier to the smallest available size.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Go Round, Young Man!

Elliot Cole, a Houston composer, has returned from a sojourn in Egypt with a collection of rounds. He's putting them up one-by-one on his blog, Elliot's Funnel.

Rounds are very good things. I've long used Purcell and Moondog rounds in teaching (yes, even the politically incorrect ones by Purcell; sometimes I think that rounds are like limericks, falling into two categories: good ones and clean ones). I learned of the Moondog rounds, which usefully go through every key in a variety of metres, from Douglas Leedy, whose Watergate Rounds are here, at Idyllwild in '76. The ever-reliable Larry Polansky has a collection of new and newish rounds by a number of well-rounded scoundrels and songsters here.

Hey, it's summer, days are long, times and tongues are idle, so why not supply yourself with the appropriate liquid, sit down, and write someone with whom you like to sing a round?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

AACM Historical

I've just finished reading George Lewis's superb history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. Lewis has really filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of an experimental musical culture that has alternated for decades between intersection and movement parallel to the experimental tradition with which I identify. His discussion of the relationship between these two experimental music communities is quite pointed at times, talking with welcome frankness about issues of race, class, and gender; I don't agree with him on many points here, particularly given the marginal economic and music-political status of all experimental musicians with regard to the larger musical world, but it is an excellent opening to a discussion that is just beginning. Lewis's balance between a scholar's objective engagement with the historical record and recollection of his own personal engagement is a model.

I would now really like to read a more detailed theoretical/analytical work on the repertoire and musical techniques developed in the AACM and the larger community to which it connects. Or, better yet, some pedagogical materials -- scores and parts, as well as aids in teaching composition and improvisation -- ought to be developed, to widen the appreciation for this tradition, as well as to better balance out the treatment of African-American music in schools, which has long emphasized a rather narrowly defined "jazz" repertoire and an even-more narrowly defined style for playing that music.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pay for play

The following message was in my in-box this morning:
Hello, Composers!

Several of my conductor-clients are interested in performing a short piece by one of you during the coming season.

Some of you have already participated in this program and have had your works performed/recorded in Romania, Russia, and Ukraine. If you have new pieces ready for next season or wish to have the same old compositions performed in other cities/countries, please submit your application materials at your convenience.

Bear in mind that none of these orchestras are on the same level as professional ensembles in the US or Western Europe. Consequently, do not expect perfection in the performance of your works; most importantly is that your music be heard in new places.

The fee for this program includes rehearsal time for your work (appropriate to its lenght and difficulty), a DVD copy of the entire concert, and a semi-professional audio-recording of your composition in concert. If you plan to be present during the week your music will be performed, remember that all other expenses--such as travel, visas, accommodations, and meals--are your financial responsibility.

Thank you for your past business. I look forward to arranging opportunities for your music to be performed this coming season.

Here's how it works: This message is from one of several agents who contract between cash-strapped Eastern European orchestras and young conductors who want practice with an orchestra and are able to pay for it.* So far, so good: conductors need to train with orchestras and all orchestras should provide training opportunities to young talent, so long as everyone is clear that this is not resume-level professional experience. The conductor has not been selected over others on the basis of her or his artistic merits; the concert often takes place in a problematic cultural context in which the conductor is an alien actor and a problematic economic context in which neither the conductor nor the orchestral musicians are advantaged by the contract; the objectivity of any reviews of the concert will always be questionable. Presenting such a concert as anything other than practice places it into the category of vanity publishing.

This particular agent has now piggy-backed the arrangement with conductors with an offer to composers who are, of course, already at the low end of the musical remuneration feeding chain. I don't know how the money being charged to composers is divided between the agency, the conductor, and the orchestra (as well as any other middlemen -- and, having lived myself for five years in a former Soviet Block country, the assumption that there will be middlemen is a modest one), but given the fact that the countries in question return little and usually no license fees to non-local composers, this is a gig with absolutely no possibility for a composer to earn income.

