Wednesday, July 30, 2008

In Polite Company

Politics, religion, sex: the three things worth talking about.

Politics, religion, sex: the three things you're not supposed to talk about in polite company.

Politics, religion, sex: by any measure, we (new, experimental, avant-garde etc.) composers, don't deal too much with these three topics directly in our music; for ostensible radicals, we do tend to be polite (not to mention prudent and purient) company. Sure, some of us handle one theme or another, even specializing in it, but when we deal with one, we just as steadfastly avoid the others. Even when we write words, we might wade with caution into one or another of these topics, but never all three. In part, this is because our art form does deal -- and richly -- with matters internal to music and its technique, and is thus prone to abstraction, and in part because the intensity of training in music leaves little time or energy for deep immersion in the complexities of other fields, so we defer to experts, but aren't we citizens as well? And isn't it possible that the musical experience can also bring some expertise -- practical, social, technical, aesthetic -- to the greater discussions in our communities?

Politics, religion, sex: There have been, by my count, three major composers who dealt with all three themes in a major way. That's right, three: Handel, Mozart and Verdi. (Okay, four, if you want to throw in Wagner, but during music blog sweeps season, that'd seem like pandering). Other composers can handle one or maybe two (Ives and Cage (politics, and, loosely, religion), Messiaen and Stockhausen (religion and -- however modestly -- sex)).

Politics, religion, sex: I suspect most composers, most of the time, play just enough politics and religious politics in order to get their music made and insure a reasonable life-style. I assume that sex is part of that reasonable life-style, but we're polite company, and we don't talk about it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Cabrillo Colonized

Finally -- an article about the current state of the Cabrillo Festival, here. The Cabrillo Festival was, from its origins, the one music festival on the west coast reliably committed to a west-coast profile and sensibility. By all accounts, the playing is very good these days, but the programming has recently represented the effective summer colonization of the west coast by representatives of the east. When festival co-founder Robert G. Hughes (himself a distinguished composer, conductor, and bassoonist (not hornist, as mentioned in the article)) notes that

Composers with a “West Coast spirit,” he asserts, have by and large turned away from orchestral writing. Not only do they identify it with earlier periods, but they have also been discouraged by the incredible expense and lack of rehearsal time.

he is touching on a vicious circle -- of course, composers will turn to electronics if there are no orchestral possibilities, but if institutions playing orchestral music simply shut out west coast composers in the first place in favor of the east coasters whose works already dominate concert programs in the regular seasons, their hands have been forced, and the possibilities of developing west coast orchestral repertoire get ever more bleak. There is a significant body of west coast orchestral music that needs reviving, and many talented and imaginative composers who live in the west have exciting orchestral ideas that are simply left on hold because the signal sent by institutions like Cabrillo today is, simply, don't bother. And without the chance to experience good performances of ones works, the development of a composer's orchestral skills is naturally going to suffer.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Summer Camp

One of the downsides of being an experimental musician is that we don't get to go to summer camp. This hasn't always been the case, as summer training programs with an experimental bent have existed -- ancient history: Black Mountain, Bennington -- and some summer festivals have served a similar function -- somewhat less ancient: New Music in New Hampshire, the Burdocks Festival, the Cabrillo Festival before it became officially "contemporary". June in Buffalo was, in its origins, at the edge of experiment and there have also been summer programs specializing in computer music and algorithmic composition. But the experimentalist is not really at home in Tanglewood, Aspen, Interlochen, and gosh no, Virginia, not Darmstadt. Residential colonies tend to prefer composers with opera commissions to those with soldering irons and yarrow sticks, but even then, they are not an alternative to a group experience with performance possibilities. In High School, I went to an early music summer program, which turned out to be a very good thing as a wannabe composer and was a real welcome alternative to the orchestral, choir and band programs otherwise on offer. Many composers just a bit older than me were decisively influenced by the experience of the Center for World Music's summer program in Oakland. But as important as early and world music may be for composers, it's still somewhat second-best to a program focusing on the performance and composition of new music.

So, we need our summer camp. It should be an attractive enough place and atmosphere that good people are willing to come for little or no pay. Although there is something to be said for a gritty urban experience, I think It ought to be in a pleasant, quiet, countryish place. Accomodations should be rough but comfortable. The food should be good and available at musicianly hours (at the very least, musicians who cook well for themselves and others might have access to the kitchen.) The numerical balance between performers, composers and performing composers should be thought out. As should the teacher/student relationship. Should the schedule be built around formal concerts, lessons or presentations, privately or in groups, or should the basic modus be hanging around together and seeing what happens? (Or how about a refresher program: Invite senior composers as students, and let younger colleagues do the teaching?) The schedule and technical set-up should be flexible enough to accomodate spontaneous music-making, and the emphasis might profitably be less on programming works composed prior to arrival than on composing and realizing new works -- perhaps in collaboration -- during the workshop time. The technical setup should be thought out well -- from ample music stands, good pianos, percussion to beautiful mics and speakers, good amplification, mixing and recording systems, and fast internet connections (or maybe not: maybe radio silence should be encouraged). Finally, I think that it would be useful to end each day with a something to engage the larger community, perhaps gamelan playing -- many experimentalists have serious gamelan chops, it's a form of ensemble music-making that welcomes beginners, and no music fits a summer night any better.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


Mr. Carter's music surely does perplex
with so many notes and rhythms complex.
Explains the composer, now 99,
"At my age, it helps me to pass the time
and is a reasonable alternative to sex."

