Wednesday, December 31, 2008

This or That

A meme for New Year's Eve:

1. Josquin or Palestrina?

2. Bach or Händel?

3. Haydn or Mozart?

4. Beethoven or Rossini?

5. Brahms or Wagner?

6. Verdi or Puccini?

7. Debussy or Ravel? 

8. Strauss or Mahler?

9. Stravinsky or Schönberg? 

10.  Cage or Carter?

Bonus round:

1. Astaire or Kelly?

2. Yeats or Elliot?

3. Joyce or Mann?

4. Welles or Hitchcock?

5. Duchamp or Picasso?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Dream House

A "culture" insert in the current issue of the German weekly Der Spiegel asks a number of artists to design their dream house.  Graphic artists, architects, writers, game designers, a comic book artist are asked, but not a single musician.  The composition and performance of music is often critically dependant upon the environment in which it is made, played and heard so musicians often have rather specific ideas about the kind of space and place in which they'd like to live and work.   For myself, I've been sketching dream houses on the backs of envelopes and margins of otherwise very important documents since I was a kid and I don't think that that's a particularly unusually preoccupation.  But musicians seldom have the material circumstances to realize their particular architectural dreams, and when, usually with great compromises.  Wagner was, of course the great rule-breaking exception, with an impressive but comfortable residence and an opera house built for specifically for his work.  The great experimental halls in the Brussels (Varese and Xenakis) and Osaka (Stockhausen) World Exhibitions were fantastic but temporary.   Stockhausen was fortunate to have a studio and residence built, albeit on a smaller scale than orginally intended.  An inheritance from Charles Ives allowed Lou Harrison to add a large room — named The Ives Room, of course; well-suited for gamelan rehearsals and complete with pit for puppeteers — to his house in Aptos, but he continued to compose in the isolation of a little trailer.   La Monte Young, at times generously supported by patrons, has never been supported to the extent that one of his dream houses could be built new from the ground up, and has had to house his sound and light dreams inside existing commercial and residential spaces.  There are countless popular musicians who are able to afford custom-designed home and studio complexes and, while I suspect that many were more inventive and productive in less luxurious circumstances, that's an area well out of my expertise.  I'm lucky to have a small basement studio that's nearly soundproof to the outside world, but it would be nice to have a better rehearsal and concert space above ground, for semi-private music-making, all adjacent to space for dining.  I'd also like a view to some mountains and a babbling brook, or better yet, my own private waterfall, nearby... you can dream, can't you?  What would your dream house look, and sound, like?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Landmarks (37)

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Studie II (1954)

...just three minutes of gentle escape to an alternative acoustic world, one in which the interval of equivalence is not the octave with its ratio of two-to-one, but 5:1, two octaves and a just major third, partitioned into 25 equal parts, extended to create a source gamut of 81 tones, with 193 complex tones composed of spectra with partial tones derived from that gamut, realizing a unified conception of pitch and timbre.   The technology then available to the composer made the assembly of complex tones from the superimposition of recorded sine waves difficult, as the combined tones did not "lock" in phase with the character of familiar instrumental and vocal spectra.  So, ingeniously, the superimposed tones were played into a real acoustic space, and the set of 193 recordings of these reverberent electro-acoustic tones became the single sound source in the piece.  The gentleness of the etude owes a lot to the handwork of Stockhausen's original realisation (which the composer preferred to subsequent, more precise, realisations), and beyond the funkiness of the room-reverberated tones, in every performative parameter - timing, amplitude - there is evidence of "tweaking", making the slightest of adjustments by hand to satisfy the immediate impulses of the ear.


Given Stockhausen's huge catalog, it may seem stingy to select a monophonic three-minute tape piece from the beginning of his career as a "landmark".   These landmarks, however, are intended to be about the works themselves, not the representation of catalogs.   However, given the fact that I have avoided repeating composers to date — which is increasingly difficult, given the landmark presence in my life of Ives' Second Orchestral Set or the Mozart G minor Quintet, for example —, it might be useful, here, to write something about Stockhausen's catalog in more general terms.

A handful of pieces from the 1950's — the two electronic studies, Gesang der Junglinge, Kontra-Punkte, the first five piano pieces, Zeitmaße and Gruppen, for three orchestras —, have always seemed to me to be remarkable works of musical imagination.  I have enjoyed a few pieces since — the piano duo with ring modulation, Mantra, the park music, Sternklang,  the piece for two singing harpists, Freude, and a woodwind trio, Balance, to name four — but they haven't erased my sense that Stockhausen's moment, if you will, was in the '50s and that his ideas about music (especially those found in the essay time passes...)  and his personal and intellectual connections to contemporary music, science, and society in general, ended then.  Much as Varese's music was a "look back to the future"* of the ultra-modernist 1920's, Stockhausen's music now has a similar nostalgic quality.  (The gee-wizzish science-fiction element found in Sirius and the Licht operas, combined with the child-like piety in these and in other works doesn't help much either.)  