Let's be clear about things: Yes, it's damn tough to establish oneself as a composer of concert music. And yes, programming decisions may sometimes be the result of bad, if not corrupt, processes. But the best programmers do try either to be objective in their selection processes or to be frank and upfront about their biases and preferences, thus selection, performance, and reviews generated by these processes can reflect upon the music itself in ways that a pay-for-play gig cannot. Moreover, as professionals, we have to insist on being paid: for the commission, for use of performance materials when required, for our presence at a first performance, and for all appropriate licenses and royalties for performances, broadcasts, and recordings. As a budget item in concert planning, fees for composers are not a lot of money; not paying any of those fees and insisting that the composer subsidize the concert is plain wrong.
* A related topic is the outsourcing of orchestral recording gigs, especially for film scores, to Eastern Europe; but the problem in these cases is one of a globalized labor market and our responsibilities to both local musicians, in our own communities, and to musicians in other communities who may sometimes live and work under the worst imaginable conditions. Another post...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

It ain't over until the cone of silence descends on the fat lady

I've been following the developments in acoustic cloaking for some time now. The utility of hiding a noisy presence on the concert stage or orchestra pit, in a recording studio or a stealth vehicle, or just for sound-proofing your garret, lair, or garage seems obvious to me. Here's a popular account of one of the most recent developments, a purely acoustic cloaking structure. Here's the research paper proper. You've got to love a physics paper discussing isotropic acoustic metamaterials and sonic crystals.

Missing Expertise

There has been an interesting small exchange on the SMT (Society for Music Theory) list* about the role, or rather lack thereof, that music scholars have been playing in recent copyright law innovations. While it appears that some jurisdictions -- Canada, for example -- have taken the input of musicologists and theorists seriously in preparing new law, in the US, the voices of creative artists and authors as well as those of scholars with critical perspectives and deep insight into both the substance and history of art forms are rarely consulted and when consulted, they are inevitably shouted out by representatives of the entertainment and entertainment technology "industries" and, unfortunately, in copyright law, it is often the case that as the US goes, the rest of the world will follow in the spirit of legal "harmonization". **

Musicians deal with copyright issues all the time, and whether it's securing a license for a recording or photocopying sheet music for classroom use, the problems are non-trivial and require increasing sophistication to navigate. The role of copyright in the history of music has long been non-trivial: from renaissance composer-publishers who had to curry royal favor to secure licenses -- and sometimes monopolies -- to print music or the ridiculous lengths required to receive copyright protection under multiple jurisdictions (the physical presence requirements needed to secure US rights to the operas is one of the most interesting parts of the Gilbert & Sullivan story).

Despite its importance, the study of music and the law -- in addition to the broader study of institutional structures and music making -- has been an under-emphasized specialty for music scholars.*** Legal scholars are more likely to be consulted on the development of new laws or policy concerning music than musical scholars, although musicologists and theorists may well have critical information about the substance and practice of music to bring to the discussion. Some legal practitioners have already recognized the value of musical scholarship to tort law: a small number of academically-trained musicians have made ancillary careers as so-called "forensic musicologists", testifying in copyright disputes as to the similarity of musical works or the contributions of individual artists to collaborative efforts. But musical academia has been relatively slow to reflect this area in their hiring practices and course content: musicologists are still mostly sought out for specializations that continue to represent the same eras and geographical regions that are reflected in course titles, and, although some specializations in cultural studies (e.g. women's studies) have been recognized, the legal and institutional history of music have not be sought-out specialties, although many eminent scholars have indeed devoted the greater part of their work to such topics. Some schools, more focused on the preparation of working musicians rather than scholars, have added faculty in the business of music, but my impression is that this has been taught entirely as a practical subject, not one with legal and historical depth, and frequently an area in which a great potential to substantially affect the production of music has been realized (for better or worse).