Ai, yai, yai, yai,What's next? is on the telly.
So let's have another verse
that's worse than the other verse,
& waltz me around again, Willy!

You don't go to Tanglewood
For the music or the food.
You go to get laid,
while fighting mosquitos with Raid.
— I guess it depends on your mood.

Aaai, yai, yai, yai,
a flexatone sounds just too silly,
so let's have another verse
that's worse than the other verse,
& waltz me around again, Willy!

What is the maximum a minimalist can negate
and the minimum a maximalist can inflate?
Over such tough equations
new music wars have been waged and
continue to percol- and irritate.

(All together now:)
Aaaaaaai, yai, yai, yaaaai,at Juilliard they never serve jelly,
so let's have another verse
that's worse than the other verse,
& waltz me around again, Willy!

Thursday, July 24, 2008


When future musicologists, should we survive the next century or two, turn to the reconstruction of late 20th and early 21st century art music, I reckon that dynamics are going to be something of a problem for those advocates-to-come of historically-informed performance practice.

The historical evidence is not particularly rich when it comes to dynamics, and contemporary written accounts of performance practice are rare.* While written scores may contain a large number of indications, it's far from clear what kind of range is intended, and whether dynamics apply equally to all instrumental resources. One composer is content with piano and forte, another might have 12 or more adjectives in play: are these terms to be applied only locally and/or relatively, or do they belong to some absolute scale of values? While the Italian marking remain widely used, many composers prefer a local language or an alternative lingua franca, and a small number of composers have used graphic or numerical notations for amplitude, so translation is an issue. The other important evidence, sound recordings, is, at this point in the cricket match, a source to be used with great caution, as the prevailing recording style is based upon a hot but rather compressed signal, with which dynamic differences are largely flattened. Digital recording and playback should, with increased available bandwidth, change this, but we're not quite there yet technologically and the flattened sound — identifiable with pop music — may be with us for a while, as it carries some degree of aesthetic inertia.

[Ironically, one minor source of direct information about contemporary performance practice may prove to be very useful in reconstructing the various dynamic styles of the day, and that is musicological research about historical performance practice in times earlier than our own, for the subtext of all of that research is, of course, how we do it now and how it differs from the past. The connection, for example, between the "terraced dynamics" discovered by certain twentieth century reconstructors of Baroque repertoire and a similar approach to dynamics in contemporary music, from Stravinsky to Nancarrow is real and instructive.]

All that said, I would not be surprised if future musicologists happen to look back and assign us into competing dynamic styles. There will be traditionalists, whose practice is as continuous as possible with the dynamic practice in conservatory-style 19th and 20th century music; this is the style in which the Italian terms will probably have the most stable exchange rates. There will be the amplificationists, plugged-in, usually mixed, and tending towards a loud and flat dynamic profile, sharing much with the production values of popular music genres. A subculture among the amplificationists will be that of the microphonists, whose interest in not in the loud, but in elevating the most quiet of acoustical phenomena into the world of the audible. There will be the as-soft-as-possiblers, pushing below the lower limits of traditional acoustic performance practice. ** There will probably be an all-acoustic loud-as-possible counterpart to the quietists. And finally, there will be a radical center, content with the dynamic possibilities of of a restricted set of signs, mostly soft and loud in whatever language, but never getting too close to either extreme.
*Rare but not totally absent. The Morton Feldman discussion list, MF, has recently had some interesting threads on dynamics, for one.
**For the record, I happen to think that while Feldman was influential if not critical to the development of this style, his own music's dynamic style was relatively soft, but entirely within the framework of traditional "quality" classical performance, such that the substance of the sound produced was never sacrificed to an absolute low volume. This is also in keeping with his style of articulation, which was not excessively tender, but rather more in the tradition of the pianism associated with the Skryabinistes.

What he said

"The history of poetry, like the history of any art form, is not a procession of its “best works.” Indeed, the well-wrought urn is, if anything, the deservedly forgotten one. Having codified and smoothed out the rough edges of any given tendency in poetry, such works are monuments to triviality and soon ignored." -- Ron Silliman, here.

