Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: Done, Gone, and Looking Ahead

Compositionally, the past year has been a good one for me, providing time for consolidating some older ideas and experimenting with new ones.   I'm particularly pleased with a book of music for mixed consort (flute, clarinet, guitar & percussion) called Neglected Topiary,  a gentle, but still rather hard-line quartet for melodicas, The Long March*  and two pieces for woodwind ensemble based on Gray Codes: Came & Went for trio and A Beckett-Gray Code for quintet.  The Beckett-Gray Codes, which I use to control scoring patterns, have become something of an obsession, and the piece I'm working on now, for the L'Histoire instrumentation, with the percussion treated as soloist, tentatively called Six or Seven, Whatever it Takes, continues this line of work.  There have been the usual number of bagatelles (recorder, keyboard, chorus), occasional pieces (including a set of five-fingered birthday pieces for Walter Zimmermann, Some Handywork),  and the usual arrangements and other work-for-hire along the line,  and outlines of projects for next year are emerging (including some incidental music, a collection called Six Simple Machines, and two longish solo pieces (Meander Scar and  Pareidolia) as well as a brief operatic project concerning two sisters, the favored one of whom has the habit of secretly sucking out all the water in the despised sister's fish tank with a long straw, so that, all-in-all, this year is rather seamlessly flowing into the next.    


* a pseudo 1950's serial bebop piece for solo melodica should also be mentioned.**

** or maybe not. 

Monday, December 28, 2009

Some one thousand, three-hundred and nineteen items later...

... Renewable Music had its fifth anniversary on the 15th of December.   If you haven't yet, please check out the two anthology projects (A Winter Album with new works for piano by 15 composers and Melodica! with works for that instrument by 13 composers);  if you happen to be a composer yourself, please consider contributing to the up-coming and long-awaited A Spring Album of percussion music.  

This experiment in composerly blogging, originally just making public the sorts of notes I habitually write to myself in manuscript margins and on cocktail napkins and the backs of envelopes, has covered some interesting territory, including a month of writing a new whole piece each day and assorted forms of cogitation, agitation, and even experimentation with the blog as literary/critical form.  Thanks for reading, (cor)responding and — if you care to stick around — expect more of the same! 

Saturday, December 26, 2009

More Light! More Space! More Time!

Composer Taylan Susam is asking all the right questions in a short essay, here.  I like this, especially: In my opinion, the supposition - uttered by many contemporary musicologists - that the numerical relation between music and the cosmos is mimetic by nature, is plainly false. Music is more of a parallel manifestation of the harmony that also governs the kosmos. The numerical relations are to music what the projector light is to the cinema.  

I disagree, too, with the mimetic supposition. I believe that it introduces an unnecessary — and distracting — distinction between nature and art, whereas it should be abundantly clear that works of art are part of natural history, just like the human beings who make them, and making a distinction between art and everything else and calling that everything else "nature" simply avoids the hard project of explaining what it is that makes artwork special within the domain of the natural.

Someplace else, I wrote that Sounds articulate precise dimensions in physical space; musical sounds also articulate precise dimensions in social and private spaces.   That is right, methinks, as far as it goes, with physical, social and personal spaces relating to one another like nesting dolls, but I don't think that it goes far enough, in that time is not represented.  Sounds are events in natural history and there is an inseparable intimacy between sound and the experience of time passing, indeed, sound is a means for making that experience articulate. 


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Landmarks (43)

Sometimes the moment just requires one piece of music, and only that piece.  I had such a moment this evening when I just needed Heinrich Isaac's motet Quis dabit capiti meo aquam? (1492).  As a lament on the death of Lorenzo de' Medici ("the magnificent"), it's about as elite as a piece of art can get, and the rest-in-peace sentiment is definitely not a sentiment I share*, but still: is there anything as devastatingly beautiful as this?  

Three features stand out for me: the devastating drop of the bass in the opening phrase, a single gesture which casts everything that follows into the darkest hues; then, where the poet Angelo Poliziano, punning on Laurel/Lorenzo, lets lightning strike, Issac has the tenor sing Laurus tacet and  one of the four voices drops out, marking Lorenzo's absence with an absence in the musical texture; and then there's the bass line, which takes a bit of chant, Et requiescamus in pace, restating it five times, but at each pass it is sequenced down a scale step,  a bit of technique that is obvious, minimalist even, yet uncanny in its effect (in the passacaglia which ends my string trio, Figure & Ground, I plain stole Isaac's idea of an ostinato which develops systematically with each reiteration, in my case in extending in length rather than modulating it).  There is much more to treasure here, with the textural and harmonic variety of the entire work providing a strong counter-charge to a work with pre-compositional, even systematic, elements. 

What most devastated me at this moment, today, was that I couldn't locate a copy of this music. It doesn't seem to be available online and my old photocopy of the original notation (from which I first sung this piece, in Idyllwild in '76 under the conductor Jon Bailey)  is nowhere to be found. But fortunately, a piece of this strength has a way of imprinting itself in memory; could one ask anything more of a lament? 


* For the record, when I go, I want my ashes to be placed in an hourglass, so that, at least in one way, I may keep on working.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Dept. of Libretto Opportunities

Sometimes you come across a blog item that just begs to be turned into an opera libretto.  Here's one by the blogging mathematician Tanya Khovanova, that is just bursting with suggestion and promise: 

Gelfand’s Memorial

(The mathematician) Israel Gelfand’s memorial is being held at Rutgers on December 6, 2009. I was invited as Gelfand’s student.

My relationship with Gelfand was complicated: sometimes it was very painful and sometimes it was very rewarding. I was planning to attend the memorial to help me forget the pain and to acknowledge the good parts.

I believe that my relationship with Gelfand was utterly unique. You see, I was married three times, and all three times to students of Gelfand.

Now that I know that I can’t make it to the memorial, I can’t stop wondering how many single male students of Gelfand will be there.

Material Press Blog

My blogging has become somewhat promiscuous, as I'll now also be contributing to the Material Press blog at  Expect lots of news about new scores and performances of works by Material Press composers, including Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, Hauke Harder, Markus Trunk, Douglas Leedy, Ann Warde, Jonathan Segel, and Daniel Peter Biro.

Landmarks (42)

Joseph Haydn: Die Vorstellung des Chaos from Die Schöpfung (Hob. XXI:2)(1796-98).

The overture to this oratorio, the "representation of chaos", takes the form of a fantasy. In late 18th century concert music, a fantasy was an improvised solo keyboard genre, a showpiece for a virtuoso composer-performer, and often characterized musically by bold harmonic experimentation. (The fantasies left by Mozart are the best examples of the genre, if necessarily tamed and edited in their notated form.) In this case, however, the fantasy is through-composed and orchestrated, which is entirely appropriate for a composer who was not himself a popular virtuoso performer, but rather a Tonsetzer and orchestrator of spectacular skill and invention.

