Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sonata, que me veux-tu?

In a review of a new anthology of sonnets, Ron Silliman (boy, do I learn a lot from his blog) writes of poets who
...have seen in the sonnet precisely the dynamics of constraint that elsewhere drives Oulipo toward its amazing proliferation of forms. The point of the sonnet therefore is not to put oneself up against the likes of Shakespeare or Ben Jonson, but rather to see the sonnet for our time as a series of powerful literary devices that can open the present up completely.
Isn't this amazing proliferation of forms quite like that, for the sonata, found in Cage's Sonatas and Interludes, Lou Harrison's early Six Sonatas for Cembalo, or Gordon Mumma's Sixpac Sonatas, or in the profligate sonatas of John White or Boudiwijn Buckinx (also here)? One of the reasons that these pieces are so rich in spite of their brevity — and especially in comparison with the longer modern sonatas based on late classical and romantic models — is that they take the form to its roots, prior to the establishment of the tonal model of the classical sonata movement, as a canzona per sonare (an instrumental work in which sonic quality is emphasized) or the elementary binary form in which the fundamental compositional problem is that of the repeat which is able to lead both back, Ouroboros-style, to its own beginning, as well as forward to something else.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Temporary Notes (7)

The encounter with Javanese Music includes the confrontation with a complete rhythmic and formal system shared by music, poetry, and movement (dance, puppetry, or martial arts). (Another excitement is the irama system, in which tempo and rhythmic density are combined in a profound and sophisticated way: stuff for another item.) Karawitan, gamelan music, like early western music, has become an essential alternative or "other" music in my life, a beautiful and useful mirror, echo, and alternative to the music proper to my own time and place; performing this music has been a joy that cheerfully falls into the category of amateur.

A Javanese performing artist learns to internalize instrumental forms, which are marked by patterns of various sized gongs and drumming, to which vocal melodies, using poetry in verse forms with strict syllable counts and fixed vowel sounds at the end of each line*, are strictly placed and to which, likewise, dance steps (by puppets, human dancers, and martial artists), moves and gestures are oriented. In this environment, when one is aware of the underlying structures and their markers, it is possible to create ever-new combinations of music, text, and movement, often in extemporaneous real time performances. (I think that in Java the importance and energy put into creative activity we would characterize as arrangement of existing materials rather than the composition of new music, texts, or movement is one factor in the relatively low rate in which new compositions are added to the active repertoire and is also a contributing factor to the relative anonymity of individual composers).

For contemporary western musicians, any similar systematic relationships between the forms of our instrumental music, song, verse, and movement are rather deeply buried in our archaic past. (Dr. W's short version of western music history: sever song from dance, then song from metric verse, and then music from both.) From the perspective of an English speaker like myself, knowing something about our stress-based traditional verse forms is of little help in getting an intellectual or practical handle on these traditions for the combination of text with music, as the connection between forms and metres based on stress and those of music (which are based on duration as well as stress) is largely one of analogy and, acoustically speaking, a weak analogy.

I did have the fortune of taking Greek and some Latin in college, so, at the same time I was becoming acquainted with Javanese music, I came into contact with historical western traditions which did not have (or rather, did not yet have) the modern separation of music from words and movement, and had duration-based poetic metres, combinations of 1,2, or 2 syllable feet, each syllable either long or short, which were common to (Classical Greek, having pitch accents, adds yet another dimension to the performance of poetry, and the relationship between pitch accent and melody is a topic of very interesting conjecture).

My musical training, on the other hand largely passed over issues of rhythm, and when rhythm was treated, it was in a rudimentary way with little attention to connections with words or movement. To be sure, the well-known Cooper and Meyer book is very useful for classical repertoire, and discussions of harmonic rhythm — a topic considered unfashionable during my Schenker-flavored schooldays — can be useful in establishing a relationship between materials and the pace of their presentation and consumption. Also, Schoenberg's Fundamental of Musical Composition has a very useful discussion of the development of musical forms according to analogy with language, as assemblies of motives, phrases, periods, and sentences. (An even large deficit in my training had to do with music for dance; as it happens, I ended up having more experience with renaissance music/dance connections than with those between classical ballet and music; which is certainly a deficit with regard to a lot of music I'd really like to better understand).

But these are all descriptions of existing practice for historical repertoires, and it would surely seem, at first though, to be more useful to a contemporary composer to depart, in questions of text or movement, from the assumption that there is no necessary connection to music rather than from a full-blown formal-aesthetic system. However, I suspect that there is considerable potential for the invention of new music (and texts and movement) based upon the recovery and manipulation of, not the specific materials, but the structures of such systems.

* For example, in the form Gambuh, the syllable counts and final vowels for each line of a verse are: 7 — u. 10 — u. 12 — i. 8 — u. 8 — o.

Well fed, well said

Jeremy Denk gets it right, and writes it well, again:

Brahms has many virtues; but certainly his greatest contribution to the history of culture is his demonstration that obesity can be musically satisfying.

Read the rest here.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Walking through a street festival in a Frankfurt neighborhood this afternoon, I passed by a group of men (four Germans, one American) playing New Orleans Jazz in a respectable imitation of the earliest recorded examples. They were very serious students of the repertoire and style, and had very carefully collected instruments that were either originals or copies of instruments that would have been played in that era. Although performing at a high level, these musicians were not doing it for the pay, but as a passionate hobby, amateurs in the best sense of the word. Chatting with one of them, it was made clear to me that their interest was in a historically specific and closed repertoire and, indeed, he had complaints about the "inauthentic" performing style of contemporary New Orleans musicians.

This group — and there must be many hundreds just like it around the world — was engaging in a micromusical practice, and one similar in ways and means to that found in groups engaged with many other repertoires. These may be defined in terms of style, locality, ethnicity*, or historicity. In the 70s and 80s, I had contacts with the early music scene (which some even identified as a "movement") which, while having a substantial professional element, was dominated by amateurs, and amateurs and professional alike these shared the intense committment shown by the the musicians I met today in creating an "authentic" reconstruction of a regional and historical style and repertoire, pointedly distinct from contemporary art music. The conservation and persistence of the historical, "classical", concert music repertoire, the interest in historical musics, and the interest in folk and popular western musics as well as non-western repertoire all represent, in western musical life, challenges to a pre-eminent status of contemporary art music. (Interestingly, here in Germany, there are groups devoted to overtone and minimal music which, inspired by examples from contemporary music (including Stockhausen and Terry Riley), have themselves become conservators.)