One of the benefits of training in ethnomusicology is a focus on the concept of a musical repertoire — the size of a repertoire, how widely shared or segmented it is, how it develops over time, the processes through which communities comes to consensus or dissent over repertoire, and the connections, if any, between repertoire items and the values, both musical and general, of individuals and communities. Repertoire, a term which refers directly with the practice of music-making by real, existing people as musicians and listeners, seems to me to be a much more useful idea than that of a canon, a term associated more with the management of information about and access to music than the practice of music. The initial impulse for this blog (by a composer with perhaps too much ethnomusicology training) was, in part, to respond to canons and canon formation (which, despite the martial tone, is actually a phrase describing more complacency and passive consumption than dynamism and engaged performance and listening) with a more supple notion, in which repertoire change is the central dynamic -- most music, after all, will come, go, and be forgotten & AFAIC we're none the worse for that -- but up against which background there are musical works that need to be identified (and, in some case, reintroduced into the repertoire) precisely because they have qualities that continue to reward although, and sometimes because, the background has changed.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Temporary Notes (4)

From a lunchtime chat with young composers. (Click to enlarge image). It's astonishing how many subtle variations arise from taking a simple sequence of events -- in this case, a measure with three equal pulses -- and deforming the sequence through a global operation, one applied to the measure as a whole. In this talk I suggested the metaphor of a magnet, with its attraction varying among the individual notes by position & distance, but there are a number of other useful metaphors and methods of formalizing similar effects.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In case you've been away

((The past few days and past few months, respectively, on Renewable Music (images by

Monday, July 21, 2008

Temporary Notes (3)

Noisy time. Apparently full of events but without a discernable, regular pulse or division into time segments. The handful of words we throw about to describe such a state better describe our cognitive deficits: Irregular. Disordered. Fuzzy. Chaotic. Random. Messy. Complicated. James Tenney usefully suggested the term "ergodic" to describe musical forms in which any given sample will display statistically stable distributions of events and materials.* One consequence of an ergodic form is that no moment in such a piece will evidence or explain its place in the continuity or chronology of the whole. **

In the previous items in this series of brief notes on rhythm, I wrestled with the description of time with regular articulation and a "zero time", emptied or removed from articulated events. I imagine that musical rhythm exists in a space between those two, but I'd like to refine it a bit further and suggest that noisy time plays a role as well and that these three extreme forms of articulating time act as attractors on one another (excuse me if I bandy about terms like this without much precision -- a composer has the luxury a theorist does not have to be vague and imprecise, if not entirely irresponsible, as long as it's musically productive), mixing and deforming the regularities of striated and zero time while introducing meaningful filters or articulations into noisy time. While there may be some boundary examples of regular, zero, and noisy time (Young's X (any integer) for Henry Flynt and Cage's 4'33" and Rozart Mix, respectively, come close to such a boundary), it is more than likely true that most real, existing, or yet-to-exist music is going to be made at some distance from those extremes.

A desirable signal-to-noise ratio in musical rhythm is probably one in which the noise component is small but not zero (division by zero being, in any case, undefined). Too little noise would render a piece monotonous, not cognitively engaging enough, but, to quote Robert Ashley: "short ideas repeated... massage the brain", there is also a zone in which a certain amount of regularity is pleasurable and (presumably, but YMMV) musically useful. On the other hand, too much noise would be cognitively overstimulating, impossible for the listener to take everything in, and while I don't think it necessary or desirable or even possible to take everything in, there is probably a limit past which listeners will shut off entirely rather than engage in part. The difficulty for a composer is in creating a musical state that is close enough to either of these limits to be both novel and stimulating.

(Bart Kosko's book Noise is very useful in explaining both the difficulties and benefits of noise in general).
* More formally, one might say that a musical composition constructed in a given probability space is said to be ergodic if the only measurable sets invariant under the composition (i.e. the parameters compositionally operative in the composition) have measure 0 or 1. (When the measure in all parameters = zero, then we're talking zero time again, which also happens if you set the amplitude of a steady pulse to zero, which goes a some distance toward showing how these things fit together).
**As I've repeated, too often, here and elsewhere, one of the qualities of total serialism was this tendency towards ergodic forms. This was a problematic aspect of serialism as a body of techniques for creating concert music, because concert works are so clearly framed in time by the fact that a work begins, has a middle, and eventually ends, that material which is undifferentiated with regard to that frame will be received as undifferentiated. Had serialism gone, however, in the direction of the continous sound installation, this would have not been a problem but rather an asset.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Decay Preserved

The Internet Archives are a very good thing and steadily getting better. Sometime ago, I mentioned here that my copy of the tape part to Douglas Leedy's 1965 theatre piece Decay had, in fact, decayed beyond retrieval and neither the composer nor others connected with early performances of the piece appeared to have a copy. The tape part had been assembled (composed is not exactly the right word) by Leedy with the assistance of Ian Underwood from a collection of old shellac recordings, retrieved from a Berkeley used record bin, of rather bleak piano music improvised (one assumes) for the use of dance practice accompaniment. In performance a live pianist and other instrumentalists improvise in the same style (did I mention the word "bleak" already?) and, in most performances, theatrical events were overlayed. Memories of the sixties being somewhat vague as they tend to be -- under the motto, "if you can remember the sixties, you weren't really there" --, the theatrical events are difficult to reconstruct, but in several productions directed by the composer Robert Moran these apparently included a number of women in bathrobes and curlers as well as conspicuously large brass instruments and their players emerging from sleeping bags. The tape part still appears lost, but fortunately (if that's the right word), a recording of a performance under Moran's direction and service as piano soloist has turned up in the Other Minds Archive*, here, on the second half of a concert recorded by Bay Area Pacifica station KPFA. If you can persist in listening to a theatre piece divorced of its visual components, I do recommend listening long enough to hear horn and saxophone solos** presumably played by the composer and Underwood, respectively. Did I mention that this was bleak?
*All praises are due Other Minds and their intrepid leader Charles Amirkhanian, for rescuing this among other Pacifica jetsam as well as countless other services well-rendered!
**That saxophone does go on and on, doesn't it?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Temporary Notes (2)

Zero time. In a number of his "cuing" pieces, Christian Wolff used an notation indicating the number of sounds which were to occur within a number of seconds of clock time. X:Y, X in the space of Y. At certain points, Wolff gave a time value of zero, which he indicated meant that the duration was unmeasured, free to be determined by the performing musician.