The function of chaos within the oratorio's narrative, "representing" a state which is not representable, and in ambiguous relationship to any eventual representable state, is that of presenting maximum contrast to the defining event it anticipates. To this end, Haydn uses and sustains every harmonic trick, turn, misdirection and ambiguity at his disposal for the entire length of the overture so as to delay a difinitive arrival at a simple cadence to the tonic c minor.

Haydn's Chaos would provide a critical point of reference for musical landmarks to come: the Vorspiel to Tristan und Isolde, certainly, with its parallel use of ambiguity and delayed definition of a tonaliy, but certainly, also, in Schönberg's Prelude to the Genesis Suite, Op. 44, in which the undefinable pre-creation state is "represented" by an atonal fugue, a paradoxical if not chaotic construction, given the importance of tonal function to the identity of a fugue.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

From a Final Exam

Verismo opera and Alvin Lucier's I am sitting in a room: compare and contrast as examples of naturalism in musical drama.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

An update from the lattice of coincidence

It's earlier this evening, I'm reading in the canteen in the basement of the Frankfurt Opera. I'm there to chaperone my daughter who is an extra in La Traviata, and generally enjoying the managed chaos and bustle of the place. A man with a cimbasso (that contrabass valve trombone required for much Verdi and Puccini and looking all the world like a design from the desk of Dr. Seuss) walks by. Two trainers with a handsome pair of dogs — who are to play police dogs onstage — walk by. A rehearsal pianist practices on a table top. The stage manager calls for fog to be readied. It happens that my reading has just reached Richard Taruskin's passage on Verdi's Wagner anxiety. There's a television in the canteen monitoring the music and action onstage and, even before the applause begins at the end of an act, the canteen-keeper casually switches the TV over to a broadcast of the Valencia production of Die Walküre. As singers and musicians wander in to eat or drink before returning to The Fallen Woman, some enter cheerfully humming bits of Libiamo ne' lieti calici only to be drowned out by Ho-jo-to-ho!-s sung by the woman on TV swinging around over the stage on a big hydraulic lift. Jeez, methinks, even there, deep in the heart of a house given over for an evening to Verdi, R.W. has once again managed to get himself unavoidable.

More signs of the decline in listening

I prefer live music to recordings, to the point that I actively avoid recordings. I do listen to the radio when I drive or do chores and I do own hundreds of cds, but I've only bought a couple which were immediately connected to compositional projects. The rest just accumulated, mostly as gifts or calling cards from musician friends. I don't encourage recordings of my own works, and I prefer getting to know the music of others, both new and old, through score reading, which means making sounds, however rough or approximate, with my own hands and mouth. I like to make music on my own or with friends, I like to listen to and watch others make music, and I prefer that recordings not be used as an economical substitute for these activities, that is to say, I think that, whenever possible, recordings should not be used to put musicians out of work.

While recordings are clearly valuable when music has been composed expressly for recorded media or as documentation of performances — historical or distant — which are otherwise inaccessible, I dislike the constraints to audition posed by mediated through loudspeakers, the lack of control over my physical position with regard to the sound sources, the tendency in sound design to flatten dynamic contrasts, and, to be perfectly honest, I have an uneasy relationship with the temptation presented by recorded media for the the user to skip through and mix up composed works.

Once a work has been packaged for a recording (and often even composed specifically for the constraints — in time or dynamics, for example — of a recording), it becomes an indefinitely divisible and recombinant commodity, over which the creator has virtually no more control.

Recent technological developments in the most widely used forms of recording have not been encouraging for other reasons: for the first time in the history of audio recording, the most prominent new format has been one without a significant increase in sound quality in any aspect or parameter. The sole virtue of an mp3 file is its portability (small digital files, perfectly reproducible and cheaply transferable), useful, in principal, in a commodity, but not one which has proven to be particularly or sustainably lucrative. It is especially disheartening, now, to read that:

In February, a music professor at Stanford, Jonathan Berger, revealed that he has found evidence that younger listeners have come to prefer lo-fi versions of rock songs to hi-fi ones. For six years, Berger played different versions of the same rock songs to his students and asked them to say which ones they liked best. Each year, more students said that they liked what they heard from MP3s better than what came from CDs. To a new generation of iPod listeners, rock music is supposed to sound lo-fi. (Read the whole thing here.)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

What's buried behind Lufkin's diner?

This is Charles Olson reading his poem "The Librarian" in 1966 (hat tip Ron Silliman). The rhythm of this performance is so compelling, especially the way the caesuras are articulated and those insistent lines at the end ("Where is Bristow? When does 1A get me home? I am caught in Gloucester. What's buried behind Lufkin's diner? Who is Frank Moore?") are intoned as if they are the most urgent matters in the universe. Some poems need to be heard to be believed.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Schubert: Sublime and Funky?

A passage in Cornel West's recent memoir (Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud),  has been getting some attention (see here or here):

“The basic problem with my love relationships with women is that my standards are so high -- and they apply equally to both of us. I seek full-blast mutual intensity, fully fledged mutual acceptance, full-blown mutual flourishing, and fully felt peace and joy with each other. This requires a level of physical attraction, personal adoration, and moral admiration that is hard to find. And it shares a depth of trust and openness for a genuine soul-sharing with a mutual respect for a calling to each other and to others. Does such a woman exist for me? Only God knows and I eagerly await this divine unfolding. Like Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship in Emily Bronte’s remarkable novel Wuthering Heights or Franz Schubert’s tempestuous piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat (D.960) I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!”

Most of the attention has been, well, of a mirthful variety.  To be honest, I find the critics who have found West to be seriously misreading and misappropriating Wuthering Heights to be persuasive, but as a musician, I've gotta say, yeah, at his tempestuous best, as in the Bb Sonata, Schubert was definitely craving himself some of that sublime and funky love.  

(Now I'm sure we're all wondering what our blogging Brother Jeremy Denk might think about this; that is, if he can find a moment away from Chopin...)


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

You Can't Step Into The Same Orchestra Twice

In the West, professional orchestras are the last survivors of a particularly archaic distribution of labor.* Their productive work continues to be done in a collective mass under strict hierarchical control and has benefit not in the least from any advances in technology or though more efficient means of personnel organization.  To the contrary, the very identity of the orchestra as such continues to be defined by promoters and consumers alike by its strength in numbers and the quality of the sound produced is very much dependent upon balances of forces designed in the 19th century in which the "chorus effect" of massed strings, in which all the tiniest differences among players ostensibly playing the "same" music are synthesized into a single stream, which is surprisingly distinct from the simple sum of its parts. 