In a musical environment in which so many micromusics (and some not-so micros, like popular commercial music) are sustained, a contemporary art music no longer associated with the media and instruments of social, economic and political power and authority can only thrive — that is to say, not be reduced to simply another micromusic — through an assertion of independence from the constraints found in micromusics which tend to, indeed may often be defined by, an essential conservatism. On the one hand, this assertion can take the form of absolute freedom with regard to referencing or borrowing from all of these repertoires, cheerfully ignoring the most carefully constructed boundaries of musical conduct. On the other hand, the independence is manifest in an incommensurability with existing musical materials and practices.
* It can even be a historically falsified ethnicity, as was the case in the Barbershop singing movement, which for many years denied origins of the style in African-American communities.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Seek & you shall find

Recent Google searches which landed here include:

white bread music
piano without electricity
prostitution in kalmykia

Thursday, September 25, 2008

More Glacial

The mainstream view of musical history is not the only one, and its misses a lot of texture, variety, and value. A couple of pieces recently reentered my musical life illustrating some of the slower tributaries of the radical music that have been recently more or less overlooked:

The first was the score to Barney Child's Eighth String Quartet (1974, score excerpt above): not a long piece (marked "7'20" minimum) but with a very slow tempo (quarter +/- 30, but mostly in measure-long notes, many of which tie over barlines). The music is neither especially tonal nor atonal, but the voice leading is clear, often in contrary motion, and nicely contrasts a few isolated long single tones with the sustained semi-consonant "added tone" chords radiating with internal beating, an affect typical of the Southern Californian branch of the radical and minimal music (Childs, a composer I can't help but associate with the southwestern deserts, was also an important teacher, with students including Joseph Byrd and several of the composers associated with Cold Blue records; he was also good friends with that other slow motion mojavan composer, Harold Budd). This is a piece that needs to be performed and recorded.

The second was the news that the recording of Harley Gaber's string quintet The Winds Rise in the North has been re-released. While I don't feel particularly close to the style of this almost two-hour work, which sometimes crosses into an expressive territory that I am tempted to characterize as precious (yes, Virginia, you can be low and glacially slow, and still over-notate), it does illustrate some of the variety and richness of a musical moment in which one of the leading edges was the slow and quiet. The recording of Gaber's quintet was real news in the new music scene when it came out, but, like the composer himself, who moved away from music into tennis and visual arts, has become somewhat eclipsed, a shame because the piece really deserves a new recording.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fonts, again

Does it mean anything that the official font of the McCain campaign, Optima, is also used by the Stockhausen Verlag as their titling font? Optima, which is quite an elegant font, has acquired a certain 1960's aura, most prominently with its use on the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington. On the other hand, Gotham, which has a 1930's/WPA poster/Port Authority feel, and was chosen for the base inscription of the new tower at the site of the World Trade Center, is the official Obama campaign typeface.* If a font can signal some information to the reader, then these choices are sending interesting and contrasting sets of historical signals: looking back at the future.

(A previous post on fonts is here.)

* One of the strangest episodes of the campaign was an attempt by opponents to associate the Obama campaign's graphic style with that of Nazi Germany, demonstrating a lack of knowlege of history. (There is German graphic pedigree in the Obama style, but it's modern, Weimar, Bauhaus, Latin and sans-serif, filtered through Art Deco, streamline moderne, and realist styles.) In any case, it's the best-designed campaign I've ever seen.

Item: Blogging.

Plato thought about his style; today the style of a scientific paper is decided by editors. — Paul Feyerabend

Having never really learned to type, I am prone to typos. I sometimes use a voice recognition program but that sometimes messes more things up. My eyesight isn't the best, and I like to save it for musical work, so when I attempt to edit my own text, the results can be inconsistent. Moreover, I have been known to be over-hasty in pushing the publish now button, and with an admixture of hindsight and regret I have often found myself revising or even retracting a published blog item. (N.B. if you subscribe here via a feed, please visit the actual site for the final text may seriously vary from the immature version that got fed first.)

On the basis of this poor discipline, I really ought to want an editor, but the truth is, I would never get along with an editor and have actually come 'round to recognizing some advantages in my approach. While suggestions are welcome and models are treasured, I actively dislike prescriptive grammar and style guides and I have the hope (against all hope though it may be) that the form of the blog item has not yet petrified like that of the schoolboy essay or a mainstream journalism article and is still located in a field of activity which is open to formal experiment and discovery. I like the fact that the online text is inherently unstable; it can always be revised. If I had wanted to write a formal academic essay or publish newspaper criticism then I would have done that, but the blog entry, or item (Lou Harrison's Music Primer is structured as a series of Items, imitating a style used by old Californian Cantonese newspapers in which the reader, not the editor, is free to assign a hierarchy of importance to the items gathered on the page), with its origins in the entries found in private diaries, journals, logs, and the margins of musical manuscripts, seems to be the right accompaniment to a life centered on composition in another medium.

The blog item can be as personal or private, as objective or subjective, as organized or as untidy as one likes. A blog item can be a sketch or an observation, it can be be the product of a flash of insight, a fleeting half-thought, or the hard ponderings of a good long while. A blog item can begin with or arrive at a startling thesis, yet it has none of the responsibilities of an essay to defend or defeat that thesis. A blog item can be a node in a network of links or of an extended conversation or controversy or it can be solitary, a cul de sac. A blog item can be prosaic or poetic, can be accompanied or replaced by visual or audio information. A blog item can be practical, political, confessional, or heretical. A blog item can be academic or — in the best sense of the word — amateur and, either way, can be foolish or wise. A blog item can be read and treasured or read and forgotten, or j u s t f a d e o f f t h e p a

Monday, September 22, 2008

You break it, you own it

A bankrupt composer has lost the rights to his own works after loosing a libel suit against a newspaper which had printed a bad review of his opera. Now the paper owns the rights to the opera. Which means, of course, that if they wish to realize any monetary value from the work, they'll have to produce the very same opera they previously panned. Doesn't it sound like a great subject for an opera? Read about it here. (Hat tip: Silliman's Blog.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Holding Things Together

A brief note about Paul Auster's novel Man in the Dark: After finishing the book something about the form nagged at me so much that I couldn't sleep until I had read it all through again. It's a compact novel about telling stories: a fiction told to oneself to fight insomnia, stories shared about important women (sister, wife, daughter, granddaughter) in a man's life, stories about innocent men thrown into desperate and strange environments, the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne's daughter Rose (a failed poet, Rose changed the narrative of her own life and became a nun, founding an order dedicated to the care of incurable cancer patients).