In his late works, beginning with an extraordinary string quartet, Luigi Nono included a large number of caesuras, and his ceasuras are notated in different shapes and sizes, intended to indicate differering lengths, related roughly in measure to one another, but without a rational measure. Caesura is, of course, a term from classical prosody, in which it is a break in the continuity of a poetic metre, an expressive device. The notated poem, classically, did not notate ceasuras, but contained -- rhythmically and semantically -- the potential for their use in performance. In performance, the realization or the withholding of that potential is a powerful rhetorical device, playing with expectation, and its disappointment or satisfaction. Yes, I can't get no.

Rubato, so goes the schoolbook definition, is "stolen time". Stolen from where? And by whom? In extra time really stolen from a metrical stream, to be returned, as if one were balancing a checkbook to a zero sum? Or can that time come from -- or disappear into -- zero time, outside of the movement proper. In practice, rubato is a much theft as interpolation, and can be carried out at both the most local and most global levels, whether making the slightest changes in the lengths of metric feet or in inserting entire sections of music into larger movements.

It may be that musicians abhor a metrical vacuum, the casually attending ear turning any series of passing attacks into pulse, rhythm, metre, phrase, form. It also seems to be a constant that traditions of unmeasured music making -- like the French baroque unmeasure preludes, or the Indian Alap, or Arabic taqsim -- are highly improvisatory, or better yet, extemporaneous ("out-of-time"; albeit within some composed or traditional structure) and that time spent unmeasured must be followed by metric time. The non-metrical is prelude or upbeat to the metrical.

Zero time. What of the time in which we we are not making or attending to music proper? From the slightest ceasura, in which Carlos Kleiber took time to smile, acknowledging music made more than well. Or South Indian musicians who stop in the middle of a piece to clear a throat or to retune only to begin again as if completely uninterrupted? Or the time before, after, and between movements of a work; restless and essential time when music is not being made but pondered, anticipated, contemplated; time that resists counting like a breath held; not counted but potential understood as an upbeat to metrical time to come?

I'm out of time.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Temporary notes (1)

A pulse repeated. When the individual attacks are undifferentiated or uninflected, then the arbitrary action of a listener's attention jumping onto or stumbling into the stream of events forces the issue: one, two, three..., an automism stemming, perhaps, from a cognitive horror of that which is not ordered. Brouwer's twoity: counting originates in the perception of time passing, and when a second event separates itelf from a first, one becomes aware in the moment of that perception that, as far as time is concerned, repetition is all about similarity, not sameness.

A stream of pulses. Picture that stream picking up or loosing speed, volume, being broken into groups, articulated by flotsam, jetsam, outcroppings of rocks, islets, swimmers, boats, birds, waterplants, bridges, passing clouds creating slices of light and shadow. Regular divisions become gruppetti, metrical feet, metre proper, storms and seasons become sections, movements, the course of a year, a piece, the course of the river itself, a repertoire. But always, inexorably flowing forward. Jumping out of the stream and beginning anew upstream is Heracleitus and all that.

The division of the mainstream into currents and tributaries, going with or against the current, the individual streams in an ensemble moving in similar or parallel or contrary motion relative to one another. Counterpoint and all that.

Motoric, mechanical, monotonous or mono-rythmic, motion made so regular in repetition as to appear, paradoxically, like a spinning top viewed from above, static. (In both time-point and certain chance techniques, by assigning equal probablities to the occurence of any single pulse onto any pulse in the notated metre a heirarchy of accents is effectively eliminated, becoming so panmetrical that no metre is longer perceptable. (Just as pantonal became atonal, panrhythmic became a-rhythmic.))

A pulse train. Like jumping a freight train. It goes on, regardless of whether you've been able hoist yourself onto it or not. I remember my own horror of first playing in a gamelan: I was totally without orientation, unable to locate a handle on which to grab and begin to play along, but eventually I just played something, and gradually shifted my something into phase with everyone else.