During a recent week with extra reading time on public transport due to a series of rehearsals, I read through volumes 5 & 6 of Stockhausen's Texte zur Musik, which take his work through the first two Licht operas, ca. 1990.  The reading is often tough going, not because of the language, but because of the absence of interesting new content with regard to compositional technique; the excitement of discovery that one associates with the earliest work — and which sustained me, as a high schooler without German training, to read through volumes 1 & 2 with a dictionary — is simply no longer active and the constant repetition of his worklist, his various lists of "firsts", the various slights to his person and work, as well as the general overabundance of immodesty (at one point he states that, following Licht, no one will ever think of the days of the week without thinking of his works) are plain tiresome.**  

Nevertheless, the texts contain very important elements of the story of a working composer in post-WWII Germany, one for whom, at one point, all of the major institutional supports for his work were in place, only to eventually make major breaks with each of those institutions — including the Darmstadt Summer Courses, the Musikhochschule in Cologne, Universal Edition, Deutsche Grammophon, and the West German Radio —, encouraging or forcing the composer to create alternative institutions, for teaching, publishing, recording, even the rental of instruments, in  his own cottage industry. While some of the reasons for the turn to alternative institutions was of practical necessity, I can't help but wonder if the turn, in this particular case, was already an inevitablity due to the nature of the work itself.  Much as Studie II existed in a tonal universal without resources common to our own, the specific demands of numerous works by Stockhausen proved to be challenges to performance, teaching, publishing, recording, and broadcasting that lacked sufficient commonality with existing resources and infrastructure.

It has been said that Mozart was the first continental composer to move from court patronage to a freelance existence, composing for a bourgeois audience, but that Beethoven was the first to actually succeed materially as a freelancer.  I think that Stockhausen's career took place in a similar transitional era; whether his particular path through this era proves to have been successful — musically or materially — remains to be heard.    


* as Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn named the Varese volume of Musik-Konzepte.

** at one point, in a particularly acute illustration of his growing distance to contemporary society, Stockhausen describes an African-American singer — with whom he worked closely for many years — in racial terms that had already been long unnacceptable in German. 


Saturday, December 27, 2008

From Honey to Ashes

History is a narrative of successive events. We like to have a handle on this succession by identifying connections among events; we label these connections change. Political change comes in revolutions, slow, fast, sometimes repetitive or even retrograde. Religious change comes in two modes, the apocalyptic (the sudden revelation favored, for example, by the three middle eastern monotheistic religions, usually associated with personal and social rather than material changes: i.e. Paul's sudden conversion on the road to Damascus) and the metamorphic (the mode of immediate and physical change preferred by polytheists: Daphne turns into a laurel). (cf N.O. Brown: Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis.) And musical change? Well, does music change...?

We talk often, too often perhaps, about modulation and transformation. This bit of music is said to become this other bit of music. But each of these bits of music are transients, embedded in contexts that disappear with each vanishing, dissapating, wavefront. No, we don't transform or modulate sounds, we create and manipulate resemblances among sounds; the operations of musical transformation take place at a perceptual level at least one step removed from the sound itself, this change is evidence of composition.

Serial music, in its various appearances, was essentially a music about the unity of the variant forms of a single structure (row, set, series, formula etc.) and the great compositional problem of serial music was that, given this unity, there was no necessary reason for one form to precede or follow another in time, the succesion of events was disconnected from a convincing narrative of change. To the contrary, in the radical music — which was in part a response to unresolved problems of serialism — listeners could no longer could take (apparent) repetition lightly, as an absence of change. The apparent reiteration of a given sound, and its close relation, the indefinite extension of a sound into time, when placed or framed at the center of a composed context, maximized the potential for attending to the smallest and most immediate of differences rather than superficial or abstract resemblances among sounds, differences which were connected directly to the realtime sequence of events. Thus the minimalist impulse of the radical music was, in part, a means of restoring an historical dimension to a musical work

(This is the second of a series of three small items, the first of which is The Raw and the Cooked).

Friday, December 26, 2008


A nice story (here) about someone with a cilantro problem: he thought he didn't like cilantro, but turned out that he was simply physically unable to detect the scent that attracts others to cilantro and covers up the scent that repulses him from the herb. (I wish the article had discussed other controversial foodstuffs: in my experience, eaters are even more divided by jackfruit and durian, for example).

Lessons like this one, about the individual constituents of taste can be usefully transferred, methinks, from scents and tastes to sound, indeed, to music. Not everyone is predisposed to the same auditory likes and dislikes, and, like an animal or vegetable or fungus that some can use as a food while others cannot, there are sounds and assemblies of sounds that one set of ears digests with gusto and others cannot.

The positive upshot of this variety in taste is the enormous range of choice we find in musical materials, styles, and forms. But instead of celebrating this diversity, too often there is friction and anger. For example, too few unhappy audience members were able to take John Cage seriously when he emphasized the intimacy (eyes, ears, nose, palate, touch) between beauty and the beholder and, in all friendliness, invited those who found themselves in any discomfort to leave rather than to hang around in order to instead share their discomfort with others. This particular form of masochism is mystery to me, quite unlike the pleasant touch of pain associated with a hot chili pepper, wasabi, a good dissonance, or a grand noise.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Yet Another Orchestration Lesson

A formal orchestration class, more properly a history of orchestration*, taught by a musicologist, Sherwood Dudley, Santa Cruz ca. 1981.    After a quarter of serious style exercises, Prof. Dudley decided to sum things up in the last lesson, late on a Friday afternoon, with the last two acts of Otello. He brings a good recording, multiple scores and sufficient sherry such that, by the time that the open chalumeau fifths in Desdemona's Willow Song sound, we are all in tears.  The right orchestration can often bring about tears, with or without sherry.