Auster has always featured coincidence and parallels in his work, as phenomena that are sometimes essential to the narrative, sometimes peripheral, and sometimes uncertainly swinging between those two possibilities, but here he introduces a number of parallels which function at a formal level, holding the text — and the worlds imagined within it — together.

Here's one example of a parallel which seems a minor detail, but actually helps to sustain the structure of the whole novel: in a story told to himself, the narrator, August Brill, imagines a fictional America in which 9/11 does not take place, but instead, after the election of 2000, the nation separates and enters into civil war. Brill's hero in this story, a man travelling between timelines, is named Owen Brick. Later, Brill tells a story, set in the novel's (implicitly, our own) "real" time line about his own granddaughter's boyfriend, killed in (a post 9/11) Iraq while in the employ of a company named BRK.

(Similarly, Auster draws a parallel between a breakfast — which, in perhaps a small homage to Buñuel (Auster knows his films), repeatedly doesn't come — in Brick's war-torn timeline and the narrator's own full breakfast, which is to come sometime after the book ends.)

That coincidence of names (Brill, Brick, BRK) is surely no accident, but a perfectly crafted example of how real details infect and feed our imaginations, and sometime vice versa. Indeed, the very last words of the novel, quoting Rose Hawthorne's odd and wonderful line "as the weird world rolls on" are suitable closing words for each of timelines in the book, and certainly in our own as well.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Choice, Chance, Change

I profoundly do not understand the current elevation of the word "choice" in conservative and fundamentalist US social and political discourse. I don't understand Sarah Palin's use of the word with regard to a pregnancy, although it is clearly an appropriation and detournement of a term from the reproductive rights movement, and likewise I don't understand those who speak of sexuality in terms of a "choice" of lifestyles. But I do have the sense that it is has become such a powerfully coded word in a particular segment of the polity that we ignore its use at our peril. (There was a similar coding, after 9/11, when Richard "Dick" Cheney, used the term "imagination" in a snarl to describe the attacks; the implication was clearly that nothing was more dangerous than use of the imagination*.)


In Southern Californian dialect, or at least in the slang of my youth, the word "choice" was an adjective, probably borrowed from USDA meat labels, indicating high quality and desirability. Sometimes this words was harmless. Surfers waiting for waves would rate the tides: "gnarly," "choice," "excellent". But sometimes, its use more directly reflected its origins in the butcher's counter and was grotesquely applied to women. (And, in a trope that e. e. cummings would have recognized, it was applied to cars as well, for a time replacing the equally misogynist and violent term "cherry').

I suspect that this, simultaneously cool and vulgar, adjectival form has somewhat infected the noun. The very act of a making a choice, a decision (The Decider), has acquired weight and significance independent of the actual gravity and particular circumstances involved.


Lou Harrison used to quip, in a bittersweet response to the later works of his old friend John Cage, that he'd "rather chance a choice that choose a chance." There was a lot of personal and professional history between the two; Harrison indicated that he had first introduced Cage to a translation of the I Ching and that he had also shown Cage a method of composing with chance operations, and couldn't understand how Cage was "satisfied with using only one method of composing. This distancing by Harrison from Cage's chance operations a showed, I believe, a lack of engagement by Harrison with the actual methods used by Cage, in which the assignment of an answer to chance operations always followed deep deliberation and, indeed, rather specific choices about the composition at hand.

One of the most delightful and enlightening moments with Cage came for me after a public reading of his wonderful mesostic theatre of memory James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet: an audience member was angrily questioning him about his methods, and was silenced when Cage noted that, as highly structured the text was, and as important as the chance component was in its composition, a great deal of the text came simply "by taste", from his "imagination." Yes, Cage accepted the risks of a decision process, involving chance elements, which would lead to situations unforeseen in one or more dimensions, but he was never reckless, and he was always balancing chance and choice.


Throughout the current US presidential campaign, the central riff used by opponents against Barack Obama is that voting for him would be a risky proposition, taking chances, due variously to his age, relative inexperience, and personal background. But if there is one impression of Obama that I have been able to gather, it is that he is a profoundly deliberative and introspective man, and one for whom all of the experiences of his relative youth and all of the complexities of his background have been worked through with a seriousness we have rarely, if ever, seen in American political life, becoming assets rather than liabilities. From all evidence, Obama is, personally, one of the most steady and conservative men in American public life. To be sure, should he get elected, he will at times err and disappoint those who anticipate more from him, but his combination of seriousness, a willingness to entertain diverse opinion and a readiness to be flexible in the face of changing facts or environments without sacrificing principles is reassuring in a moment with little certainty.

John McCain, on the other hand, strikes me as profoundly impulsive in his decision-making, as typified by the decision for Palin, but also in dangerously off-the-cuff statements about Iran, the economy, and Spain (all in one week!). Moreover, he shows a determination to stick to decisions, no matter if the wiser path would be to change ones mind. Palin appears to share this approach, giving notice that her approach to foreign affairs would be characterized as not blinking. Worst of all has been his transfiguration, on the road to this nomination, from a political maverick to complete identification with the decisions of a disastrous administration. Not blinking, not choosing, not changing.


In response to an audience member who was uncomfortable with a piece his music, Cage would remind the listener that she or he always had the option to leave, being in no obligation whatsoever to anyone to listen. He advised that if one was able to recognize that one is suffering, then one had the opportunity to change. Cage practiced the discipline of assuaging his own discomfort with environmental noises by no longer treating them as noise, but rather by listening more closely to them. Cage identified change with modernity, in fact with the necessary modernity, without which (said the inventor's son) "nothing would be invented." This embrace of change (Music of Changes) is always going to be uncomfortable for those who take greatest comfort in the routine, even when that routine has become, in fact, no longer comfortable.

We are in an interesting moment. For any number of pressing issues — from the economy, to global conflicts, to climate change — the greater risk may well be to stand still while the more prudential act may be to accept fundamental change. Do we really have any choice?

* Let's be clear: there is only one thing more dangerous than the use of the imagination, and that's failure to use the imagination.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Gaming your score formats

More unsolicited advice to younger colleagues:

If you intend to enter a competition for student composers, the format of your scores should follow the secret rules. In my own student days, back between the Late Cretaceous and the Early Volcker Administration, the prime directive among the secret rules was that scores submitted to competitions had to be printed in that particularly inelegant process, associated with engineering and architecture, involving inkpens, knives, translucent "onionskin" paper, ultraviolet light and ammonia vapours, which carried the somewhat reptilian name "OzlalidTM", as use of this medium was considered by juries to be "professional." Scores made via photocopying, no matter how high the quality of paper, printing, or formatting, were frequently simply sieved out of the selection in the initial round of judging as insufficiently- if not "un-professional". It didn't matter that OzalidTMs, as an emblem of professionalism were ugly, expensive, and rarely in real use outside of a few commercial music centers, it was just one of those secret signs or handshakes between those in the know.