It's sometimes been the fashion among musicians to do whatever is necessary to get away from, to disregard a regular pulse. (In Kagel's St. Bach Passion, a parody of a Bachian motor rhythm in the orchestra is heard behind the hoir singing the name Johann Sebastian..., but with each of the consonants deleted, it is heard as Onanie, masturbation, which seems a curiously uncharacteristic and prudish critique on Kagel's part). But a pulse, as background into which things may emerge and disappear is often a necessary condition for making those emergent and vanishing events effective and interesting. And isn't the very idea of a perpetual motion -- given the inescapable fact of our own inescapable termini -- interesting in itself, even, as in real, existing, musics, perpetuity is only suggested and impossible to actually realize? And an effortful disregard of the pulse simply ends up, dialectically, in reinforcing precisely that which one wishes to avoid. A dance in ragtime, however ragged, must remain danceably in time, after all.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Old Darmstadt In'n'outta There

Well, I just spent four hours checking out this year's edition of the Darmstadt Courses for New Music. Heard some music (music harmless, performances dangerously good), looked at some scores, saw a number of young composers wandering about with the Darmstadt glaze in their eyes. I could blog a bit more about it, but I suspect that it says enough about the vitality of Darmstadt these days to note that, midway through this year's course, if I were to blog it, I'd probably be the first music blog even to take notice.

My Ontological Friday

I could have gotten up early -- lawyer-early, not doctor-early, but certainly hours earlier than musician-early -- hopped into our mighty '93 Opel Astra and reached Darmstadt in time to hear Brian Ferneyhough hold forth on all things Ferneyesque, but then I also could have gotten up and trimmed the garden hedge. Some things are not to be. But I did manage to get out of the house some minutes before two in the afternoon, intending a trip to the library, only to discover that my '89 Emik bicycle had broken two rearwheel spokes while crammed against the tynes of a rake in said garden's shed. So, the bike was walked through the settlement and across the meadow to the local Radwerk, where I was please to learn that, while the wheel was terminal and would have to be replaced, the bicycle would live on. I treated the bike to a new, gel-cushioned, seat, left the bike with the Meister and caught a combination of bus and underground ( the U-Bahn actually happens to be aboveground in our borough before going undergound in more central districts) to the library. I treated myself to reading a section of the latest Die Zeit ("Time", a weekly newspaper with a liberal-intellectual profile, sort of a German The New Yorker on steroids and stripped of cartoons) , which featured an article on the ontological status of mathematics, reminding myself once again that, however convenient it might be, I just can't be a Platonist. (I guess I'm more interested in shadows on walls that whatever it is that is supposed to be casting the shadow.) The Open Magazine of the Frankfurt City and University Library is in a basement level, sandwiched between an underground station and the library proper. It houses books reserved for courses and a collection of more recent aquisitions of more general interest which the library trusts patrons to locate for themselves. For some reason or another the collection is very strong on Hollywood biographies, linguistics, lit crit, Judaica, and cultural anthropology. Some music, philosophy, politics, and media studies titles also appear with useful frequency. The cataloging is strictly numerical, by date of aquisition, so, aside from the statistically significant collection strengths noted above, there is no ordering by subject at all. It is meant for easy retrieval of titles researched in the catalog but not for browsing. But naturally, browsing there, among books all but randomly placed on the shelves, is one of the most interesting things you can do in Frankfurt. In fact, it's such a good thing, that I sometimes feel like I've been granted a second chance at an undergraduate education. Generalism gone wild, a veritable garden of a library from a wild generalist. Going into an aisle at random, I grabbed the first title with "Music" on its spine and, in full, the spine read: DODD Works of Music OXFORD. I immediately slid the book from its shelf, checked it out to take home, and I made an evening appointment with it, discovering an eloquent and difficult (difficult, that is, for non-philosophers, like me) defense of a type/token platonic ontology of music. Naturally, I found much to disagree with, but was delighted to have had the combination of opportunity and time just to wrestle with the subject. But now, it's late, musician-late, and as far as I'm concerned, there is no music here or even in some Platonic world of ideal music, and certainly no ponderings of the ontological state of any music that could possibly keep me from an appointment with my bed. But should I happen to dream tonight, will I dream some music or shall my dreams be haunted with questions about the existence of the music I might be dreaming?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Robert Schumann, New Music Blogger

Robert Schumann was both a composer and a pioneering music journalist. His journalism -- especially in Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which he founded in 1834 (and is still published, if with somewhat less energy) -- would not likely fall today within the narrowly constrained portfolio of our contemporary newspaper critics, but was always written from the viewpoint of a composer who wished to strongly advocate for music in which he believed ("Hats off, Gentlemen, a Genius!"), for both new music, re-discovered music of significance, and ideas about music and its performance.

The political scientist Henry Farrell, of Crooked Timber (my favorite SocSci Blog -- if I ever do a blog exclusively devoted to orchestration, it's definitely going to be called Crooked Timbre) has recently been studying political blog readership, and his observations are not altogether irrelevant to the musical blogoplan. According to Farrell, political blog readers appear to be homophiles -- thus tending to read blogs with similar outlooks, conservatives reading conservative blogs and liberals reading liberal blogs, with the relatively few readers who regularly read a wide spectrum of opinion blogging coming mostly from the left. Political blog readers also tend to be more active participants in politics: they are more likely to inform themselves, speak out on issues, vote, work for campaigns, etc. but readers on the left are more likely to be active participants than those on the right. It seems that the left is both more energized and views its blogs as advocacy vehicles for a movement -- the whole netroots business -- while the right bloggers are in a bit of a malaise and have been less able to use the net for advocacy.