If I criticize music scholarship (see here, for example), it's because I treasure its accomplishments, believe deeply in its potential, and want it to be both better done and better received. At the very least the state of music scholarship is sign and symptom of how seriously music itself is taken by academe and the larger world. Music scholarship has to be more vital, present, and timely, precisely because music is important and more than just entertainment. The alternative -- in which music scholarship and the world about it blissfully ignore one another -- is not acceptable.
* The discussion thread was initiated by Prof. David Huron of Ohio State. Allow me to quote one part of his message: All over the world, countries are faced with legislative challenges concerning copyright, cultural organizations, maintaining cultural identifies in the face of globalization, and many other challenges. Have music scholars anything to offer? Where is the policy expertise in music departments and conservatories? At the very moment when decisions are being made that will affect musical culture -- possibly for the next several centuries -- we are silent. What policies will best serve the public? Almost none of us have thought about this. The truth is, we have almost nothing to offer. Scholars in the law schools, engineering, and business have thought more about the future of music than we have.

**The pair of American legislative disasters from 1998 --the Sonny Bono**** Copyright Term Extension Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act -- have created a particularly unwieldy body of law which, as far as recent experience can tell, is transparent and advantageous to only to those with sufficient professional legal resources (the corporate owners of Mickey Mouse's name and image, for example). For us plain musician-folk, the benefits are not apparent, but burdens are evident everywhere, making for the worst bit of "copyright protection" since the days in which purchasers of DAT recording tape were taxed by the largest copyright owners for content, even when recording their own music. The present popular willingness to simply disregard copyright by consumers faced with laws that say you can't copy this, but being sold machines -- often by the same owners of the copyright content -- that make copying all-too-easy and evermore accurate, perhaps even beats the social acceptance of cheating on taxes or spouses, lying about age or weight, or even refusing to admit to googling one's own name.

***Huron does report that the ethnomusicologist Marc Perlman recently took a year's leave to study intellectual property at Boalt Hall. Perlman -- who was ahead of me in grad school -- is one of the sharpest music scholars out there.

**** A name I thought would never appear in this blog. Oh well, never say never. Rest assured, however, that, under the motto "once a philospher, twice a pervert", said name shall not reappear in these pages.

Three masses for the poor

Gioachino Rossini: Petite Messe Solennelle, for 12 voices (SATB), two pianos and harmonium, 1863.

Erik Satie: Messe des Pauvres, for piano or harmonium or organ and unison voices, 1895.

Cécile Chaminade: Messe pour 2 voix égales et harmonium, Op. 167

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Good Enough

A Song for Fathers' Day, Groucho Marx, courtesy of the Internet Archive (here: mp3).

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


More than a few composers arrive at a moment when it seems useful, if not urgent, to assess their relationship to one element or another of music in a more systematic, sometimes formal way. It could be an assessment of rhythm or form or orchestration, but it's more often about pitches, and a composer's relationship to counterpoint/voice leading/harmony is not only a moment for producing teaching materials to share with others, but a moment for clarifying ones own practice and identifying resources and paths with potential for new music. For many composers, this is carried out within the context of a piece of music -- I think of Glass's Another Look at Harmony or Jo Kondo's Threadbare Unlimited (which the composer refers to as his own Harmonielehre) -- but for others, it takes the form of a written text: Schoenberg's Harmonielehre, Partch's Genesis of a Music, parts of Cowell's New Musical Resources, Charles Seeger's Dissonant Counterpoint. James Tenney's Changes for Six Harps and Klarenz Barlow's Çogluotobusisletmesi are interesting examples in which a composition and a theoretical/practical essay were produced simultaneous. Other composers who have more recently turned to major projects of the sort include Wolfgang von Schweinitz and Hans Zender.