* The best formal coursework in orchestration might consist of the following trifecta: a course in musical acoustics and psychoacoustics, a history of orchestration, and a music education course for prospective band and orchestra teachers, which typically includes hands-and-mouths-on experience each instrument covered.  

Why I don't like recordings

From a statement by artist Robert Irwin, Artforum 3, no. 9 (June 1965):

QUESTION: Why do you object to your paintings being reproduced?

ANSWER: I am concerned with specifics and reject the generalities of photographs. Every element in a painting has had both an identity and a physical existence — identity has always lent itself to being transferred in both photographic and literary terms.

The physical existence never has.

Nonobjective painting has come a long way to become a language of the physical. The duality of reproductions is a complete contradiction to this premise.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Classical Music Stories of the Year

It seems that the stories about classical music which have received the most attention in this past year are mostly stories about the business of music, rather than music itself.  Off the top of my head: Herb Alpert donates $15M to CalArts; the Wagner Sisters take over in Bayreuth; Mortier resigns from the NYCO; Alberto (aka Albert) Vilar convicted of money laundering, investor advisor fraud, securities fraud, wire fraud, mail fraud; UE temporarily sends the IMSLP offline; UE places a score of its own online, gratis; Mauricio Kagel passes away; Elliot Carter turns 100;  Daniel Barenboim gets around a lot these days;  NYPhil musicians call Gilbert Kaplan's conducting skills...

Getting away from the business issues, what were the musical experiences of the past year that seem likely to have some lasting resonance?

Another Orchestration Lesson

The student's piece was called JACKHAMMER.  For solo electric guitar. It was, in a word, loud. After studying the score, listening to the piece once (with ear protection), and then studying the score a second time, Gordon Mumma made a suggestion:  "Why not write a piece for solo jackhammer and title it ELECTRIC GUITAR?"

The lesson I gathered from Prof. Mumma: take a tired idea, turn it over, and see if it still has some more life in it.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Orchestration Lesson

It was the student's first composition.  Copies of the score were handed out to us in the jury and we dutifully followed the performance.  Bassoon and marimba.  Two big bundles of sticks, Ithinks to myself.  It was well played, the composer handling the mallets, all from memory, and the bassoonist very tightly in synch throughout.  Not an earthshaking piece, especially with the continuous melody and accompaniment texture with the instrumental roles fixed in the obvious way, but a solid and musical little work.  What to say?  

A jury colleague surprised me by jumping out front with two sharp comments.  The first asked why the composer chose two "so very different instruments."  The second asked why there are so few dynamics and articulations.   Looking for pleasure before duty,  I jumped on her first comment.  "I find the two instruments very similar, especially in the tenor/alto range. In fact, the two instruments are often so similar in character that the sound of one could easily submerge into the other." (A chalumeau-register clarinet, with the right tonguing, and sharing the marimba's 1/4-wave length resonances of every odd harmonic would even be closer.)  Then I challenged my colleague, perhaps a bit rudely: "Since when is similarity such an important constraint?  We accompany every possible instrument with the piano.  The difference in character, technique, and timbre between a violin or a flute and a piano, for example,  is or can be much greater than that between a bassoon and a marimba, yet it's considered a standard, and unobjectionable, combination."  I believe that her critique was not of the inherent differences between the instruments but rather more that the combination of instruments was not a traditional one.

Then came the dutiful comment, with my standard attack on over-abundant dynamic and articulation markings.  I suggested that the more important question was what kind of dynamic and articulative profile the composer intended for his piece and whether he felt that the profile was appropriate to (or productively inappropriate to, as the case might well be)  the pitch and rhythmic materials and the ensemble texture he had used.   My colleague was less philosphical than I, and countered that, in practical terms, with limited rehearsals, it's better to notate something rather than nothing in every case of doubt.  

Poor kid: writes his first piece — and a sweet one at that — and gets immediately thrown into the middle of one of the raging debates of our little republic of Newmusicland.     

As it turns out, the choice of instruments was determined less by design than by opportunity. The composer played the marimba and had a friend who played bassoon.  He wrote a piece that could get played.  No problem there.  This information breaks the ice between my colleague and I. We start throwing out suggestion, almost in unison at times.  Did he take full advantage of the opportunity and actually play with the combination, bringing some raw materials into early rehearsals and actually play with the possibilities?  Why stick with a constant melody-and-accompaniment scoring pattern? How about hocketing melodic lines between the two instruments.   How about more contrast between sustainable bassoon tones and rapidly-decaying marimba tones?  What about the registers (low bassoon, high marimba) where the two instruments don't overlap?  How about playing with similar and different articulations between the instruments?   I then offered a compromise, perhaps more to my colleague than the student composer: How about using some very simple dynamic markings to make subtle contrasts when the instruments are playing the same or similar materials?  

We then asked to hear the piece again.  On second hearing, it seemed just fine the way it was. Congratulations, we assure the bewildered young composer.  We look forward to Opus Two!