One result of this archaic construction is that an orchestral performance, including all of the prerequisite rehearsals, is a preposterously expensive cultural commodity, one that in major industrialized countries cannot be produced without massive subsidies, whether private or public (or mixed, as in the case of tax breaks for private contributions).  The question of the "survival of the orchestra" as a civic institution largely depends upon how a community — or some elite subgroup of a community's leadership — values the product in relationship to its costs.  This construction often lends the orchestra an aura of prestige for these elites (and those who aspire to the elites) which is not unlike that associated with other valuable antiquarian artifacts, with the critical difference that the essential product of an orchestra is a performance, ephemeral and not concrete, so less marketable, even when commodified as audio recordings, and certainly not the object of meaningful financial speculation against future returns, for a music performance is a perishable good.

But what I really want to write about is the orchestra as an ephemeral institution and, consequently, as an ephemeral musical quality.  The personnel of an orchestra is entirely stable for only short periods of time, between the changes due to retirements and replacements, often to the practice of ringers and substitutions, and certainly due to the continuous and recombinant dynamics of a community, both within the orchestra itself, between sections (have you ever met a woodwind player really happy about sitting in front of the brass?) and within sections (what does it really mean, in terms of the psyche, to be second chair second fiddle?) and, especially, between the orchestra and its conductors.  The local radio orchestra, for example, under specialist guest conductors, plays brilliantly in late 20th and early 21st century repertoire, probably as well as any orchestra around, and the presence of the orchestra has certainly been one of the reasons for staying here in Frankfurt.  But under their principle conductor, in standard repertoire, they're a completely different and, I find, dispirited, band, one I listen to under increasing duress.  While, as an outsider, I can only guess at some of the dynamics involved — dynamics of contrasting musical styles (often following an east-west divide)  and personal demeanors — I do recognize that the personal chemistry involved is unimaginably complex (the three-body problem being famously unsolveable.)     


*I am well aware that there is a strong argument for the institution of the opera — above and beyond its orchestral subunit — as a more dramatic holdover from a long-gone economy of scale, but I believe that opera is a beast with some very different qualities, a theatrical spectacle that continues to have a social cachet rather different to that of the orchestra.


Monday, November 30, 2009

A Golden Age

A nice reminder that we're living in a golden age of instrument building, with entry-level instruments being produced (largely in China) at historically-low prices, top-end professional instruments are made by luthiers and builders of astonishing skill, and re-creations, conjectures, and experiments of every imaginable sort, from the astonishing viola da spalla above to circuit-benders laying-on-hands almost everywhere.  The notion that the Bach cello suites were composed for an instrument along the lines of that in the video is controversial, to say the least, but there ought not be much controversy about Sigiswald Kuijken's musicality, uniquely balancing the robust and the tender. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Not yet having read...

I was really looking forward to spending time this Winter with Richard Taruskin's The Oxford History of Western Music (five volumes, now available in paperback with a reasonable discount).  I have long admired the author's work, especially for his willingness to question received wisdom  as when he has famously and fearlessly entered controversies on "historically informed performance practice" or the politics of Shostakovitch.  In particular, the two volumes of his Stravinsky and Russian Traditions (which I read last summer in the reading room of the local University library, as it is one of those books which is considered too valuable to lend out), in which the mixture of historical, cultural, and biographical context was consistently (and admirably) balanced with musical analysis betraying a gifted ear are a stunning achievement.  What I had heard or read of Taruskin's Oxford History in advance was very encouraging; the balance of topics considered — with two of the five volumes reserved for the 20th century — seems right in proportion to their variety and volume, and it has substantial and serious reflection on music historiography.  Enthusiasm for Taruskin's project has been widespread, with even a pair of musicologists-in-training blogging their way through the books ("The Taruskin Challenge" is here, and they're already up to the Glogauer Liederbuch of 1470).  

The five handsome books arrived in this morning's post and I thought I'd ease in to reading by sampling the volume with the content matter I knew best, the fifth, which is dedicated to Music in the Late Twentieth Century.   Unfortunately, each of my first samples, arrived at by looking up the name of a favorite west coast composer from the index, has turned up some weirdness:

— In an odd paragraph on Richard Maxfield, Taruskin seems to connect Maxfield's death by suicide to the violence of some Fluxus works (Maxfield's Concert Suite from Dromenon, the Danger Musics of Dick Higgins or Nam June Paik's Hommage à John Cage) and to sadomasochism.   There is, however, no documentary evidence connecting Maxfield's death to his compositional work, and implying this — suicide as an aesthetic project — without mentioning the more plausible cause (Maxfield had long-term psychological difficulties and was a drug abuser; see, for example, the poem Richard Maxfield by Diane Wakoski) does not seem altogether responsible for a major reference work.  

— Looking up La Monte Young turned up a passage with errors that some basic fact-checking should have corrected:  Taruskin describes La Monte Young's Trio for strings as unpublished; in fact, the score was available for purchase for several years in the 1960's through George Maciunas's Fluxus Edition.*  Taruskin also underestimates the number of performances of the Trio; I heard four professional performances in Germany alone during the 1990's by three different ensembles and know of several other performances which I was unable to attend. This underestimate may appear to be trivial, but it is made as part of an argument that the work was almost unheard. 

— In another passage, in an ample section on Harry Partch, Taruskin makes a mistake about the disposition of Partch's unique instruments after his death, writing that they went from Montclair State University in New Jersey to the Smithsonian Institution.  In fact, the instrument collection was housed for many years at San Diego State University in California before moving to SUNY Purchase in 1990 and then to Montclair State in 1997, where they remain today.  Late in Partch's life, there were vague plans for the Smithsonian to receive the originals and to have a set of copies built for performance, these did not go far.  (Fortunately, people like John Schneider of Los Angeles's ensemble Partch have been building duplicate sets of the instruments and are actively presenting his scores.)  Again, this is a trivial matter, with only a remote possibility that some enthusiastic music lover will ask in vain at the Smithsonian Institution to see the Partch instruments, but when texts associated with the first three names I happen to look up are each found to have something problematic, and not problematic as a matter of differing opinions — which I would welcome — but problems due to research, it's not the sort of thing that inspires confidence. 