Harmony, as a subject, is not precisely that which a scientist would identify as a theoretical discipline.* Sure, the taxonomy can be developed in a rigorous way (in fact, in many different ways), and the perception of harmonic and voice leading structures is a serious area of research in music perception and cognition, but a harmony text is more akin, in the worst cases, to an etiquette book, and, in the best cases, a cookbook, a collection of rules or recipes for describing a range of tone relationships and for replicating certain sounds or sequences thereof. There is clearly a program of taste, of aesthetics, behind every harmonic prescription. The German word that titles many a harmony textbook (and, of course, a nice work of symphonic dimensions by John Adams), Harmonielehre, captures this better than the English phrase "theory of harmony", as Lehre is teaching or doctrine as much, if not more than theory. As far as I'm concerned, the discipline of studying harmony is largely one of absorbing just enough of an existing doctrine in order to remake it -- accepting some aspects, rejecting others, introducing new concerns -- for ones own purposes. And then, as with any other form of doctrine, the greater spirits among us will proceed to ignore their own system in fascinating, productive, and yes, musical ways.
* There is an argument that harmony is only a consequence of voice leading, a view that is taken up, for example, by James Cook at Mathemusicality. Although I am personally a voice leading oriented musician, I disagree with Cook & Co. entirely: there are many ways for composers or listeners to arrive at or to hear the same piece of tonal music, and while a strong voice leading approach may be construed as more efficient or logical or less complex than a strong chordal approach, (1) I don't believe that efficiency, logic, or simplicity are always going to be the chief criteria through which we approach or should approach music, (2) there are simply too many counter-examples of fine musicians who think in terms of sequences of chords rather than simultaneous melodic lines, and (3) there are many real musical contexts in which the music succeeds precisely because the balance between vertical and horizontal is dynamic and/or ambiguous.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

An Ex-pat's Lament

Sad news: The International Herald Tribune, the newspaper of choice for all US ex-pats lounging about without any apparent means of support in Cafes and Hotel Lobbies, waiting for a rendez-vous or practicing not being seen, has given up its dingbat. Yes, this little picture,

which in approximate form has adorned the masthead ever since Christ left Chicago, filled with iconography promising all the breadth required to cover the dynamics of a world in The American Century, has been deleted in the name of "progress".

If I were drinking, I'd raise a martini high and toss it, glass, olive & all, into the waters of the Seine, and shed a tear for a grand, if odd, little graphic, now gone away.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Arranging the Folk

Joseph Drew has a review of a new Nico Muhly album. I don't do reviews and, for that matter, stay away from most recordings, but will note that I was impressed by the recording, especially for its comfort with sounds made unapologetically rough. I share Drew's assessment that the strongest work was The Only Tune, a piece which has, as a point of departure, an arrangement of a folk song performance by Sam Amidon. In fact, Muhly has elsewhere arranged other traditional material sung and played by Amidon and -- as far as I've heard -- this seems to be territory in which he is most inventive and even, to his credit, controversial. Sometimes, with the addition of the most modest of instrumental accompaniments or studio techniques, Muhly is able to venture, with a respectable lack of caution, all along the margins and borders of the repertoires framed and framing. Amidon's vocal style is, in its own way, educated, all artifice, but cultivated from traditional vocal styles well outside standard practice art song, which makes the framed and framing relationship ever more interesting.

Musical repertoires wear taxonomy uneasily. That's because a repertoire is real music that real people have gathered together and a categorizing impulse is, at best, weakly distributed among real populations, even under the strictest of regimes. People like to mix things together, even when we're well aware of conventions, etiquette, or rules that would rather have us keep things separate. Thus categories of the sacred and the secular or folk and popular and art musics are always going to be defined by usage rather than content and character of the music itself.

Nevertheless, music has often been produced in which the makers consciously both identify their own repertoire, creating a frame from which to point outside, towards some "other" music. Beginning, at least with Beethoven, the habit began of taking music identified as folk and placing it, as if between quotation marks, into the frame of an Art Song. Such an arrangement typically took collected material (or, in many cases, invented materials in the style of...) and re-formed it, through both compositional technique and performance style, into a hybrid, in which elements of the source tune were adjusted to fit a regularized pitch, metre, tempo, timbre and, frequently, given an instrumental accompaniment.

(The subject of "folk music" (and how one goes about collecting it, transcribing/notating it, publishing it, etc.) is complex and others handle the topic much better than I can. The politics of it are equally complex, so I will limit myself to noting that when identifying people as a group and identifying that group with a body of music, the music is being placed into a context which is socially and politically charged. Actually, the whole damn topic is so complex that I nearly trashed this item a half dozen times because I couldn't figure out whether or not to use the word "folk" and if I used it, whether to capitalize it, put it between quotation marks, italicize it, or color it bright green.)