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Composition Class Blogging?

While my visits to musical academe are mostly of the hit-and-run variety, when I do visit, the most exciting activity is inevitably finding out about what the student composers are doing.   It's been surprising to me that so few younger composers are using the web to promote their work, but it's absolutely irresponsible that even fewer teachers and teaching institutions are using the web to promote their students' work.  Such a forum would be very useful to prospective students, concert organizers, and the musical community at large.   If composition training is preparation for professional work and our profession increasingly demands that contacts, materials, and work samples be available online, then learning how to place ones's work online and fashion an interesting public profile (as musician, intellectual, or all-round sweetheart) is an essential part of professional training.  

Now, it may well be objected that student work is student work, raw, in-progress, and tolerant of both experiment and failure in ways in which an eventual professional market is far less forgiving and is therefore unsuitable to wider publication.  But that is precisely why the framing of the work within the context of a website or blog associated with a composition class is so useful; such informal publication is at once a license to take risks, but also a requirement to stand out and do exciting work.  An interesting composition class is interesting not only because of an interesting and august professor, it is interesting because the students have good ideas and are executing them in ways to which attention is due.  Web publication along these lines — intermediate to in-house recitals and more formal publication — is an ideal medium for this.   

Friday, December 19, 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Notes on blogging SWAG

OF LATE, I've received an increasing number of requests from web sites, radio stations, concert organizers, and recording companies to mention or review a program or product on my blog.  These requests often include an offer of comp tickets or a perusal copy of a cd.  My apologies for not answering the emails, but I just don't respond to these offers, however attractive they may be.  For me to get involved in that particular exchange of goods and services, I'd have to identify as a critic, and that'd be less than honest  These blog items are the working notes of someone who writes music for half-a-living, and I prefer to write about topics connected to my immediate compositional projects.  Praise or criticism here for the work of other is thus selfishly and intimately connected to those compositional projects and, consequently, I don't have the necessary distance a critic can — and ought — bring.  (This is above and beyond the fact that I just don't have the particular set of writing chops that a critic needs.)  THAT SAID, I do really value getting to know the work of other musicians, and I treasure links to sound files and — especially — scores sent by individual colleagues.  In fact, the happiest moments in blogging have been those in which I've been able to link readers to strong online materials, connecting or contrasting in useful ways with my own work.  A perfect exchange of gifts, as far as I'm concerned. 

The earth moves. Slowly. But moves all the same.

Universal Edition (hat tip: Alex Ross),  has placed the complete score to Arvo Pärt's new Symphony No.  4  "Los Angeles" online, here.  This is an example of exactly what traditional music publishers should be doing now:  making perusal scores freely available online as study and promotional materials.  The money to be made in publishing is attached to performances, broadcasts, and recordings, through licenses and rentals of large-format bound scores, extracted parts, and other performance materials,  not to sales of study scores.   When a composer assigns work to a publisher (as opposed to doing his or her own publishing), he or she should expect that the publisher promote the work, manage the performance materials, and watch out for licenses.  In return, the composer and publisher split the license fees.  Putting the score out is an excellent form of promotion, addressed directly to musicians and organizers planning programs but, as importantly,  to the larger musical community, for whom the presence of the score is a real sign that the work exists, can be played from and studied and understood as a part of a living repertoire.  New music has too long been a repertoire of obscurities, with standard music history texts loaded with the titles of works you'll never hear (and scores you'll never see), due largely to the lousy delivery system that has been music publishing.  UE's online publication of the Pärt score should create addition interest in advance of the premier, interest that should be profitable to the composer, publisher, and performers as well as to potential critics and audiences. (For example, in local college music classes, instructors can assign both study of the score, concert attendence, and critical reading of any concert reviews.)

This is an especially welcome move following UE's missteps earlier this year with legal threats that temporarily disabled the International Music Score Library Project.  The future of music licencing is likely to be well in the middle ground between traditional publishing arrangements and the copyright-free utopia, so it's nice to learn that an old institution like UE both recognizes and is agile enough to explore this.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How much music do you know?

Kenneth Woods opens a good discussion about the size and breadth of a conductor's repertoire, comparing annual repertoire lists from four different conductors. Others, online (Google it), have expressed some concern over Daniel Barenboim's recent weeks of work, including conducting a revived Tristan at the Met, a West-Eastern Divan concert at the UN, doing a four-hands gig with James Levine, contributing the piano Interventions to a new Elliot Carter orchestral work under Levine's baton, and topping it off with solo piano recitals in Philadelphia and in the Met, the latter an all Liszt concert. May I throw these items together under the question: How much music can an individual musician responsibly play and play well? Or, better: How much music do you know?

Back in my training days as an ethnomusicologist, we were taught some of the basic questions to use with musician informants in the course of field work. One of the most basic was "How many pieces do you know?"* There seemed to be a near-universal upper limit of about fifty-or-so repertoire items whenever the question was narrowed to "How many pieces do you know well?" Similar quantitative limits were encountered among musicians of many traditions, which, in our informal survey, included Native American singers, Javanese Gamelan musicians, and String Quartets, who were either asked to list, by name, the pieces that they "knew" and were ready to play.