Reading a project like this History,  it is easy, too easy, to build a critique around the presence or absence of particular names or works.   While it is heartening to find the names of the three musicians I happened to search for in such a major reference work, their presence or absence is not critical to my appreciation of the book.  Likewise, while I certainly would have chosen alternative works as exemplifying many of the composers included (e.g. where is the late Cage?), I recognize that, given the quantity and diversity of the repertoire, much of importance will have to be passed over or even omitted.  But a judgement about this can only come after reading the whole thing, and getting a feel for the flow of Taruskin's narrative(s) and argument(s) as something larger than an assembly of facts.  So, my confidence is a bit shaken, but judgement is suspended until I get through one big Winter read.


* Young, in a realistic assessment of personal finances, withdrew the work from the Fluxus catalog because the score was receiving too many performances without his participation, thus restricting his potential income from the work as a coach; later, in the 1990's Material Press (i.e. me) offered the score as a rental in connection with a contract for Young's rehearsal supervision.     

Sunday, November 22, 2009


HR staged their second Klang Biennale this weekend, with the theme "Satellit Maderna", centered around the figure of composer-conductor Bruno Maderna (1920-1973).   The major impetus for this choice of themes is a new set of five cds with all of Maderna's orchestral works, played by the hr-Symphonieorchester under Arturo Tamayo.  (The first two have already been released, the remainder should appear early in the new year.)  

WHILE it was certainly a good thing to be able to hear so much of Maderna's work, most of it very attractive — indeed with a gentleness quite distinct from his near-contemporaries — and with formidably idiomatic instrumental writing, AND especially to hear the orchestral works played by an orchestra that does them very well, AND it was also good to hear the work in contrast to major works that were contemporary to Maderna's by, a.o. Berio (Serenata), Nono (Due espressioni ), or Boulez (Le Marteau*),  AND it was good to rehear some of Maderna's electronic pieces (Dimensioni II (1959/60), using a text by Hans G. Helms and the voice of Cathy Berberian is unjustly in the shadow of Berio's Thema: Omaggio a Joyce) IT is a fundamental problem that this festival comes out of the budget line for new music.  At a certain point — and 36 years after the death of the composer, the point is surely long past — we should expect responsibility for repertoire of this age to be moved into the standard rep budget line.  The Klang Biennale did, in fact, include some actual new music, commissioned premiers by living, breathing composing folk, but the Maderna theme was a major consideration in the commissioning or selection of these works, so again, there is a real sense that the interests of music of a significant age is being used in a zero-sum game against the interests of new music.

The "Aging of the New Music" (as Adorno phrased it) has always been problematic.  There has been significant entry by 20th century music into the institutional concert repertoire, but there is a problem with music which appears to gets stuck in the phasing-in process as no longer novel, but not yet repertoire.  I'm under no illusions that all music should enter the standard repertoire — it shouldn't and that's perfectly okay — but the process of selection should be as flexible and open to surprises as possible.  The solution has got to come in not taxing the more vulnerable concerts and series for new music, but by rather finding better routes into those for traditional music. One step is clearly better documentation, more readily available (i.e. recordings, broadcasts, and online), of this music, and the other is advocacy by musicians, particularly conductors, who program the mainline series.  The fact is that music like that of Maderna is not forbiddingly obtuse in character for audiences accustomed to the trivial atonality of half a century of film music, and players, conductors especially, particularly in the pieces in which some performer choice is required, actually enjoy playing this music.  


* I want to send a special salute to the composer Dániel Péter Biró, who flew in from Victoria, B.C. (where he teaches) in order to play guitar in Le Marteau, continuing a tradition, probably begun with Cornelius Cardew, of composers who have played this part.  


Friday, November 20, 2009

Tilbury on Cardew

Just finished John Tilbury's massive* biography Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) a life unfinished and can recommend it highly, as a scholarly and — discretely — personal account of both the person and the musician.  

Cardew was very important to me, as a music student, if chiefly as the composer of Autumn '60 and the Octet '61 for Jasper Johns, two kit-like pieces in which the performer has to engage with the score in challenging ways in order to create individual parts as well as forge an ensemble from a set of notations that initially appear very open but gradually reveal themselves to be systematic and carrying many constraints when followed consequently.  (For a term paper in college, I compared Boulez's original version of ...Explosante/fixe... with the Cardew Octet '61, much to the advantage of the Cardew. I also had the pleasure of performing the piano-as-percussion-solo Memories of You several times, one of the most charming pieces of the era; my best version involved a flyswatter introduced at a strategic moment and used only once.)  Later work by Cardew, although more impressive in scale, was more interesting intellectually than musically to me — Treatise, The Great Learning — and what I knew of the Scratch Orchestra intrigued me, but I had no real feel for the project as actual music. Cardew's turn to what appeared to be rather doctrinaire and marginal party Marxism was intriguing but much less attractive and the bits of the late, mostly-tonal music I encountered ran the gamut from sweet enough (the Piano Albums or the Thaelmann Variations)  to puzzling (Mountains) to deadly dull (The Vietnam Sonata).  

(N.O. Brown and I spoke at some length about the fall-out from John Cage, with Young and Cardew representing for Brown spiritual and social/political directions, respectively;  I believe we agreed that both directions had largely failed, in the sense of moving musical or more worldly mountains, but this was still far before minimalism — for which Young was a critical catalyst — had become anything like an establishment force; who knows, with capitalism in its present state, perhaps Cardew will eventually be received as a similarly prescient force.)  

But Tilbury's book puts Cardew and his music into a context that is profoundly different from that I which had understood or imagined.  The works that were — and remain — important to me actually represented the passing or even tangential contact between the journeyman Cardew and the continental avant-garde, and Tilbury makes a very good case — albeit one that is, at times, surprisingly critical — for Cardew's unique career trajectory and, indeed, forces me to reconsider that later work and later working milieu as far closer to sense and sensibility and central concerns of the man himself than the handful of high avant-garde pieces written in his late 20s.  Perhaps more importantly, Tilbury's description of the biographical context is a valuable reminder of how distant any bit of music history can be.  For all of its detail — much of it quite intimate in nature, especially that taken from the composer's private journals and interviews with his wives — I still cannot say that I have a much of a feel for how Cardew came to be the composer he was, how he went straight from his traditional schooling as Anglican cathedral choirboy to an interest in the most modern continental-style music, or how he fit (or, at the case appears to have been, didn't fit) with the contemporary spectrum of composers in Britain.**  Knowing more about the poverty in which Cardew spent essentially his entire life***, and of his connections to Blake, Wittgenstein, Chinese classics or Mao, or to his father's William Morris-like approach to the crafts helps considerably and makes Cardew a rather more sympathetic figure, but it is still far from knowing how he really ticked.  In any case, Tilbury has succeeded in presenting more of Cardew than we had expected and yet leaving him as one of the most intriguing figures in late 20th century music.      