Transmission Error

I'd really like words more if the actual use of language didn't always defeat me. Every lexicon is full of surprises. Consider the fortuitous pair, chance and change. Just a bit of data drip (loose tongue; lazy arm; lost bytes) and one word turns into the other. Cage's Music of Changes, adopted a method of determining answers to compositional questions through the application of chance operations associated with the I Ching, The Book of Changes.* Paul Auster's fine novel The Music of Chance is rather more about change -- in the face of torturous routine -- than chance, while his (even better) Moon Palace is an eloquent introduction to the lattice of coincidence. ** Change, for many, carries an element of risk, a departure from the known; conservatives, by nature opponents of change, will warn of the dangers of the unknown, of taking a chance. Chance is considered unserious, too playful, just a game. Reconciling to chance, to change: Alan Price, in his soundtrack to O Lucky Man*** (the only pop song soundtrack in my canon), brilliantly changes the old hymn "What a friend we have in Jesus" to "Everybody's going through changes. No one knows what's going on. Everybody changes places, but the world still carries on."

Yarrow sticks or slapsticks: A reconciliation to chance, to change, is inherently a comic jesture, accepting that one moves forward by stumbling (rather than force, will, or a fore-known and tragic fate) something that Cage recognized with his slammed piano lid in The Music of Changes, and Auster, again'n'again with his figures extracted from lost silent movies (at his best in The Book of Illusions, methinks), and Anderson, whose salesman, Travis (Malcolm MacDowell), travels to a generic territory known only as North****, dressed himself like a silent movie figure, a straight man in a territory gone crooked. But the comic is not mindless and the tragic is certainly not always mindful. Indeed, developing an ability to entertain a complex of outcomes, an essential survival skill in a world askew, whether comically or tragically, is an intelligent strategy, and composing or writing or filming or dancing your way forward by being prepared to accept a variety of outcomes rather than rely on convention or taste or an inexhorable and tragic fate, is anything but foolish.

*I'm told that a literal translation of I Ching would be something like The Classic Text on the Simplicity, Variability, and Persistence of All the Stuff in the Universe.
**Miller (Tracey Walter), in Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984): A lot o' people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch o' unconnected incidents 'n things. They don't realize that there's this, like, lattice o' coincidence that lays on top o' everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: suppose you're thinkin' about a plate o' shrimp. Suddenly someone'll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate o' shrimp out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin' for one, either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.
Lindsay Anderson, 1973.
**** North, in O Lucky Man!, is a generic place, like the generic cans of Food and Drink in Repo Man.

Friday, June 06, 2008


We know the world is round, but local daily life is carried out with flat-earth coordinates. Music is much the same: we navigate among our pitches and rhythms as if they were related by the simplest of ratios and proportions while knowing, all the while, that their simplicity is largely a conventional approximation, hiding all of the errors of human sound production as well as subtle compromises intended to create additional tonal possibilities. We live quite well and make music even better with our blissful decision to ignore the further decimal places of the measurable world. And yet this: the damnable effectiveness of that simplicity does make one wonder if it is in fact our execution that is flawed, the inherent error of being human, and that the music that is really real is some kind of platonic ideal.* Recent research in the neuroscience of music also seems to point to a preference, in the brain, for processing musical intervals as simple ratios, those found among the low-order harmonics of complex sounds, a capacity useful to both speech and music.

My own musical faith, however, is not that of a platonist, but something rather more constructive or intuitive. I believe that this is a more pragmatic viewpoint, one more immediately connected to the experience of music as it is made in real time. An example: in many of my pieces, beginning in the '70s, I use some form of just intonation, a term familar to many musicians. But defining what is meant, precisely, by just intonation is not an simple matter. If we define it as rational intonation, then we have the problem that every rational interval can be approximated by an irrational (and vice versa). If we want to limit our definition to ratios of small whole numbers, then we have the problem of defining "small". If we wish to define the intervals by minimal beating, then we have problems with timbres including spectra in non-harmonic relationships, which may well find minimal beating with intervals other than those of small whole number ratios. Moreover, as La Monte Young was wise to note, tuning is a function of time, and the accuracy of intonation will depend directly on the length of the sample. But the more pragmatic viewpoint is to examine the immediate musical context and worry less about decimal places of tuning accuracy or the natural wobbles of a man-made sound and evaluate intervals as the complex phenomena that they are: what is the intended relationship? what is the melodic, harmonic, and timbral context? what is the -- entirely subjective -- quality of the interval in question? In such a broader, contextual viewpoint, not only can more conventional just intonation be understood, but it is plausible that intervals and chords related by rather more complex ratios -- as are found in recent music by Young or by Kraig Grady -- are processed by the listener through attention to phenomena like the reinforcement of shared partial tones and difference tones in simple harmonic relationships.