For musical blogs, I see the outlines of a similar split. It is not parallel to the political blogs in left-right political distinctions, but like the conservative political blogs, there are a number of music blogs which see blogging as an extension of the cranky-critic-printed-on-dead-trees- style music journalism, and these blogs have fallen into a malaise of their own, spending a lot of pixels on the death of classical music, death of classical music criticism, and need-for-better-music-management memes. (They also tend to spend a lot of pixels on opera. Goes with the territory, I guess.)* The other side, with which I admit to identifying, is the advocacy side. Although I have gotten cranky here myself about some topics -- in particular the superfluidity of publishers and corrupt competitions -- in advocating for new or less-well-known music and for new media for the transmition of that music, the current state of affairs of the historically large and important institutions -- concert halls, opera houses, universities, recording companies, management agencies, and newspapers -- is of far less concern. Circumstances change and institutions must change or fade or even vanish (in the peculiar way in which legal persons are allowed to expire). In advocating for particular forms of music within a more diverse musical ecosytem we have to explore and initiate the creation of new and more agile vehicles appropriate for making and distributing that music, and that includes making our blogs better, even if that means making them something quite different from newspaper criticism as well as trying to figure out how to support this work without insitutional backup (not to mention press passes, salary, healthcare, pension...).

Robert Schumann recognized the music which he valued and invented a form of music journalism that was appropriate to the task of advocating for that music. I have no doubt that were Schumann around today, he'd be blogging, but he isn't, we are, and we've got to do a better job. Hats back on, gentlepeople: we may not be geniuses but we'll work hard all the same.
* Okay, here's my real snark -- the cranky critic music blogs, precisely like conservative blogs, such as The Corner, tend not to allow comments, and if they do, they screen them. Shutting down comments, and by extension, hiding controversy, suggests both that the matters discussed are less provocative and lively and that the blog writer is thin-skinned. Well kids, you simply can't be thin-skinned and be an effective advocate, and this is especially when the music you advocate is innovative and provocative, rather than a comforting reinforcement of the status quo.

All on Tape

The Standing Room (here) smartly combines a meme with a nice report on the publication party for the book The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde, edited by David W. Bernstein. (There are links to additional photos of the event to which a number of Tape Music Center founders participated. Once young radicals, now senior radicals, these folks -- in the generation of my own teachers -- seem to be doing so well, and seem to be having so much fun, that I'm definitely starting to look forward to my own codger-years).

La Monte Young, another radical musician with Bay Area roots, likes to say that "if you can remember the '60s, you weren't really there." While some memories are definitely fading, the bits and pieces that do emerge are fascinating, and much of the music -- on tape, after all -- has survived, and both memories and the audible evidence continue to challenge and inspire. The Tape Music Center -- like its near-contemporary, the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in Ann Arbor and, to some extent, the earlier Project for Magnetic Tape in New York -- was a cooperative effort among experimental musicians and artists in other media, and both an aesthetic and practical alternative to existing professional institutions. The Tape Music Center (which eventually morphed into the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College -- which, with a benevolent academic host, remains a leading experimental studio) was one of the central axis points for the radical music tradition in the west, and both the music made their and the working aesthetic continues to influence and -- in the best sense of the word -- agitate. (In addition to Mills, the studios at UCLA and UCSD have direct roots in San Francisco, albeit roots from which they have traveled rather far and ignore, perhaps, at their aesthetic peril!) In my small library of electronic music wonders, two pieces from the Tape Music Center, Ramon Sender's Desert Ambulance and Pauline Olivero's Bye Bye Butterfly are keepers, works that reward listening again'n'again.

Read more about the Radical Music here.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Talk Radio, a Lost Horizon

Is it imaginable today that anywhere in the US, outside perhaps of a rare college radio station, that an hour of air time might be devoted to a discussion of new musical notation and performance practice? Here (curtesy of Other Minds) is a recording of a 1963 broadcast from Berkeley Pacifica station KPFA, 58 minutes discussion with illustrative audio outtakes among adults of a new piece of experimental music. The piece in question, Mandala Music by Loren Rush -- an influential work by an important figure in the Bay Area radical music scene -- uses a score with innovative graphic elements, involves indeterminate and improvisatory elements, and, as the title suggests, reflects interest in sources outside of the western traditions. (The mobile elements in Mandala Music would later be joined by a reduced set of tonal materials in a number of works by Rush that are part of the same tradition that would later, and more widely, gain the "minimal" label.) Another striking thing about the discussion is that it takes place among four colleague-composers -- Rush, KPFA music director Will Ogdon, Glenn Glasow and Phil Winsor -- further evidence of a scene in which participants took a genuine interest in each others' work.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Fragments of a composer's autobiography not found here.