*How massive? More than a thousand pages.  But it's certainly the most readable 1000+ pages I've ever encountered in a sans-serif font. Book designers, please, long books need serifs! 

**Isn't it fascinating, for example, how distant Cardew, with his connections to the continental avant-garde, to experimentalism, and to improvisation, is from his near-contemporaries in the establishment-modernists-to-be of the Manchester group? 

***In discussing money matters, it would have helped to have had some more explicit hints about the historical purchasing power of the pound to really. 

Optimal means

Filmmaker Robert Bresson: "Not to use two violins when one is enough."

Mozart on his own concertos: "They hold the happy mean between the too difficult and the too easy. They are brilliant..., but they miss poverty."

This blogger-to-be, on the edge of a manuscript, 1981:  "Everyone talks about having too many notes uptown and too few notes downtown.  Isn't the real problem not that of having too many or too few rather that of having the wrong notes?"

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


One of my standard post-concert cocktail party jokes has been about someday writing a history of music based entirely on the use and development of the fermata and the caesura, bearing the name Birds' Eyes and Railroad Tracks.  But now, lo and behold, what piece of musicological obscuria should have just landed in my mailbox but a history of the accent, Orchestral Accents (1960) by one Richard Korn?  Yep, analysis and history of the use of the accents, and there are two of them: < and sf(z).  (There is, to be sure, also a brief appendix discussing the ^/v markings which are somewhat different beasts, more articulation than accent).  Notated accents, according to Korn,  begin with the vertical lines of C.P.E. Bach and the equivalent wedges of the early classicists, and their use gradually changes from a notation for emphasis of a tone other than the first in a measure (syncopations) to an expressive device of its own (peaking in Stravinsky who has entire movements with more notes carrying accents than accentless).  Korn classifies their appearances: whether they occur on the attack or carry through an entire tone, whether they use sharpness of attack, timbre or volume (or some combination of the above) to create relief within the prevailing dynamic context.  I can't speak to the currency of the text today as I am sure that there has been significant musicological work done in the field since Korn's book appeared, and one would surely like to extend the American music chapter to composers besides Gershwin and Copland, but jeez, by coming up with an account of a good stretch of music history from the point-of-view of an item or two of notation, it sure ruined a reliable old bit of post-concert repartee.  But did I ever mention my pan to write a history of the repeat signs?    

Monday, November 16, 2009

Some Working Rhythms

Repetitive stress does not necessarily imply injury.  It can be musically useful. 

From a Ghanaian post office, a worker cancels stamps, spontaneously changing the pattern to fit each envelope:

Another example from a Ghanaian post office, an ensemble:

Various styles of counting cash, far less interesting than the basic pulse of each sequence are the rhythms internal to each pulse:

(See also this: Villagers in Iseh, Karangasem, Bali, stomping rice, in interlocking patterns.) 

And this: from Robert Bresson's film Le Diable Probablement. Bresson, preferred not to use non-diegetic music in his films, but his use of sound was nevertheless extremely musical.  This example uses diegetic noises to propel, through their increasingly rhythmic character, a didactic sequence (Bresson wrote: "Image and sound must not support each other, but must work each in turn through a sort of relay.")

Sunday, November 15, 2009


The family spent a long late afternoon at the opera today with the Strauss/Hofmannsthal Frau ohne Schatten, which I had not heard since college. It's a monster of a piece, a Märchenoper (fairytale opera) in which the orchestra really gets to show off, pulling out all the stops, and the Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra under Sebastian Weigle is sounding very good these days indeed, which alone made going worthwhile. Also, listening this time was a reminder that the breadth of vocal technique required suggested that Strauss was less distant to the extended techniques of the late 20th century than one would reflexively suppose. But all that said, there was something a bit embarrassing about spending time with the piece as a work of theatre. Does anyone know of a repertoire opera that is more retrograde about the role of women? (Stockhausen's Montag comes close, but it's not repertoire.) Between its essentialist reduction of women to child-bearers (in the logic of the opera, humans require shadows, but women who cannot bear children have no shadows, thus...) and the closing choruses sung by "unborn children", I now have a small terror that Die Frau ohne Schatten is going to be taken up as a pageant piece by the religious right.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Leedy: The Leaves Be Green, again

Here's a recording of Douglas Leedy's The Leaves Be Green, for solo harpsichord, played by Margret Gries on an instrument made by Owen Daly.  The performance is a bit ponderous for my taste, but it's still great to have it available.   In case you're not familiar with Leedy's work, Brett Campbell of The Eugene Weekly recently wrote:

Oregon teems with artists of national significance who should be better known than they are but are content to maintain a low-key existence here in paradise. One is Douglas Leedy, the Portland-born composer who was right there at the inception of minimalism with his University of California classmates LaMonte Young and Terry Riley in the early 1960s. Like Riley, he also studied Indian music and went onto found the electronic music studio at UCLA and make some of the earliest major synthesizer recordings. Following the example of fellow Portland native Lou Harrison, Leedy made important contributions to the study of musical tuning and was a pioneer in the early music revival, founding one of the West’s finest ensembles, the Portland Baroque Orchestra, still going stronger than ever a quarter century on. In recent decades, he’s studied the music and culture of classical Greece, crafting compositions and tuning systems that attempt to recreate its lost arts. As composer, scholar and performer, then, Leedy has been a pioneer in the 20th century’s most salubrious musical developments — minimalism, the return of beautiful natural tunings (instead of the compromised 12-tone equal temperament that, alas, still dominates most Western music), world music, electronic music and early music. Yet this trail blazing West Coast musical figure lives quietly in Western Oregon, lacking (as far as I know) even that imprimatur of modern artistic existence, a web page or MySpace.  

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

...which reminds me of a story, which may or may not be true, which happened in the 12th, or the 13th, or the 17th century...

Heinz-Klaus Metzger once suggested that I write the "secret, underground, history of American experimental music, all in anecdotes".  

While I'm not going to be doing that anytime soon (I'm still waiting for the blackmail checks to clear), Metzger was certainly right about the format.  

Between Ives' Memos and Cage's stories and Diary entries, the anecdote has proven itself to be the form best suited to conveying the feel of musical life on the far edge, and a form more pliable to experimental recycling for new artworks than plain vanilla prose.* One quality inevitably associated with the radical music due in large part to its exclusion from big official institutional music making is that much of the experience can only be captured in the informal discourse, much of it only surviving in messages scrawled on scraps of cocktail napkins or back of envelopes, or in memory, anecdote, and story.  A lot of this information may be of questionable veracity.  Much of it may be not more than gossip or innuendo.  But, the same is certainly true of much official music history and sorting it out requires precisely the same critical skills.   