OzalidTMs have, in professional, both real and academically imagined, new music usage, blessedly gone the way of Ozraptor subotaii, but newer forms of a prescribed and fictional professionalism have just as rigidly taken their place among the competition set. So, if you decide to go the competition route, following something like these rules by a known serial competition judge would probably be a first step in gaming the competition. It doesn't matter that these rules are a mixed bag with limited reference to actual professional practice, these are rules reflecting actual judging preferences. Some of them are common sense — like using cues in parts (and, while you're at it, don't forget to notate important cues in the score to help the composer help the players) or laying out the parts with good page turns —, some of them are reasonable suggestions — double bars at tempo changes can be useful —, and some of them are complete cattle scat — like forbidding a landscape orientation or measure numbers at regular intervals of 5 or 10 measures, both of which may in fact be optimal solutions in particular musical contexts.

So much for competitions. What about real life? Players increasingly like to have their materials immediately rather than wait for the post and one of the blessings of more recent technologies is that scores can be made and stored in electronic formats which can be emailed or downloaded on demand and then be printed out on by the end user on whatever paper format is locally available and personally optimal. Specifying an odd page size for scores like ottavo or 10 x 13 inches is both anachronistic and parochial. In real life practice, real professional musicians will rearrange, cut, paste, fold and otherwise mutilate the performance materials as they most usefully see fit. They will use the printer and copying technologies and formats at hand, and no matter what you do or prescribe, these will frequently be off the shelf photocopiers and laser or inkjet printers, printed to stock A4 or letter-sized pages. It may be wise to be prepared for this. Many new music ensembles prefer to play from scores rather than parts, single players in these ensembles are mostly well practiced in using multiple stands, so landscape formats are not a difficulty (in fact, if the music involves long, continuous, lines, a landscape format is often optimal). My own experience has been that players in new music ensembles so prefer to arrange their own parts and scores; my own publisher offers both in loose page as well as bound formats, and the majority of orders have, in fact, been for loose pages.

Finally, I think that this is not a matter of rules, but rather a matter of sensible and sensitive negotiation and optimization, in which the composer is simultaneously engaged with her or his own compositional ideal and the means towards a practical, efficient, and qualitatively satisfactory realization by members of the community of musicians. Conventions and suggestions derived from the experience of similar musical situations may well prove optimal at times, but new music, unless it foregoes innovation for the quietude of the conservatory and competition class, is bound in other times to come to loggerheads with even the most familiar and unobjectionable convention.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Composer as Generalist

I'm fairly certain that there has been no single title for an article about contemporary music in the last half century which has been more often cited than that half-century-old article by Milton Babbitt published as "Who Cares if You Listen?" in High Fidelity. In fact, inspection will likely reveal that the citation count for the title alone is an order of magnitude or more larger than any count based on the actual contents of the article itself. But, as notorious as that title has been, the title which Babbitt has persistently insisted on preferring, The Composer as Specialist, would have been deserving of greater circumspection, if not notoriety, and the acceptable alternative to that suggested by Babbitt, The Composer As Anachronism, probably beats both on all counts.

"Who Cares if You Listen?" has, as a title, at least the shape of a familiar rhetorical turn, and, while the article was not written in a style likely to communicate well to the lay audience of audiophiles reading High Fidelity, let's stipulate that the article does indeed outline one case for "caring about listening", responding to the critical problems of both the small size of the audience and the inherent difficulties of listening to the repertoire Babbitt advocates. Whatever one makes of his arguments — for example, the claim that the particular strain of contemporary music he is promoting "employs a tonal vocabulary which is more 'efficient' than that of the music of the past, or its derivatives" (an argument highly dependent upon an imprecisely defined measure of tonal efficiency) — or even the terms in his arguments — "nonpopular music" or the threat that "music will cease to evolve" —, it is clear that not only does Babbitt care if one listens, but he cares how one listens. I happen to share the first concern but the other strikes me as unfortunately, if not dangerously, prescriptive, and I go rather with John Cage's assertion of a voluntary and more universal music-interpretive competence.

The published title aside, the prime intention of the article itself was to make a case for the contemporary composer as an academic specialist. Accompanying the growth in scope and demography of US higher education in the post-WWII era, scholarly and scientific specialization was considered a normative and central attribute of the modern mix of research and teaching. Babbitt was trying to position composition within that mix, in effect laying out a tenure-track job description in the face, presumably as acute in Babbitt's Princeton as elsewhere, of the considerable resistance that modern music faced from an academic music community dominated by historical musicology and a larger campus community which viewed music departments as primarily providers of services in the forms of high-brow recreation, entertainment, and large lecture classes in music appreciation (whatever that was).

I am entirely sympathetic with Babbitt's project of defining a role for the composer on campus, and especially for a composer who contributes something other than the traditional anthems and preludes at weekly chapel (an institution disappearing in secular liberal arts institutions at precisely that moment in history), or day-jobbing in choral conducting or the music appreciation racket (as Virgil Thomson put it). But his model for the job was, in my opinion, so narrowly modeled on that of the specialist in the natural sciences or mathematics, that Babbitt missed the altogether more interesting possibility that a composer might, in fact, be more profitably positioned as a generalist within the musical and larger academic communities, open to dialogue and discovery across the divides of practice, theory, and history within the department as well as between the humanities and sciences across campus.


I suspect that Babbitt's own academic career will be increasingly viewed in two ways: his impact as a teaching composer, encouraging and influencing student and colleagial composers, and his impact upon the structure of musical academe in general. The first form of impact has received some attention, and it would be safe to characterize his influence, now, as rather localized in both time and history, with his argument for 12-tone based techniques as a single alternative to tonality now eclipsed by a view broadly held in academe in which there is an indefinite number of alternatives, including many which Babbitt himself simply would not have recognized as either sufficiently serious or even as sufficiently musical. Indeed, neither tonality nor 12-tone technique are now usefully heard as monolithic and uniform constructions of technique or style.