* Plato had us living in a cave with familiar reality being a reflection on the walls of that cave of the ideal reality from without; musically, I suppose, he'd have us in an echo chamber, in which the music we hear is the distorted echo of the ideal sounds outside.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Complete Works

I've emphasized (again'n'again) that what's important for me is not a repertoire and not a composer, but rather the individual work, and often only a moment in a work. Both repertoires and individual pieces are inconsistent in quality, and composers can be marvelously uneven, a state of affairs that troubles me -- fallible, inconsistent, uneven me -- not a bit. But a repertoire and a composer is something like a brand name, a signal about quality, and there are some repertoires I always try to pay attention to and some composers whose every work I try to follow.

Sometimes, it's made easy: some composers have written so little (Varese, Ruggles), or so little has survived of their work (Machaut, Ockeghem, Monteverdi), or their work comes in such convenience-sized packages (Wagner, Berg, Webern) that it's possible to become familiar with everything. Some (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Schoenberg) have had complete works sets of recordings or scores commercially packaged (isn't having the NMA or every surviving classical Greek music manuscript online a really good thing?). Other composers are trickier, but the sport of chasing down every Stravinsky or Cage, or Partch , or Feldman score is great fun, and there was a time, there was indeed a time, when it was really important to know the latest from Stockhausen or Boulez, and a bit later Reich and Glass and Adams and so on. For myself, I'm pretty much on top of the music of my teachers and many of my friends. I pay attention to every bit of news from a few contemporary colleagues and each work of Ives enters my life as if it were the work of a contemporary. I'd like to do the same for Rossini and Sibelius and there are a couple of Debussy pieces left to conquer. But, to be honest, there are composers whose brand names have not worn well, and seldom recommend further listening (names withheld, but seriously, I don't think I'd walk across the room to hear another orchestral work by Roger Sessions... well, honestly, would you?) . Some brand names have worn better than others for me after complete works experiences (i.e. Mozart better than Bach) and there are still a few composers (Telemann) for whom a complete works, in any format, still doesn't exist*, so judgement is still reserved.

But I'm probably more faithful to complete works when it comes to literature or the movies. I suspect that it's probably because my engagement with the media in question is less intense than with music, so the brand name has become an efficient tool for choosing what to read or see. My canon includes all of Joyce and Beckett and Borges and Percy, Broch and Mann are almost complete and the arrival of each new book by Pynchon or or DeLillo or Wallace is an excuse to drop everything else. Each new book by Harry Matthews, Steve Erickson, or China Mieville is a guilty pleasure and, yes, when I was 20, I collected every P.K. Dick or LeGuin novel then available and I will admit to having gone through my share of complete readings of bestselling airport novels. With movies**, my allegiance to particular directors is unwavering. I want to see all of Ozu and Buñuel, and I've managed all of Huston, Bresson, Antonioni, Lynch and several others much less impressive. Sometimes a name brand will force me to sit through a torturous film (e.g. Altman's Three Women, Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut) and sometimes I persist, hope against hope as the case may be, in insisting that something redemptive is to be found (e.g. Altman's O.C. & Stiggs; Lynch's Dune) in a work that everyone else I know and trust has a perfectly reasonable case for loathing.

* Isn't it astonishing that there is not a complete works edition of Leopold Mozart?
**I'm from Southern California. I watch movies, not films.