Laura Kuhn of the John Cage Trust has recently begun a website devoted to the composer.  It includes the inevitable blog, which promises to be very useful to scholarship and general interest, but even more promising, AFAIC, is a page devoted to collecting stories.  At the moment, it's basically a long list of names associated with Cage, waiting to be filled with stories attached to those names.  (The appropriateness of a form, now mostly silent, waiting to be filled in, is not lost.) It would be very useful if the page could be indexed by completed stories as well as names, and — since we're talking John Cage here — there damn well ought to be some way of gaining random access to the contents.  (This was my complaint to musicologists at the Cage conference in '88 — in discussing archival questions, not one of them was giving a thought to the question of the appropriate format for an archive devoted to the work of an anarchist devoted to chance operations.  Random access is a no-brainer.)  And as long as I'm making wishes, shouldn't it be possible to include or link to stories in the form of graphics, audio, or video files?  In any case, praise is due Ms. Kuhn, who is off on the right track. 


* This is also my complaint about composers blogging — how come so few of us have chosen to experiment with the blog as a compositional format?   Maybe it's a lost cause — the verbal experiments on this blog, most of them based on constraints of form or vocabulary — have either been unnoticed or gone down like uranium marshmallows chasing grain alcohol Manhattans — but isn't it a matter of composerly self-respect to play some games of the sort from time to time?

[Stravinsky silent movie]

Stravinsky conducting, Paris, late 1920's. Silent film.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Martian Chess

A friend mentioned that she had been teaching her daughter to play test, but that the daughter, six, was unhappy that the game had not princess.  I immediately thought of Martian Chess or Jetan (in Barsoomian), which Edgar Rice Burroughs invented for his 1922 novel The Chessmen of Mars (the complete text of which is at Project Gutenberg here).   I last read the novel in grade school, but I can still recall the symbiont Kaldanes and Rykors and Jetan, which is played by live players in the game, to the bloody end.  I also remember constructing my own ten-by-ten-square Jeton board and making a set of pieces from acorn shells.  I cannot recall the rules, save for one which happens to be musically relevant. That move belongs to the Princess, who is allowed once, and only once in a game to "escape", to any unoccupied space on the board.  What's musical about that?  I think that every composer, no matter how strictly he or she likes to work, should allow themselves the possibility of one escape in any piece of music, a sudden move or leap to anywhere, a break in continuity, an opportunity to start over from scratch.  The first example in which I encountered an explicit escape of this sort was in Cornelius Cardew's Octet '61 for Jasper Johns, the score of which includes a single arrow pointing to one-thirty with the instruction "out, away, something completely different", but once you  get the notion in your head, you start finding musical escapes everywhere, from the point of further tonal remove in a classical sonata to some shocking figures-in-clearings in Berlioz or Ives to Pauline Oliveros's sudden full-power amplified brainwave explosion in her performance of Alvin Lucier's Music for Solo Performer.   Pieces of music, like Martian Princesses or hard-working musicians, sometimes just need to get away from it all.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Minding Manners

A younger* colleague ponders the use of, and frustrations with, foreign plumbling here.  While the much-travelled Mr Muhly is certainly more enlightened about these things than the title figure in Gahan Wilson's cartoon "The Paranoid Abroad" — who finds himself confronted with alien bathing and hygene devices — I fear that the composer may have had some misconceptions about the mechanics and usage of certain water-bearing instruments and, in particular, seems to have been fed that line of baloney about the bidet which Europeans — in good fun, mind you — feed to all American naifs and to which I once myself succumbed, which would have the bidet serve as a machine for all manner of exotic and intimate ablutions. Rest assured, if you have heard such a story, your legs are being pulled en ensemble, for I have discovered, after twenty years of thorough-going fieldwork, interviews, and scholarly research, that Europeans do no such thing with their bidets.  They are used for washing socks. Let me repeat:  The bidet is used by Europeans travelers for the purpose of washing socks.  Yes, they are used for washing socks, and — and as my comrade in ex-patritude, Mr Harry Mathews, points out in his distinguished essay-cum-recipe, Country Cooking in Central France — may also be used in an emergency as a casserole, substituting for that customarily used in preparing the classic Farce Double

But what I really wanted to talk about this morning are ornaments, or, better yet, agréments, a term which (although perhaps a false etymology) conveys both the sense of agreeability  and of general agreement or consent within a community.  This is important because ornaments, or, better yet, agréments, are really a part of the social contract, alongside turning right on red, balancing peas on the back of a fork, not flying planes into building, and getting your swine flu shot. The agreement here goes to a social construction in the aesthetic sphere, distinguishing surface from structure,  figure from ground, and the desirable from the merely necessary.     

But times change and there is a constant stream, if you will, of innovations in indoor plumbing (indeed in even what plumbing is allowed indoors) as well as and in parallel to, musical style, and these innovations often play productive havoc with the conventions of the past, de facto amending the old contracts.   The very best example of this, methinks, is the use of the grace note in Webern and late Stravinsky.  These tiny notes are not — as classical tonal ornaments often are — inessential or superfluous, passing or even neighborly, as they go down deep into the bone, nay the marrow, of the music's tonal conception, having equal status at the level of the row or set with the very "principal" tones to which they are attached as graces.   They are not tonally ornamental in that classical sense, but they are also not simply tones like any others which happen to be played quickly.  Indeed, what is remarkable about them is not their rapid entry and exit from a sequence of longer tones but their attachment to other tones.  The tendency for grace notes to attach is not just a notational convenience but an acoustical feature of the style, and once one gets a feel for the crispy sound of altered octaves (sevenths and ninths)  and the occasional sweet third thrown in for relief, it is even possible to improvise in a style which would suggest that one was to this particular manner born.  In doing so, these inseparable pairs of graced and principle notes pry open a space between successive and simultaneous dyads, physically impossible, but nevertheless an illusion space of great utility and charm, utility because they, effectively, strike off a few chromatic neighbors from the on-going lists of complete chromatic aggregates, thus leaving a collection more neatly balanced between tonal and not-tonal, as well as opening — in the fashion of a barber pole — an illusion about precise registers, as two registers are almost simultaneously in play, and charming, because of the rhythmic snap and the canny effects of short-term memory which leaves the impression that these almost-octaves were, in fact, real harmonic sonorities.  Smart.  


* How long can a composer continue to be called "young" or "younger"?  I recently encountered a review of a work by "the young composer Toshio Hosokawa", who is 54.  If this is the case,  I plan to use my remaining 6 years of adolescence well and wildly and then slide immediately into senescence, skipping adulthood altogether.  