The second, institutional form of impact can be associated with a specific innovation that can be closely identified with Babbitt and one which has, with unfortunate irony, actually had some net negative effects on the role of the composer in the University. This is the invention of the Music Theorist as a recognized academic specialty. While this form of specialization definitely has plenty of breadth, as a research field, encompassing description and analysis, prescription and speculation, doing interesting work which borrows profitably from acoustics, mathematics, information science, psychology, neuroscience, semiotics, cultural studies etc., its formal separation from both musicology and composition comes at some costs. A tradition had developed in many schools in which, very broadly speaking, musicologists taught music history and composers taught music theory, with the lines between the subjects a bit fuzzy whenever it was useful or necessary. The introduction of a professional theory specialist into the ranks has, in contrast, tended instead to sharpen the distinction, with the effects, perhaps, of driving musicology closer to the forms of cultural "theory" practiced in the humanities and driving composers out of tenure-track lines. (I recently visited a website devoted to academic job offers and noticed a comment by a recent theory grad resenting the fact that a couple of theory/composition jobs had gone to composers instead of theorists).

This is, to my mind and ears, unfortunate, as the experience of music is rich enough that it welcomes, indeed requires, an approach in which specialization and generalization are more balanced. Specialization, as a practical matter, may well be efficient in settings in which musical education is reduced to a mass training enterprise and research areas and projects are narrowly focused. There are indeed some huge schools which command separate departments from theory, composition, history, ear training and so on. (Though don't those big schools carry all the signs and symptoms of post-war industrial modernity? You know: The Yoyodyne Conservatory of Music.) But is greater efficiency — however defined — a marker of greater musicality? In my experience, livelier, more engaged teaching has often come about when the strict job assignments are loosened up a bit, with the musicologist teaching orchestration or the composer teaching ethnomusicology or even the theorist conducting the college band.

Babbitt's article and argument are now 50 years old, but I think that it's still timely, if not even urgent, to make the case for the composer as the useful, and perhaps necessary, generalist in a musical community, academic or otherwise. A composer comes to his or her work as a specialist, as each new piece will have its own unique field of concerns and ideas, but he or she also comes as a generalist, as each new piece sits astride the music that has come before it, in some slice of musical history and geography, raising practical and speculative concerns in the domain of theory and perception, and all of the practical and stylistic concerns which arise when a piece becomes a performance: by definition, the work of a composer is at the center, not the periphery of the department. The best composers I know all have profitable exchanges with artists in other media, as well as with scholars and scientists: the composer is at the center of the University as well. And when, in fact, a composer is asked to provide the music for an inauguration or a commencement ceremony, he or she can even do that too: the composer working at one of those points in which academia is most public.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace was probably the first writer from my age cohort to write a book of fiction that had to be taken seriously. The Broom of the System (1987) is a mess in some ways but comic novels are usually messes and this one, begun as an undergraduate, still deserves reading if only for the brilliant device of G.O.D., the Great Ohio Desert, a massive construction program designed for the express purpose of forcing the insufficiently pious citizenry of Ohio to be in a state of standing awe. In The Broom, traits of Wallace's writing were already present that would remain steady in the rest of his work. Most obvious was his obsessive writing style, one that might begin with a superb impression of dormitory inanities but rapidly reveal something more urgent and serious, or might just turn out to be dormitory inanities after all. But when that something was indeed more urgent and serious, it was inevitably connected to a deep and pressing moral concern. (Please excuse my deturning of this item into the biographical, but I suspect such a concern was typical for a large number of us in our post-Vietnam cohort; we didn't have the clear and present evil of the war in front of us, we had the narcissistic attractions of the cocaine, cold war, disco, and easy credit Reagan years all around us, and yet it was abundantly clear that the world was definitely akilter, but, vox clamens in deserto, where was the outrage?). That moral obsession or obsessive morality was, for Wallace, everywhere engaged, whether with popular and commercial culture, the sports system, American therapeutic culture, political campaigns, the suffering of a boiling lobster, even mathematics. (Born himself into a family of obsessive grammarians, he was also merciless in his treatment of grammatical mavens). It strikes me now that each of Wallace's writings was an essay (literally so: an attempt, an exercise) in a selected genre of fiction (from the short story to the big modernist novel of which he gave us two, The Broom and Infinite Jest), journalism, or technical writing. His central theme was a recovery of irony as a serious and powerful literary trope, to take irony away from its various popular appropriations and, consequently, reductions. Unfortunately, one has the sense that many readers mistook Wallace, taking his irony for lightness, cheering on the pop culture references, and laughing when he intended outrage or melancholy; the power of our cultural system to sweep everything together into forms of entertainment is a supreme and painful irony that cannot have been lost upon the author. The news, however, this morning, of Wallace's death (in my hometown of Claremont, as it happens) brings a sadness and a loss that cannot be turned by any form of irony.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Electronic without Electricity

My teachers include composers who are well-known for their pioneering work in electronic music, but despite a few student etudes and some more recent sound installations, almost all of my own work has been for acoustical instrumental resources. But — and this is also true for many of my colleagues — the experience of electronic music, through the classical tape and analog synthesis studios of my high school and universities, has been essential to all of my music.

Among the concrete effects of electronics: (1) Amplification. The microphone made it possible to focus more closely on the detailed contents and development of a sound over time, and was essential to a more acute analysis of sounds. Amplification also made it possible to physically disassociate the source of a sound from its signal, both in space and in time. (2) Precision. Essential aspects of musical style are revealed by the ability to perform or measure performances more accurately. Inventions, not only electronic, like the metronome, the piano roll, and the sequencer (with lots of interesting technologies along the way, from the pendulum to the Rhythmicon) have revealed stylistic conventions (i.e. rubato, swing) and complex rhythms, metres and tempi relationships to be ever more interesting phenomena and to suggest intriguing new possibilities. Likewise, electronic pitch analysis is having profound effects in the domain of musical intonation, in terms of both performance and perception. Through sound recording and sequencing, repetition has acquired qualities sometime profoundly alien to music dependent upon live performers. (3) Continuity. Both the basic states of an electric circuit — on and off — and the possibilities offered by magnetic tape editing (with all the possibilities of splicing, in all lengths, shapes, and orientations (a body of technique derived from film editing, which itself derived many techniques — cuts, fades, etc. — from ballet and opera, in one of those sweet loops of influence)) have fundamentally changed our experience of music as a temporal form. And (4) Channeling. A continuum of possible polyphonies have been opened up and artful mixing allows one to combine and to segregate individual signals as well as to assign them to specific or transitory positions in physical or virtual spaces. While the synthesis of new sounds (or the recording, analysis, and manipulation of existing sounds) is akin to instrumentation, mixing has increasingly appeared to be a higher level of orchestration.