...having left the colony a day early to do lunch at the Tea Room... ...director of the Met... ...a very important critic... ...dare broach the subject of a commission... broke that I was down to my last suit and even that one had the rear seam held in place with masking tape... ...broke down on the shores of Lake Michigan... ...was flown over to judge a student competition... ...Edith Wharton or Henry James... ...developed a taste for alcohol... ...whirlwind tour... ...pyramids, pagodas, and the setting sun over the Seine... ...Morocco just a haze... ...jogging through Central Park... ...arrested, but the charges were dropped... ...forced to decide between taking the Rome prize or writing the opera... ...knocked over Virgil's gladioli, hoping he wouldn't take notice... ...the damn opera... ...brought a box of Belgian pralines and was instantly forgiven... ...abandoned the opera again... ...hoping for another Guggenheim... ...had to sell the piano, took a job a Woolworth's... ...came out as a tonal composer... ...and relieved himself in the Grand Canal, right before the Palazzo Grassi... ...not that a spare would have done any good -- 39 years old, stuck in Wyoming, and never learned to change a tire... ..."work of a genius"... ...stole small kisses in-between private lessons... ...skipped the concert but managed to phone in the review all the same... ...didn't know was only seventeen... ...knew the opera needed revisions but took the ovations all the same... .....completely innocent... ...had to sit next to Ned at the Academy dinner... ...overcooked, as usual... ...remember my first naive attempt at composition: The Red Caboose, in fat black and red crayon, seven measures of 4/4 on butcher paper... ...Juilliard or Curtis... ...know that opera will see the stage again before I...

Monday, July 07, 2008

Eastman Scores Online; Dr. Wolf Gripes About Musicology Again

The fine composer Mary-Jane Leach has done extra service to the music world in gathering the scattered remains of the composer Julius Eastman. In addition to gathering together a landmark collection of recordings, she has now placed a number of scores (or surviving score fragments) online, here. I have a few friends who studied with Eastman, and the scores are something of a surprise to look at, as Eastman had a reputation for insisting that his students prepare meticulous scores, millimeter exact and picayune in detail, a manuscript aesthetic different from that of the scores in this online collection. Many thanks are due to Mary-Jane Leach!

Has anyone else noticed how slow musicologists have been about such urgent matters? Not unlike Leach's effort with the Eastman Nachlass, it took a consortium of composers to put together a usable edition of the works of Johanna Beyer (here, at Frog Peak Music). A few other friends have recently been trusted with the complete unpublished works of colleagues. Contemporary musicology, having traveled -- and not for altogether bad reasons -- away from the production of authoritative editions and the production of authoritative rules for historical performance practice has apparently settled into a corner of cultural studies with little time or resources for producing editions of composers who are still below the canon-sensing radar. Oh well, it's not as if we have other things to do...

Friday, July 04, 2008


On this day and on any other, best regards are due to everyone asserting their own independence from whichever institutional or habitual constraints and restraints one may happen to be in.

In that spirit, I'll be spending time with Ives' Fourth Symphony, Cage's Apartment House 1776 and some of these pieces; I might even get around to some composing of my own, some small personal declarations of independence.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Ever More Optimism

A pair of blogs by younger colleagues:

Sonatas and Interludes Luke Gullickson

Theatre of Found Sounds Marc Chan

And a few notes for July (click image to enlarge):

In Analysis

As part of a group project, I've recently been analyzing my favorite Mozart Piano Sonata (the F Major, K533/494). Going off on my own, beyond the confines of the project, I've been trying to get at the piece from as many analytic angles as possible (all the usual suspects -- scale-step, functional, tuning lattice, motivic, Schenkerian, rhythmic, topical -- plus an idea borrowed from Virgil Thomson and John Cage about pitch gamuts).

Without going into any specific results -- which would be premature anyways -- I've been struck by the contrast between those analytic methods which are more objectively descriptive and those -- Schenkerian techniques especially -- in which each analytic decision is negotiated in a process uncannily like that of setting a human subject down on a couch and asking about dreams or the subjects relationship to his or her mother. While one is fascinated by such an image -- after all, Schenker's work and psychoanalysis were both products of fin de siècle Vienna, if coming from very different neighborhoods of that complex cultural/intellectual town -- the high degree of subjectivity is troubling. And this subjectivity, reinforced by an insistence that each decision represents a form of belief, is not limited to Schenker-style analysis (One of my college teachers was a student of Boulanger, and his approach, directly following that of Boulanger, was to insist on the same sort of commitment, which the student had to demonstrate through rigorous musicianship exercises, often turning music class into something more like an old fashioned catechism lesson (no lisping nuns, but complete with back-of-the-knuckle slaps with a ruler whenever something was done wrong)).

One of the things that music handles well but music analysis deals with poorly is the exhibition of ambiguity. Real music can say two things or be two places at once, and sometimes more than two, while the preference in analysis is inevitably to pin things down. And most forms of music analysis are based on some aesthetic and stylistic preferences that are generally left unstated, particularly those concerning the "unity" of a movement or whole work of music. The idea, for example, that a piece of music starts and returns to the same place, or is an expansion or elaboration of a single idea or structure, is an aesthetic preference, not a law of nature, and music can very well start here and end up in some very different place, an unexpected there, or fail to relate entirely to a single generative idea and still be successful, interesting, attractive, or whatever...