Friday, November 06, 2009

Prosaic is more than Academic

This is a fascinating confluence of activity:  The composers James Saunders and John Lely have begun a major project about prose scores (here) and Phil Ford of the Dial M for Musicology has been using text based exercises in his teaching and there's some interesting discussion about this at the blog (here) . Also, Frog Peak Music has recently placed Christian Wolff's very influential Prose Collection online (here) and, of course, there is Upload...Download...Perform, which is just chock full of textual/musical excitement (here).

Such text-based exercises or pieces or scores were central to the teaching (in music and extra-departmentally)  of the extraordinary pianist and theorist Jon Barlow at my grad school, Wesleyan, with immediate connections to Cage, Wolff, Oliveros, Lucier, Young, Fluxus, but also to Barlow's other interests, which ran to Euclid, C.S. Pierce, Wittgenstein, Ives,  Baseball, Blake, Faulkner, Joyce, and Stein.  Barlow's student, Kenneth Maue,  investigated the genre in the early 1970's and while Maue's work clearly began in an avant-garde or experimental musical context, it rapidly entered into pedagogical and therapeutic terrain. Indeed, the compositions/piece/exercises in Maue's book Water in the Lake (1979) were probably more widely used in the classroom, in group training for business, and in personal training of a more therapeutic nature.  

It is increasingly fascinating to me how superficially similar text scores can be, but how different their intentions and results may be.  Stockhausen's two collections of text scores are wildly different from Pauline Olivero's Sonic Meditations, while the more conceptual line — from Young and Cage through many of the Upload/Downloaders seems to address more absolutely musical issues than the social processes featured in scores by other composers.  

I have tended to reserved the prose score as an efficient format for broader conceptual work, often as a kind of generalized sketch for a work which might receive more conventionally-notated specific realizations but I've recently been returning to the form for some very specific pieces that could not really have been notated otherwise, and several of my older prose score have had some very good performances, which is very encouraging.     

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Structure & Sadness

Take a moment to remember Claude Lévi-Strauss, a social scientist who took music seriously, indeed as a model for the discernment of structure in cultural artifacts that do not speak for themselves.  In turn, the work of Lévi-Strauss was important to many composers, for example Luciano Berio, who used texts from the anthropologist's The Raw and the Cooked in his Sinfonia. I'm not well enoughed informed about the present statis of Lévi-Strauss's as a theorist within the disciplines of Anthropology and Ethnography (this post at Savage Minds is one place to start looking), but his writing retains its strange beauty, whether in the reflective travel book Tristes Tropiques (which begins with the sentence "I hate traveling and explorers") or in the four volumes of Mythologiques

Cut the Chatter!

Pliable, ever on the money, proposes, in response to BBC Radio Scotland's annual "no music day", a day of music programming without any talk by the classical DJ's.  Such a "no presenters day" is an appropriate answer to the downward spiral of replacing more and more music with mediating speech and, eventually, eliminating music altogether.  This has been tragic in the case of classical and new music programming at some of the Pacifica stations in the US (I well realize that there are other causes as well, in a mad scramble among interest groups for limited air time, but the tendency in all areas is that talk trumps tunes)  and the increased tendency of management to insist upon music programming packaged in talk is very much at work in Europe as well.  There is a place for some smart talk about music on air — and there is such a tradition in the major European broadcasters (i.e. it wasn't unusual to hear an Adorno or a Barraque introduce a piece; as a kid, I was lucky enough to have heard William Malloch on KPFK doing the same)  — but when the sum of airtime for music is constantly under pressure to reduce, then the smart talk (which has tended towards glib talk) comes at the cost of the music itself.

Unfortunately, I have very little faith that such an day without chatter will be allowed to take place.  The people who talk on air have simply more institutional influence than those who just make music.  I remember that back in the 1970's, in response to criticism about inane so-called color commentary, one of the American networks tried the experiment of broadcasting a football game with only a neutral play-by-play and a few stats.  It was great.  However, directly after the broadcast, there was a discussion round with three color-commentators, who, like Foxes in a Hen House, decided for us on the spot that the absence of comments "didn't work". 


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Not a Zero-Sum Game

Back in grade school, before any of us really had any idea about how baseball or football really worked, many of us could manage to sum up firm opinions about this player or that or one team or another, and make authoritative rankings among them.  These opinions were often based on nothing more than a few words overheard from adults, or a memorable name (Drysdale and Coufax were THE sporting names of my earliest childhood), or even just a favorite mascot or color combination.  Not yet the stuff of a convincing argument.  

There are probably no better BS artists than 5th graders arguing about sports, but sometimes I think professional music critics come awful close and particularly so when they fall into the trap of  reducing their criticism to crude comparison ("x's performance of n was better than y's")  rather than doing the heavy labor of actually saying something concrete about particular performances.  (Here's a recent example, reviewing Loren Maazel guest-conducting the Boston Symph. on a roadshow appearance in New York while Boston's MD James Levine is out of commission.)  

Now, comparison can be interesting, particularly when one is able to say something specific about the work in question and articulate how varying performances bring out — or miss, as the case may be — particular qualities or features in the work.  And comparison can be practical, useful, as when recommending one recording of a given work from among many available.  But when it is reduced to schoolyard BS-ing about a concert which is not to be repeated, what's the point, exactly? 

One quality of music — and sometimes I think that it's precisely this quality which recommends music to the angels to practice — is that different performances of the same work can vary to the point of contradicting one another and still achieve superb musical experiences.  When we're talking about live performances and not comparing recorded commodities, it's not a zero sum game in which the excellence of one version cancels out others, indeed even when one may strongly prefer one performance over another (i.e. does anyone seriously disagree about Carlos Kleiber's Fifth and Seventh?)  the experience of those performances is always going to be made better, more richer, by alternative perspectives. 

Local and Universal

I believe that it's safe to say the reputation of J.S. Bach went into the celebratory year of 1985 as that of the universal genius and came out more that of a brilliant but very much local hero, parochial not universal.   A wider exposure to the complete catalog of Bach's work placed the canonical works of abstract and speculative brilliance in the unfamiliar perspective of being set alongside the huge quantitative bias in the BWV catalog towards functional liturgical works, almost all of them examples of extreme craftsmanship and taste, but all of them firmly anchored in a style and body of technique that was completely anchored in its particular time and place.   

Similarly, we have seen recent performance practice and scholarship — in particular, Taruskin's two volumes —  restore to Igor Stravinsky's reputation much of the Russian identity, or even, more particularly, a St. Peterburg identity, that had been very much displaced — by the composer himself, foremost, but by international critical and popular acclaim as well — by the image of Stravinsky as a central figure in an international modernism, for whom such local identification was a distraction, initially perhaps out of biographical necessity but ultimately from aesthetic choice.