What musicians want from science

Like many other musicians, I keep an ear out for recent research in the sciences on music and topics related to music. Stories about music and science appear quite regularly in the media and while many of the results are interesting, very little is immediately useful to a musician, aside from those results which get implemented immediately -- and, as far as I'm concerned, invisibly -- in commercial audio technologies. It occurs to me that the situation might be somewhat different if musicians helped to frame the questions explored in the research more specifically towards immediate musical problems. I can recognize that otoacoustic emissions or the relationship between tonal languages and the fascinating anatomy of human hearing, in which music is, at least in part, piggybacked onto organs used for language and balance, have great potential to reveal more very interesting things about music, but I, for one, would like to know much more about musical timing. What is the relationship between the "present" in music as it is played and the "present" as registered in the brain? How can ensembles of individuals coordinate rhythmically? How long are the chunks or stretches of music that our brain processes, and how does the brain sequence them back together? And, of course, as a composer, I really want to know how much I can play with these phenomena in order to make interesting new music.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


"Whilst traveling through the Andes Mountains, we lost our corkscrew. Had to live on food and water for several days!" W.C. Fields, in Mississippi (1935)

Whether composing, playing, or listening to a piece of music, serious engagement brings one ever closer to what might be called the essence of the piece, which is a quantity both more and less than the sum of the notes on the page. More than the notes, because when everything works, things happen which are never written down, cannot be written down, whether in a physical or psychological domain. Less than the notes, because notes are not yet the music and, indeed, almost any old note, if the moment is right, can just be thrown away and it's all to the better of the music.

When I'm not officially composing, that is to say composing in order to put bread on the table, I can almost always sit down and write a piece. But when the composing is real -- commission and performance already agreed -- I can't sit down, in fact, I can't even get near my desk, until I have some even vague idea of what the piece is supposed to be, the idea at its core, its essence. To get to that point, composing is often doing everything but: taking long walks, bicycling, cooking some obscurity, doing minor house repairs, taking on a difficult translation job, shuttling the kids about to sports and lessons. The more mindless the activity the better, all the better to excavate, carve, trim, and pare away at the mess of ideas that is the work in progress until nothing, no idea, is left but the right one. And once you're there, the rest of the work, which is all of the work that most folk usually think of as composing (sketching, drafting, scoring, testing, inking, computing etc.) , is just elaboration, just food and water.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


When faced with some long-dreaded tasks that can no longer be put off, it's often useful to alternate with a more immediately pleasurable task.

Today, I finally began to get my website in order (here) and the alternative activity was sorting and refreshing the spice rack. Here's the current inventory of the rack and the small herb bed behind the kitchen: Achiote seeds; Asefetida; Anise seeds; Basil; Bay leaves; Cardamon (black and white pods, powder); Carraway; Chiles (Cayenne, Pepperocino flakes, Green flakes, New Mexico (whole, flakes, powder), Guajillo, Jalapeno, Pul Biber, Habañero, Pequin, Pasilla); Chives; Cinnamon (sticks, powder); Citric acid powder; Cloves; Coriander (seed, powder, leaves); Cream of Tartar; Cumin (seeds, powder); Curry leaves; Dill; Epazote; Fennel seeds; Fenugreek (seeds, leaves); Garlic (cloves, powder); Ginger (root, powder); Grains of Paradise; Gumbo File; Juniper berries; Kaffir lime leaves; Mint; Mustard seeds (black); Nutmeg (Whole); Onion seeds; Oregano; Paprika powder (hot and sweet); Parsley; Peppercorns (black, white, red, green); Pimento; Pinenuts; Rosemary; Sage; Savory; Sesame seeds; Tarragon; Tasmanian pepper berries; Thyme; Turmeric; Wasabi; Wattleseed.

What's missing? Saffron, of course, and the rest of the green herbs for Frankfurter Grie Soß will have to be bought fresh. One pleasure of the spice rack is letting it be fruitful. Most of the seeds want to get planted: coriander, of course, but fenugreek is a special favorite (the German name, Bockshornklee, describes the shape of the green seed pods -- "rams' horn clover"; potatoes with fenugreek leaves are comfort food around here), and knots of ginger can grow into slender, elegant plants.