However, if that if the student of analysis is aware and wary of any aesthetic assumptions underlying an analytic technique, these techniques can become valuable, in listening, performing, or in composing. Harmonic functions and Schenkerian prolongations are extraordinarly rich in descriptive and compositional power, but there is no object to these forms of analysis precisely similar to the object of psychoanalysis. A musical work may well be problematic, if not a puzzle, but it is not an ailing organism and will not be made well by analysis. The final Schenkergram, with a work reduced to a tonal skeleton common to all works also satisfying the same aesthetic critieria, is not interesting in and of itself, but the process of arriving at that skeleton is both very revealing and suggestive of alternate possibilities for interpretation or for new composition.

The known analytic practices are, as far as we can tell, only provisional, especially as long as our knowledge of the neuroscience of music is so limited. These analytic procedures can be put in reverse, as it were, and used to synthesize new musics; but the evidence from real composition is that many roads lead to Rome: although one algorithm or another may exhibit virtues of logic, elegance, or efficiency, there is no compelling evidence that real human composers operate on the basis of logic, elegance, or efficiency, so there is no slam dunk argument for any existing technique but strong hints that musical diversity is served by a diversity of approaches to musical synthesis. And while there are strong suspicions that our perception of music uses analytic techniques bearing some real relationships to known methods of music analysis, this is still such a young area of research that one is wise to be prepared for more surprises.

We're not out of analysis yet and that, my old (but not John McCain old) friends, is far from a bad state of affairs.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Raw and the Cooked

As far music is concerned, no metaphor is perfect, but perhaps, in venturing a metaphor, one becomes wise with the experience of its inevitable collapse. (Yep, N.O. Brown again: truth is error burned up.) The Radical Music was (and is) raw, a return to roots, raw materials*; a deliberate lack of deference to accumulated tradition, habit, performance practice, but a fascination with the single layers of that accumulation; a rejection of and by institutions (Yep, Groucho Marx again: ...any club that would have me as a member); and -- inevitably -- conflicted about the natural and the artificial, about clarity and ambiguity, and about the private and the communal. The Radical Musician takes risks, not the least of them professional, in rejecting aspects of performance practice held up as gateways to gigs, jobs, prizes. In general, the left coast is more raw than the east, except when it's the other way around -- New Englander Alvin Lucier likes his music "clear, like gin", Douglas Leedy, in the Pacific Northwest, prefers the cloud of a single malt.** The Normative Musician, native to and resident in the institutions, more uptown than down, and decidedly not-radical, at home in conservatories if not just plain vanilla conservative, treasures not so much the accumulated layers of tradition but this moment's slice through all of that, a standard, a norm, regulating performance practice in all domains. A professional always holds the bow this way. A professional never draws a time signature that way. A professional has a big time management agency. A professional does lunch at the Russian Tea Room. Being a member of the club, or guild, of professionals, means that one is let in on the secrets of the trade, be it the right accountant, or the right combination of words on a CV, or, as in my pre-Cambrian youth, just knowing where to get an ozalid copy made, heck, just knowing what an ozalid copy is. The Normative Music is cooked; it is subject of a process involving knowledge and techniques and standards for the appplication of such knowledge and techniques that have been arrived at over generations of experience. There tends to be an identification of such a tradition with taste. But as with the Sunday pot roast from my Irish-American grandmother, the cooked often runs the risk of overcooking, that is to say, if cooked is your default setting, then you tend to cook more rather than less, overlooking the possible advantages of the raw, including, possibly, a connection between taste and pallatability.

(This is the first of a series of three related posts).
*Quoting, again, La Monte Young: I used to talk about the new eating. One time Terry Riley said, "Yeah, even the cooks'll get rebellious. We'll walk into a hamburger stand and order something to eat. In a few minutes the cook'll give us some salt. Just salt. Then one of us will say, 'What? Is this all?' And the cook'll answer, 'Whatsamatter, dontcha like static eating?'"
** It's relevant to note a difference between minimalist visual artists on opposite coasts. West coasts, like Robert Irwin, were obsessed with material accuracy, perfection, getting things straight, smooth, "cherry" like a perfectly restored vintage motor car. East Coasters, Frank Stella, for example, were more satisfied with an approximation, tolerating a few millimetres deviation from a perfect square, for example, perhaps a luxury made possible by presence in a more active art marketplace.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Somewhere; not here. Someones; not mine.

Sometimes a vivid bit of music comes into your head, belonging somewhere, but not anywhere in a piece of your own.
This morning, while transplanting Tomatillo seedlings, the slow movement of a never-to-be-written piano concerto -- throughout which the piano plays a persistent figuration which eventually accompanies a series of soli and small ensembles from the orchestra without ever gaining in intensity -- slipped into that part of the pre-conscience in which rhythms and tunes and bits of timbre often get stuck. First it teases: What is that? Have I heard it before? Am I making this up? Then it irritates: It really sounds too much like _____. Or this: Isn't that actually kind of good, too good not to use? Or this: How am I ever going to get any music made with that, that noise, hanging about? Then you get concerned: What do I do with it? I can't just leave it out there, unheard, alone, unused, unfulfilled. An archival instinct emerges: Is there a holding cell someplace for unclaimed or orphaned musical ideas? Get out the sketch book! And then, if you're lucky, reason, reconciliation, or better yet: Gelassenheit: you let it go. You just let it go.

Defining terms

A great piece of music is like a house which is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.