The answer turns, of course, on how one defines a "piece" and what, precisely, constitutes "knowing" a piece, both knotty topics of their own. Musicians who play in a relatively closed repertoire, one in which new compositions or titles are added largely by assembling elements which are already familiar to members of the community — conditions that apply as well to Javanese or Indian musicians today as they did to European Baroque or Classical musicians in their time and community — have a certain advantage nuancing this limit. A good Javanese player, for example, will be able to sit down, unrehearsed and play an elaborating instrument in a piece that he has never before encountered because all of the component parts of that piece will have been previously encountered, albeit in another sequence or arrangement. But even with this ability to navigate such new arrangements, the player would likely only be able to identify the magic fifty-or-so repertoire items which he or she can presently play on demand as distinct wholes, and even among those fifty, there will be sustantial overlap of the form "this phrase/lick/tune/change/sequence in X is just like that phrase/lick/tune/change/sequence in Y." Likewise, a Saxon church musician in the early 18th century could easily read through (or compose, for that matter) a new church cantata every Sunday because, well, it wasn't ever althogether new, and the extent and limits of their repertoire as a whole were considerably narrow compared with those regularly encountered by professional orchestral and studio musicians of our time. **

Modern studio and classical ensemble musicians do have the quantitative advantages offered by a (mostly) notated repertoire, a broader training in performance practice, access to live and recorded performances in countless techniques and styles, and even a music-historical consciousness substantially different from that of musicians associated with only one repertoire. But I think that when one factors in the depth of style embodied by the performances of monocultural musicians, these advantages may well be a wash. Indeed, I suspect that the limit of fifty-or-so is an upward limit for all but the most memorious to hold at any given time. In effect, taking on a new work that is sufficiently distinctive may mean dropping something else from the current playlist.

(If I seem somewhat pessimistic about performers here, please don't think so! I think fifty-or-so is an extraordinarily impressive number. As a composer, I think that I'll be a success when I have written eight, maybe nine, pieces, that really satisfy me. If I can do that, it will be my moral equivalent to the pieces a performing musician knows well).

*Among ethnomusicologists, the question is associated particularly with Bruno Nettl.
**I should probbaly add something here about specialists in new music who sometimes premiere many works in an evening. Without discounting this — often virtuoso — achievement, I think that such performances are often essentially an audition for eventual incorporation into the works that the player can really cook and take on the road.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Classicists

The bloglinks in the right-hand column are mostly dedicated to new and experimental music, a reader just emailed me with a request for blogs specializing in classical repertoire.   Here are some classic-oriented pages I read with some frequency, by writers I enjoy (& envy):

Think Denk (Jeremy Denk)  Reveries of the pianist and international man of mystery.

Iron Tongue of Midnight (Lisa Hirsch)  Hirsch finds just the right balance between news, opinion, and the prattling penumbra around music.  

The Detritus Review (the pseudononymous Sator Arepo & Empiricus) Reviewing the reviewers; good for an honest & regular dosage of snarkage.

A View from the Podium (Kenneth Woods) Conductor Woods is really at his best when digging into a work of music; as a composer, it's always important to encounter analysis applied to the real problems of performance, rather than as a pre-compositional exercise.

Oboe in Sight (Patricia Mitchell).  Lively notes from a working musician and teacher, a great reminder of the realities of musical life, counting measures, Nutcracker seasons, broken reeds & all.

There are many opera blogs out there (which isn't surprising given the neat fit between matters operatic and tabloidatic) but it'd sure be nice to have good blogs on dance and on early music...

Friday, December 12, 2008


A (slightly menacing) homage to Virgil Thomson, sketched out this morning on the back of an envelope. (Click image to enlarge).

Five from a good book year

Carolyn Brown: Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham 

Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries


David W. Bernstein (editor): The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde 

Ron Silliman: the Alphabet

Paul Auster: Man in the Dark

Also these music titles: Robert O. Gjerdingen: Music in the Galant Style;  David P. Nelson: Solkattu Manual; Rudolf Frisius: Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bd.2, Die Werke: Werke 1950 - 1977; Morton Feldman in Middelburg:  Words on Music / Lectures and Conversations / Worte über Musik / Vorträge und Gespräche edited by Raoul Mörchen  


With the bailout of the "Big Three" US automakers now on hold, if not dead, it looks as if the legacy of the Bush administration and its party friends in Congress (let's hear it for Richard Shelby, Toyota and Honda-sponsored Senator from the right-to-keep-unions-out state of Alabama!) may well be a perfecta, allowing the decimation not only of New Orleans, but of Detroit, in a unique sequence of forces majeur, first an act of God and then the law of supply and demand, managed by incredible incompetence.  Collateral impact on the cultural life, including the musical life, of these two cities has been or certainly will be significant.  I can just imagine some voice in Washington murmuring: "if they're gonna take us down, why, we'll just take Motown down with us."   