Although institutional structures often suggest that electronic music is largely a distinct genre made in its own, relatively isolated, community, there has always been considerable musical middle ground between acoustic and electronic music-making. Many composers of works requiring only electronic or electro-acoustic resources also explored the possibility of combined live instruments and/or voices and electronics. Sometimes it is unclear whether a work or element of a work is electronic or acoustical in origin. One of my favorite examples is found in the early electronic music of the Guatemalan composer Joaquín Orellana, who, in the absence of modern synthesizer technologies, created a number of acoustical instruments, mostly of scraped, struck, and blow bamboo, which very precisely imitated synthetic sounds in works for magnetic tape. I previously mentioned the collaboration between members of the San Francisco Tape Music Center and Donald Buchla in creating a modular synthesizer in which the designers used a page of a Boulez score as a kind of spec sheet, to insure that the instrument could perform all of the features required in the score. The remarkable Peter Plonsky performed virtuosic vocal pieces ("mind emissions") which were easily mistaken for synthesized sounds. (Plonsky was also, in the 1970's, a prematurely virtuosic live player of turntables, well in advance of later djs; a recent survey in the New Music Box unfortunately omits Plonsky's name). Later experimental instrumental music would apply the same loop and delay techniques first tested in the studio. John Adams has been candid about the debt parts of his instrumental technique have owed to studio technques, most famously gating. As an example of my own work, a recent set of piano Variations, just music for two hands on a plain vanilla piano, can be heard as the product of a virtual modular synthesizer patch, with a sequencer and a band pass filter each controlled by a random voltage.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Posthumous Casting

A pair of recent articles in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (which is one of those odd German institutions, with conservative news and editorial pages, which can be ignored, and a liberal Feuilleton section, which is often well worth reading) dealt with the tricky issues of what to do with the creative remains of an artist.

The first article celebrates the completion of D.E. Sattler's Frankfurt edition of the complete works of the poet Hölderlin, a project of some 33 years, and one which was initially greeted with great skepticism and critique because it took the notion of "complete" so literally, decyphering every possible alteration found in or alternative reading of the manuscripts (in producing the edition, Sattler so mastered Hölderlin penmanship that he was able to perform as a live calligrapher in Walter Zimmermann's opera Hyperion). Advocates of traditional editions found the project absurd, faulting Stattler for failing to execute proper editorial judgement and to define, as strongly as possible, the most "authentic" or "authoritative" text. Instead, Sattler offered not only his best judgement on the texts, but also supplied every possible objection to his judgement, thus ultimately refusing to cast any poem in a canonical form. Now, however, the Frankfurt edition has established itself as a valid mode of edition-making and similar editions of the works of Kleist, Trakl, Kafka and Walser are in progress.

The second article (not yet online) reports from a symposium Arp-Museum in Remagen-Rolandseck on "posthumous casting", the practice through which new bronzes are cast from the original forms of deceased artists, and frequently a rather lucrative business for the estate and the foundry. The question of the "authority" of a bronze cast without the express consent of the artist is a controversial one, both legally and culturally.

In music, the question of the opus posthumous is rather less heated, probably because music, without much in the way of marketable physical objects, is playing for pennies rather than the pounds which chance visual artworks. Nevertheless, there are similar controversies surrounding the estates of composers. I have recently been close to a few cases in which it has been difficult to locate an heir or the control over the works was unclear, one case in which a composer insisted that a large number of pieces, mostly juvenalia, were not to be played, another case in which a composer insisted that every manuscript be destroyed, and several instances in which composers left behind unfinished works. Attempts to complete unfinished works seem to have a special attraction for specialists and the public alike, from Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, to Debussy, Puccini, Skryabin, Ives, Mahler, Berg, and Stravinsky, even John Cage.

But those example are limited to a handful of major works left unfinished at the composer's death. With more recent works, however, composed with the use of explicit algorithms, the possibilities begin to multiply. A number of my own works, for example, were written according to a plan that could be described in a rather brief algorithm and with the substitution of a few variables into the algorithm, one could rapidly generate a huge number of new, variant — and sometimes wildly so — works, and the composer need no longer be present for this to happen. This situation bothers me enough that I have made a point of not keeping my sketches for many pieces, making my steps much harder to trace. I particularly admire the composer Andrew Culver, who assisted John Cage in much of his late work, often by writing computer programs for the realization of chance operations. In principle, Culver had access to all the resources which would have been required to, in effect, to cast an indefinite number of "new works by John Cage", but he refrained from doing so, keeping with Cage's own ethical and aesthetic principle of not indiscriminately creating new pieces by repeating a compositional procedure with new chance-derived results.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Recent listening, watching, reading

At random:

A new recording of keyboard music by Gordon Mumma played by Daan Vandewalle.

A new recording by the VENI ensemble of Bratislava, featuring music by Christian Wolff and the Richard Ayres, the composer of my generation with the most astonishing technique.

The World's Oldest Busker? The age given of 112 may well have been calculated on a Javanese calendar, so she is probably in her late 90's by western reckoning, but it is nevertheless amazing how well she carries her instrument. Too bad there is not more footage of her playing, but typical for television reporting.

Paul Auster, Man in the Dark. This novel is, like its immediate predecessor Travels in the Scriptorium, one of Auster's novels in which the topic is American but the literary background is strongly Francophone. It made me nostalgic for youthful enthusiasms for Beckett and Robbe-Grillet, but it's a much stronger book than Travels.

Carl Dahlhaus, Seconda pratica und musikalische Figurenlehre, an essay in the Musik-Konzepte volume on Claudio Monteverdi and the Birth of the Opera. Really fascinating stuff from the last major German musicologist with a generalist portfolio. It locates the theory of musical figures in relationship to the second practice's use of dissonances (initially associated by Monteverdi with the text) that fall well out of the systematic/"mathematical" contrapuntal doctrine. The theory of figures became an important issue in European new music in the 1980s, concerning composers ranging from Ferneyhough to Walter Zimmermann. While American popular and mainstream art music may well be considered to have a similar, if informal, investment in emotion-drawn figures, both the academic and experimental new music scenes productively avoided the issue, although one can now recognize in, on the one hand, Babbitt's surface techniques and, on the other, La Monte Young's engagement with Hindustani music, the outlines of a reconciliation between systematic elements and expressive license.