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Labor costs

My grandfather (who, a month younger than Elliot Carter, will celebrate his hundredth next month) grew up on a ranch in Union, California (which no longer exists, having long since been incorporated into metropolitan Paso Robles).  At harvest time, they had three men and twenty-one horses attached to the harvester.  One man sat on the lead horse, the second tended header, and the third, my grandfather, watched the rest of the horses, got the harvest into sacks, and sewed the sacks shut.  He was the San Luis Obispo County Fair champion sack-sewer for several years running, and in-between sacks, he'd kill birds with stones and a sling (not a slingshot, just a bandana and some loose rocks). Nowadays, the same amount of work would be done, in a fraction of the time, by a single worker sitting air-conditioned in the cab of a big piece of motorized equipment, probably listening to canned music all the while. I assume that birds are scared away by other means.

With the classical/romantic concert and opera orchestra, there has been no equivalent scaling-down in labor requirements, which have generally been limited to humans and have generally excluded the equestrian.  In the popular theatre orchestra, there has been significant scaling-down, to the point now in which a theatre orchestra is usually much reduced, a small band with synthesizers imitating larger sections of instruments and, indeed, sometimes the pit is empty, live instrumentalists replaced by a recording.  Others more expert can speak to the case of the theatre orchestra, but the relative stability of the concert and opera orchestra deserves some attention. In part, the stability at late 19th century levels is due to some historical inertia and many large cities are effectively moving into the practice of establishing smaller bands or sub-sections of the larger orchestras, with appropriate instruments and bows, for baroque and classical repertoire, and a few fortunate communities also have chamber orchestras which focus exclusively on 2oth and 21st century repertoire.  But there remains music composed for larger forces which requires those forces for significant musical reasons.  It might be surprising for some to learn that volume is not the critical issue, as masses of instruments, violins for example, playing the same part do not simply multiply decibels with their numbers.  In fact, the addition of instruments to a section creates the "chorus" effect, in which the individual instruments create many small variations in pitch, timbre, dynamics that are nevertheless coherent in structure thus synthesizing a lively, detailed, sound with a diffuse physical presence but not actually an increase in volume proportional to the numbers of instruments. In this manner, a large string section can play pianissimo, on the one hand, and on the other, at the highest volume, still permit an independent solo line to be heard against the mass.  Magical stuff*, and essential to some musical styles, but it comes with a real labor cost.

The question is how does one best afford to continue to support this very special musical quality in times in which institutions are perpetually struggling with labor costs.  (The recent efforts, by German communities, to de-couple orchestral musicians from civil service pay schedules in one step in this direction).  In part, smarter orchestral managers will be able to use the tripartite classical/romatic/modern orchestral structure described above to more efficiently assign their resources (which also has the benefit of automatically covering a wider variety of music), but such efficiency is no substitute for making the case that the music requiring larger forces is a cultural good, a unique aesthetic and social product, without which we are impoverished and far less interesting as a species. 


* I write this as a (mostly) disinterested party.  I have not, under my own name, written for larger orchestral forces and have no plans to do so, as the economics of a commission for an experimental work for large orchestra simply do not work, as the possibilities for repeat performances are usually limited.  This is a situation with which I can live.   My visits to the larger orchestral world, on-hire orchestrating or ghosting for film or concerts, have provided adequate, if vicarious, pleasures of the sort.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Jack Ely (yep, he's the one who sang Louie Louie with the Kingsmen) has a rightside-up proposal for the relationship between recordings and performances and license fees.  The best part of the model is that it advantages artists who bypass recording and distribution firms altogether.

Collaborate with Mr. Ives

The irrepressible Neely Bruce is inviting composers to complete an unfinished song by Charles Ives, Smoke, here (scroll down a bit).

Monday, December 08, 2008

George Brecht

Sad news comes: the artist George Brecht has died, at the age of 82, in Cologne.   His name is probably associated by most with that of the Fluxus scene*, and while his works, both objects and performances, are among the strongest of that association field,  they had their own distinct origins and took a path of admirably independent consequence.  There are two pieces of writing by Brecht that were valuable to me: his 1957 essay, Chance-Imagery, some parts of which are slightly off, but still... and the set of notebooks which begin with the most thorough documentation available of John Cage's course in experimental music at The New School in 1958. _____

*I've long had in mind writing something about Fluxus, but my impressions were fairly negative; under Maciunas's leadership it seemed too commercially-oriented and uncomfortably competitive with when not hostile to the work of others (Charlotte Moorman, for example).  Not to mention the whole Fluxus collectors' scene, an ugly affair, it seems.  Recently, however, a chance viewing of an episode of the current  television series Mad Men, set in a Madison Ave. advertising agency in the early 1960's, has been a trigger for some revision in my thinking about this, especially the character played by Robert Morse, a small role, but one that puts a twist onto an homage of his role in the 1960's musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. In Mad Men, Morse is now the older boss (the Rudy Vallee role in How to Succeed...) instead of the ambitious youth in the mail room. In this episode, he is heard to recommend reading Ayn Rand to a young employee.  Here's the connection: Maciunas was a Randite objectivist and the Fluxus artist provided Maciunas with objects to sell. You read it here first.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


Just an observation — & one that may well get me into some trouble, but what the hell (to paraphrase the great Tony Rolletti) if we can't get into trouble in a blog, where can we get into trouble? — is that the most successful genre for American operas seems to be the pageant.   Treemonisha, Four Saints in Three Acts, Porgy & Bess, The Mother of Us All,  Einstein on the Beach, Nixon in China, Satyagraha, Akhnetan, Europeras 1 & 2 ... are all pageants, a form that may have elevated roots in the English Masque but is most familiar to Americans through the grade school and church and boardwalk and award show and political convention and half-time show spectacles that are a formative part of our shared experience.   I suspect that having pageantry as the default setting for the "serious" musical theatre is due in no small part to the ability of film and television to handle dramatic narrative and intimate scenes well, as well as the capacity for verisimo which the screen media share with the spoken theatre.*  But mostly, our operas are pageants, because pageantry is the habitual means for marking a remembered event as big, serious, and significant.


* Robert Ashley's operas, some explicitly made television, have an vocal intimacy and (radio/television not 12-tone) serial shape that are the antithesis of the pageant ideal; I take this to be the rule-proving exception.  (See this post on Ashley and R. Kelly).   

Temporary Notes (14)

Rubato is something of an obsession here. I love the idea of stolen time (and the implicit questions of whence? and where?), and I love the idea of extending rubato into non-temporal dimensions, and of those, pitch, in particular.

Nowadays, in the absence of dance or lyrical traditions through which a metrical rubato — they don't call them movements for nothing — was understood within a community sharing a repertoire, we are forced to either accept whatever comes our way or to be more specific in our notation about these matters. There is something to be said for just accepting the sensibilities of good musicians, indeed, to the realization of a composition as a more collaborative and variable enterprise, with rubato, portamento, vibrato, and other figurations restored as terms in an ornamental realm. On the other hand, there is a tradition of, in effect, written-out rubato, which might be usefully associated with the name Skryabin, continuing to us, in one lineage, through the Skryabinistes, including the microtonalist Wyschnegradsky and the total chromaticist Obukhov, leading to Messiaen and Boulez (Boulez's microtonal youth is one of the facets of his biography kept rather quiet), and, in another lineage, through Morton Feldman, via his piano teacher Mme. Press.

Written-out rubato may seem a bit finicky at times, but the clarity can be useful, and need not always lead to new-complexity-school obscurities. For example, there is a fairly well-known symphonic work notated in 9/8. However, the music is actually in four, with a hesitant fourth beat: quarter, quarter, quarter, quarter, EIGHTH REST. Feldman, who often composed on manuscript paper with the barlines pre-drawn in regular intervals, would sometimes map a single simple melodic figure onto successive measures, changing only the time signature and note values, creating, in effect, tempo changes at each measure. Four quarters in 4/4 could become four dotted eighths in 3/4, four quarters-plus-sixteenths in 5/4, four dotted-quarters in 6/4 or four double-dotted quarters in 7/4. (One might aso usefully consider Feldman's non-aligned ensembles in the Durations series, and in later works with non-alligned metres, to be an extension of the rubato idea into the design of ensemble polyphony. (Yes, Virginia, even from someone who would once scribble "POLYPHONY SUCKS").

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Practiced, but not rehearsed

Last night, I had one of those vivid dreams of a piece of — non-existent — music to which some musicians are prone. In this case, it involved a large group of instrumentalists and vocalists gradually gathering in a circle before the audience, playing isolated sounds and then fragments of tunes that eventually come together and start spinning, literally, around the circle, until the motion stops in a gigantic, pulsing, chord, mostly in a single harmonic spectum, but with very gentle nudges from tones outside that spectrum.

Sometimes dreams are very useful sources of music, from bits of material to longer stretches, and sometimes, even the broad shapes of larger forms. But mosttimes, it is probably better to enjoy the music in the dream and leave it there. In this case, the problem is the "spontaneity" of the piece I imagined, which had more than a utopian flavor. With even the best of ensembles today, it would be next to impossible to recreate this, to get this right. It would have to be well-rehearsed, and nothing can kill a performance of music, ridding it of its spontaneity, than the ritual of a performance that continually advertises the fact that it is well-rehearsed. (If you want to irritate me, you don't need to drag fingernails across blackboards; you just have to shout out "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" That is a recipe for — to take a term from Peter Brook — "deadly theatre").

Let me be clear that I'm all in favor of practice, indeed, I demand practice. But, for me, practice is a different form of preparation from rehearsal. Rehearsal is oriented towards a specific goal, it is about getting something into a particular, polished, indeed finished form, while practice is an ever-closer engagement with work so that individual performances can improve, but more importantly, the individual musician or group of musicians is evermore aware of the richness of possibilities in a work, thus allowing and embracing the differences within and between each performance.

I'm not really a piano player, but I play at the piano every day. When I sat down, this morning, to read through my favorite Mozart Sonata (K. 533/594), to practice it, my expectation was not about my lousy technique. It was this: What am I going to learn new today? Will I be able to hear more, hear differently? And, to date, my expectations have always been met.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Temporary Notes (13)

A few simple examples of using a simple rhythmic proportion, two-to-one, to generate unexpectedly rich ensemble textures.

In the first, an example that I associate with a brief impromptu lesson I had with Ornette Coleman in the back of a theatre in New Haven. A melody is played and then restated at twice the speed over the same accompaniment, here a simple ground bass. This is especially fun to place with extended melodies, going through the tune twice in double time while the accompaniment stays put (this is an idea I associate with a brief impromptu lesson I had with Ornette Coleman in the back of a theatre in New Haven). The rhythmic point in the middle of such textures can be a useful point of departure for composition, beginning with a point in which consonance or dissonance can be most heightened.