When the world zigs, it's usually time to zag. One of my favored compositional modes is to locate territory suggested but unexplored by existing music, composing as alternative music history, if you will. The bit of neoserialism* above is a recent example, applying a mixture of (seriously unfashionable) techniques to arrive at a musical surface that is suspended ambiguously between the historical styles usually associated with the techniques. And it's precisely that stylistic suspension which has been causing this modest set of Variations to somewhat stubbornly resist getting properly finished: note the absence of phrasing, dynamics, and articulations. This absence is due to the fact that the compositional work was so focused on creating such a robust set of pitches and rhythms that any almost any system or style of attaching dynamics and articulations to those pitches and rhythms will plausibly "work". But that kind and degree of the arbitrary doesn't seem right for this piece, as the music is obviously already very much about articulation, with its fussy written-out rubato and attention to registers. Indeed, it is about an ironic articulation (the piece is, on one hand, serial bebop, atonal and ametrical, and, on the other hand, just a disfunctional series of arpeggiated major triads), and bringing off situational irony like this always requires that one jettison the unnecessarily arbitrary.** A set of dynamics that just happens to "work" is insufficient, it should either project or usefully contradict the pitch and rhythm situation and an overdone projection of one feature or another might come across as heavy-handed while an additional level of contradiction might be too distractingly complicated rather than usefully complex.

* David Feldman's term.
** "Unnecessarily" is an essential qualifier. In fact, I'm wildly interested in compositional procedures which productively distinguish between arbitrary and essential elements or processes, and my use of chance operations, for example, is always a consequence of such a distinction.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Now that it's so easy

How does a musician accumulate his or her repertoire of music? Repertoire, the music one knows, whether as a player, a listener or an analyst, is central to a musician's identity. For younger musicians nowadays, accumulating music is almost too easy: whatever can't be immediately downloaded, whether in the form of scores or recordings, can usually be ordered online, but this is a very recent state of affairs, and we are scarcely aware of its implications.

I'm not exactly ancient, but as a teenager in the '70s and just a bit too far outside of a big city, getting to know a repertoire took some real efforts. I was dependent upon radio broadcasts (especially L.A.'s Pacifica station KPFK, which had a strong signal and where William Malloch, David Cloud, and Carl Stone offered consistently interesting late night programming with highlights ranging from Malloch's documentaries of Mahler and Stravinsky (also here) to Stone's early interview with Jo Kondo or a complete broadcast of the then-new Einstein on the Beach recording; there were also some great student broadcasts from the Pomona College Station, including one in which all of the then-brand new Obscure LP series got broadcast).

I was even more dependent on libraries, cycling among the public libraries in Ontario, Montclair, Pomona, and Claremont and the college libraries in Claremont, Riverside, and at CalPoly in order to get my paws on scores and to listen to record after record. I'd go through enthusiasms, some of them now a bit embarassing, spurred on by the happenstance local collections: one library had a lot of Hovhaness orchestral works with their crazy canons, another had a standing order for every George Crumb and Stockhausen score, another had complete Gate Five, CRI, Nonesuch, Louisville, Advance and Folkways recordings. I vividly remember, in late 1975, checking out the complete Folkways series of New American Music, New York Section, Composers of the 1970's which included Glass's Two Pages and a truncated version of Mumma's Cybersonic Cantilevers in the very same week that Michael Nyman's landmark book, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, arrived in the new books section of another library; I begged the circulation librarian to let me check that one out right away, and I can still summon the excitement of that coincidence, in which I felt like I was receiving the most important musical news of the day. 33 years later, I'm certain that this was the case.

As a young musician, I was, on the one hand, playing the largely entertainment repertoire of school bands and orchestras on trombone and, for a time, horn, doing rehearsal piano duties with choirs and slugging my way through an odd slice of keyboard repertoire (when I was able to buy sheet music, I had to be selective, and my selections led to a collection in which the 19th century was basically vacant, except for that big green album of "music the whole world likes to play" salvaged from an old piano bench) and, outside of school, playing a lot of early music. The mix of the music I was playing, listening to, and beginning to compose was thus outside of any traditional constraints or sequence. It was all new music and it was all exciting. When I went off to University and started playing gamelan, it was less an encounter with the exotic other than a thickening of the plot.

And this: Photocopying was a suspect and expensive activity in those days and I couldn't always check materials out, so if I wanted to keep a score, I often had to copy it by hand. Sometimes my copies were rather hastily done, in a kind of shorthand, but it was also an opportunity to improve my manuscript hand and I trace any analytical skills I have to the experience of copying, which is an old and noble tradition (i.e. Bach copied his Buxtehude, Cage copied his Webern). Even now, with computer engraving, I find that copying a score, note-by-note, is a superb way to get to know a piece, and precious details would be missed if I relied on downloads and xeroxes, and computer engraving with a decent built-in playback can be a useful assistant in training the accuracy side of musicianship. All of those complicated serial-bebop rhythms, for example, can be rendered with icy precision, and that is often a useful point of departure for turning the notes into something approaching music.

Finally, there were a few items that came by mail. Some publishers refused to do retail busines but I still have some Cage and Wolff scores ordered from Peters while I was in High School. I was too late to subscribe to Larry Austin's Source: Music of the Avant-Garde (luckily, Pomona College had a full set of the series), but Soundings, Peter Garland's score-filled journal and John Chalmers's informal journal of microtonal music, Xenharmonikon were incredibly important to my education. And, somehow, I found my way into small networks in which ideas and materials were generously shared and exchanged. One time, a friend let me borrow his copy of a La Monte Young disk and, within a week, I had a handful of high school kids singing along in our living room to an amplified turtle aquarium motor drone of our own. I sometimes suspect that the fact that getting a hold of these things was such an effort that passive consumption was all but impossible; one was forced to pay closer attention to every detail and a do-it-yourself attitude was inevitable.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Landmarks (35)

Daniel Lentz: Missa Umbrarum for a mixed choir of 8 voices, solo male performer, and 263 shadows (1973)

A setting of the ordinary of the Mass, with an interlude and a postlude, for singers, who also play wine glasses (except in the Kyrie). Each section of the Mass has a distinct character, each emphasizing, in effect, an alternative region of the continuum between song and speech. The individual sections of the Mass share a pattern of gradual composition from layers — "shadows", hence the name Umbrarum — which accumulate, via a tape-delayed recording system, until a final, vertically and horizontally complete, statement of each section. Further, the Mass, as a sequence of the sections, accumulates, with first some layers of the Kyrie, then the Kyrie and the Gloria, and the Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei each, in turn, woven into the linear sequence.