The second is cribbed from South Indian Solkattu (rhythmic solfege) lessons. A single pattern is learned at three speeds, here notated as quarters, eighths, and sixteenths. In this example, the superposition of a three note pattern in each speed over a pattern which repeats at the slowest speed results in a nicely propulsive series of polyrhythms (3:2, 4:3) and then syncopations created by the combinations of the smaller note values.

And this, too: A perfect mensural canon in the proportions 1:2:3, from my string trio, Figure & Ground (1994-95). The proportions are applied to both the pitches and rhythms and correspond precisely to the tunings of the three instruments. Thus the cello plays its material once through while the viola plays the same material an octave higher and twice as fast two times through and the violin plays the same material a twelfth higher and three times as fast three times through. Here, getting the music to work meant focusing first on the seams between the repetitions in the upper instruments, here at the one-half point articulated by the viola, and the one-third and two-thirds points articulated by the violin.


On Sunday evening, the German premier performance of Verdi's I Masnadieri took place in the Frankfurt Opera with piano accompaniment due to a strike by the orchestra.  Similar strikes are taking place elsewhere in Germany (including Muenster, Magdeburg, Dortmund, Leipzig, and Stuttgart) against plans to de-couple pit musicians from the civil service pay schedules of their employers, the cities.  This is the first strike of its kind in decades in Germany, but the generous classical music and opera landscape of Germany has been under considerable pressure in recent years, including closures or reductions in ensembles and houses, or settlement into that peculiar German legal form of "privatized", but not actually private, limbo, so action of the sort has been more or less inevitable.  In part, one can understand the position of the cities, in that they have to provide an ever-larger share of services required by higher levels of government (in the US, one would speak of "unfunded mandates"), requiring significant cuts to any budget lines that are not locked down.   A roster of city musicians, while paid like civil servants, does not actually have the protected status of civil servants, so their bargaining position is weak, and acutely so in comparison to their colleagues in the stage-technical positions.   Going forward with performanances by substituting a piano reduction for the orchestra adds insult, which becomes injurous when one reads, in this mornings FAZ, praise for the use of reductions elsewhere (in particular, an augmented three-piano ensemble for Henze's Bassariden in Paris) and suggests that "Perhaps opera theatres should, in the future, prepare emergency orchestral solutions for opera premieres from the beginning of rehearsals."  Personally, I am afraid of a slippery slope here in that the reduction of an orchestra to an expendible line item inevitably leads to the devaluation of the importance of the orchestra to the opera as a genre and perhaps, ultimately, to opera itself.  The moment we let go of the fact that orchestration and live ensemble musicianship is central to a work like a Verdi opera — and the too little-known I Masnadieri  is no exception — is the beginning of an end.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Winter, revisited

With seasons changing, this is a reminder to visit A WINTER ALBUM, an online collection of piano pieces, here.  It includes works by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz, Jon Brenner, Steed Cowart, Thomas Dent, Elaine Fine, Hauke Harder, Ben.Harper, Jeff Harrington, Steve Hicken, Aaron Hynds, Lloyd Rodgers, Jonathan Segel, Charles Shere, and Bhisma Xenotechnites.   

(The invitation to contribute to A SPRING ALBUM, of percussion music, is still open).

Temporary Notes (12)

Mälzel's identification of primary tempi with basic note value related by powers-of-two (eighths, quarters, halves, wholes) provides a nice segué to irama in Javanese gamelan music (or karawitan).  In the irama system, tempo and density smootly interact to create an equilibrium, a prevailing steady-state over longer forms.  The process is somewhat akin to shifting gears in a car, which is also a process which most drivers internalize and something much easier to do than to explain.  So I'll try to explain with a radically simplified version of the idea.  Imagine a melody in a steady stream of eighth notes which smoothly slows down to around half the orginal speed.   At this point, the melody is now re-notated as a stream of quarter notes, and it is now ornamented by eighth note figurations, which articulate the initial melodic tempo.  The melody has been, in effect, stretched, but the overall apparent speed of the music, in terms of the density of attacks, returns to that heard at the beginning of the piece.  (The analogy with gears is quite precise: whatever the ratio of size and teeth between two gears, the circumferences of the gears move with the same linear motion).  In Javanese music, this process may be repeated at three to five different levels (related at approximate 2:1's), with the move from one level to the next connected by decreases and increases in the tempo of the melody, each decrease in tempo matched by an increase in the density of figuration and vice-versa.   There is, of course,  a tremendous amount of specific stylistic detail which I am omitting from this description, especially regarding the particular shapes of the increases and decreases in tempo as well as sustained periods at a given level, the internalization of which are quite critical to the ability of an ensemble to play with such precision that durations of performances of works sharing the same form with durations of a half-hour or more may vary by only a few seconds.  I believe that the irama principle, connecting tempo and density, offers some rich possibilities for extension, for example to basic tempi proportions other than 2:1, or to discover new or alternative formal distributions of accelerandi,  decellerandi, and plateaus.

See also this post about Monteverdi's genere concitato.