While the gradual quality of this music (in which the gradations are not a measure or two, as in roughly contemporaneous work by Steve Reich, but rather movement-long periods), Lentz's pioneering delay techniques (which continue to be technical challenges, even with contemporary digital technologies), certain discrete theatrical elements, and his exquisitely drawn scores were the elements that first drew me to the Missa Umbrarum (as well as other works by the composer), the element that has drawn me back most, and at times, urgently, is his harmony and voice leading. Lentz's harmonic practice is clearly more intuitive than systematic — an important point of contrast to the discipline at the formal level of the work — but the luxurious and sensual immediacy of the harmony appears guided by some constants, among which are the use of chords which are tonally ambiguous and balanced on the edge of consonance and a contrast between melodically smooth voice leading and a Lentz innovation which might be described as "register leading": motion between registers — frequently a drop from treble to bass — as opposed to that along individual melodic lines. In New Mexico this year, Lentz himself identified Gregorian chant and Debussy as sources for his tonal practice, and it is not difficult to recognize that he has drawn much from Debussy's strategic use of both smooth transitions and abrupt juxtapositions.

Aside from being a landmark work of experimental music, the Missa Umbrarum may also the most substantial (relatively) recent setting of the ordinary, and it is perhaps useful, given the interval in time since its composition, to consider its significance, if any, as a Mass. Written at the height of Vatican II's turn to the vernacular and requiring some unconventional musical and technical resources, is this setting of the Latin ordinary necessarily a concert work or might it not also have liturgical potential? The cool and rational (shall we say Jesuitical?) analysis into layers and sections and its recomposition into a whole contrasts with the sensual, experiential quality of the tonal materials; the added theatrical elements suggest the ritual use of minor sacramentals; and the gradual delay process, in which the music is perpetually "becoming" rather than "being" would appear to be quite in keeping with Catholic intellectual, aesthetic, and mystical perspectives.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Don't use our Barracuda

The McCain/Palin campaign continues to have bad luck in finding theme songs. The songwriters Ann and Nancy Wilson have asked that their song Barracuda not be used in connection with Ms. Palin's appearances. As I noted in this item, this is a good argument for the assertion of an artist's control over the use of their work. With all the difficulties they've had in finding a tune whose composer will let them use, the McCain/Palin campaign may well soon discover a previously unknown fondness for material in the public domain, which thanks to McCain's earlier votes on copyright legislation, now includes only a very small amount of music composed within his lifetime.


(Some Friday food blogging).

I would post this meme, listing 100 items every good omnivore should have tried at least once in their life, but — and here I surely embarrass myself — the only items I could honestly report not having tried (if some only by accident, later to be regretted) were fugu, a tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant and Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. There were, of course, a few items I would add to the list (e.g. larb, birria de chivo, mole poblano, scaciatta, pizzocheri, dandan mein, Jamaican beef patties, schäufele, nasi liwet... and if a time machine were involved, I'd add a certain decadent dessert from Buddenbrooks, the Saigon Absynthe Cocktail from The Gentleman's Companion and the Buñueloni), but all-in-all, it's an admirable start. For the more selective eaters among us, there is an all-vegetarian version of this meme.

Elsewhere on the musical-edible blogoplan, young Nico Muhly is searing whale again.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

O — — — — — — — —

Claudio Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d'Ulysse in Patria, Act III, Scene I

Monday, September 01, 2008

Red Meat

Recently, a friend, in a somewhat confessional tone, told me of a regular assignation she has with a acquaintance — like her, a successful professional woman with a big downtown office — at a Argentine-themed restaurant for the sole purpose of eating steak. They don't talk, for they have found in the past that they have little in common to talk about, they eat. They each simply enjoy the periodic company of a partner who also shares the particular sensory pleasures of a medium rare chunk of bovine flesh. Just barely seared on the outside, pinkish in the middle and oozing with the various fluids that are usually induced to ooze through the timely application of heat.

While she was telling this story, I couldn't help being struck by the feeling that she was at once sharing one of her deepest pleasures, but also one of her deepest shames. It was as if she had been describing an affair or a dangerous and illegal conspiracy. And while red meat is not exactly politically correct these days, I believe that it was the extreme element of pleasure involved that was the greater apparent violation of norms.


Sensory pleasure is a largely hidden term in the discussion of music, and modern music in particular. But hidden behind our musical history is a path moving between extremes of pleasure, with, on the one side, sounds and structures which are refined, distilled, and synthetic, often to the point of the complete abnegation of the excess stimuli, Apollonian if you will, and, on the other, the opposing, Dionysian tendency to revel in ever-more intense, vibrant, and inclusive sonic experiences, embracing both sensory pleasure and its necessary complement, sensory pain.

Musicians tend to an odd mixture of prudishness and excess, perhaps simply because making music well require tremendous technical discipline, while the initial impulse, or desire, to make music, is the urge to put a sound or noise into the world unlike any sound or noise before it, hardly the act of the over-disciplined. This tension between prudishness and excess, Apollo and Dionysus, plays itself out in waves of musical repertoire. Romantic against classic. Neoclassic against expressionism. Minimal music against serial music. But most interesting, musically, are the cases in which the tension is suspended in the music of a single composer, even within single works. Wagner and Brahms, Ives and Mahler, Schoenberg and Stravinsky: each had uniquely unresolved positions along the spectrum between nature and nuture. Varese was poised perilously between a primitive noise and the romance of high science. Cage was — thank you, N.O.Brown — the living oxymoron, knowing both Apollonian reserve and Dionysian exuberance. (Ice and fire. No wonder Cage was so fascinated with The Seasons.) The minimal music was, in its origins, with La Monte Young, a recovery of the sensory dimension that had been so neglected by the serial style from which emerged. In this recovery, it embraced both pleasure and pain (we do put pepper on our steaks, after all), from the pleasures of revisiting tonality or low-number just intonation to the pain of more complex sounds amplified, extended and repeated beyond our comfort levels. And much minimal music ultimately embraced a mixture of strict rules or procedures with a real-time execution that includes improvisation* and the acceptance of accidents, both acoustic and human.

With the radical music, and with its minimal tributary, one recovered the raw (remember that radical=getting to the roots) taste of sounds in all the detail that had been lost by becoming part of the acoustic porridge that characterized more notationally complex music or the standardization characterizing more traditional, normative, composition (like the poets, we too have a "School of Quietude" (thanks to E.A. Poet via Ron Silliman for that useful phrase)). It once again became possible to hear each individual ingredient, yep, slow listening.

(This post was occasioned by reading composer Charles Shere's Eating Every Day).

* I will even give Milton Babbitt his red meat, in that, once the array has been composed, the actual assignment of notes to a score, given that there are no necessary relationships between a PC or time point on an array and a particular note on the page, is ultimately just a form of improvisation.