In the 1950's , there was a moment in much of Western Europe, North American, and to some extent in Japan in which similar musical concerns, shared application of a body of techniques suggested, for many, the outlines of a common international style and — for some time well beyond this moment — these techniques and their associated stylistic turns, appeared to be more important than any local features.   There were, to be certain, many attractive qualities to this moment, among which was a literally Utopian sense that music could be successfully transplanted anywhere and address matters of universal relevance and importance.  This was often accompanied by an appeal to the border-free practices of mathematics or the natural sciences (or, failing that, at least, in the use of language suggesting the sciences)  in describing and endorsing new musical practices.  In Europe, in particular, the notion of a music unconstrained by traditional geographical-political borders shared the odd mixture of optimism and balancing of influences with which the new, post-World War II, cross-border political and economic institutions were formed.

Now, a half century later, it is always astonishing, when listening to the famous exemplars of this repertoire, how limited or even trivial the shared features appear to be when compared with the local and individual elements.  The nationalities of the composers of Il Canto Sospeso, Le marteau sans maître,  Kontra-Punkte, or Music of Changes do not survive "drop the needle" listening tests anymore as secrets.   And it is clear that the figure and music of John Cage, for example, was very much instrumentalized through its placement into foreign musical-political dialectics into which Cage himself did not choose to enter.  What is lost or gained by this change?

It is possible that these years were particularly naive.  Certainly, the styles which later achieved some international status — texturalism, minimal music,  spectralism, the new complexity — did so without much real confusion about their local origins.  Even when composers and musical styles were (or are) better received outside of their home ports, there is little doubt about these origins.  Although music is portable in ways that works of literature are not, we'd probably have to dig back to Lully to find a composer who has as successfully buried his or her tracks in the fashion of a Joseph Conrad or B. Traven and become productive in an adopted musical idiom.


Not being able to work as composer in the place I came from — due mostly to some biographical caprice, but also the practical problems of being an American composer — and respond more directly to a musical and wider community is an unhappy circumstance for me.   I have an ideal image of the good citizen-musician in my head, in dialogue with a community, but that's a role I cannot play here.  Instead, my work gets framed as something of a novelty act, the token Californian on a program here or the token ex-pat on a program there.  My failure, as a composer, to find a way to work productively from this displacement,  probably ought to be an even more pressing concern.  It would probably be easy enough to change my work, to either make a better Imitat of the local avant-garde style, so as to better integrate into the scene, or to try a more entertaining style, as the market for wandering Musikanten always has some room, so long as you cultivate that special sense of knowing when not to wear out your welcome.   

As a grad student, the great alternative to an academic career for an aspiring experimental composer was a move to New York, but I never had much affinity for the city, and it's a place with such a high density of composers relative to population and performance opportunities that, ultimately, most composers are forced into very narrow specialization in order to etch out a style — a trade mark, if you will — that can stand out from the crowd.  At that time I was neither ready nor interested in such a specialization, and I've probably still not gotten there.   Later, during a curious five years spent as a trailing spouse in Hungary, I had plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the local market conditions to buy myself any performance or recording of my own work I would have wanted, but, absent any honest connection to any possible audience for such commissions, it would have essentially been vanity publication, and vain as I am, I'm not quite ready for that.  (If you ARE into that, there's an entire industry based on hooking up soloists, conductors, and composers with middle and eastern European orchestras on a pay-for-play basis.)

To some extent, web-based communication has lessened these anxieties.  I'm more up to date about goings-on at home and, maybe, the folks back home are more aware of what I'm up to. Then there are the new networks of friends and colleagues that spring up, sometimes spontaneously and temporarily, sometimes cultivated over longer periods of time.  But this is still no substitute: it is a fundamentally different experience not to be composing with a 10,000 foot mountain in the background and the noise of an U-Bahn car makes an altogether different acoustical background than that of the San Bernadino Freeway.   Southern Californian English has a different tempo, rhythm and tune than Frankfurter German.   The desert air at sunrise demands a different music from that rising from the waters of the river Main.  This is the background against and with which I necessarily compose, even if it is now more memory than physical presence.   


Monday, November 02, 2009

More from the Dept. of Windmill Tilt

The director/actionist Christoph Schliengensief is planning to build a "Festpielhaus for Africa". More here (in German).

Schliengensief is someone I have found to be at his best as a talk show guest on late-night TV: as a passionate social critic and, originally, something of an outsider to the professional arts world, he has always been, at the least, articulate and entertaining, and makes an unfailingly sympathetic figure. His projects as a film and stage director, however,  inevitably appeared to drift off if not collapse altogether, and rarely in an interesting way.  Beginning as a school kid and devoted altar boy making homemade horror films and staging events in his parent's cellar, he rapidly came to some notoriety and was — and it must have been inevitable — ultimately caught, or, as the Situationists would have it, recuperated, by the Regietheatre industry in which the director's ego trumps all else, but, as his ideas have tended more to the naive than provocative, the results have been disappointing, spectacle but not spectacular.  It is probably the case that Schliegensief's particular skill set is best suited for more explicitly political actions, with the best example probably his organization in 2000 of a "Big Brother"-style container in the middle of Vienna filled with asylum-seekers, who were, one-at-a-time, voted out of Austria by callers-in, the whole staged to protest the entry of Jörg Haider's xoenophobic FPÖ into a federal coalition government.  

By all accounts, however, he is very easy to work with and he has been able to accommodate himself to the bureaucracies of some of the most complex theatrical institutions in Germany, including Bayreuth, where his Parsifal staging has come and gone with little ado.  This rather unique combination of public avant-gardist and efficient stage manager has made a Schiengensief production something of a safe choice for any theatre wishing to do their obligatory experimental production.

Schliengsief's new project does appear to have a new seriousness about it.  This is in part due to a new seriousness to Schliengensief himself, who has lung cancer and appears to be in rough shape. But the project is a problematic one and the way in which the director has wrapped it into his own autobigraphy does not make it easier to evaluate.  His plan is not to build a theatre that Africans are demanding, let alone need, but rather to build something that he, Fitzcarraldo-like, as an artist, will have built for Africa.  The blanket identity of "Africa" in this context is also problematic: it is not clear where precisely it should be built, although Schliengensief appears to have some preference for Burkina Faso, and it is unclear why and how this Festspielhaus and accompanying village should be received by or represent Africa as a whole and the question of what art, precisely, should be performed in the house when finished, is an open one, aside from a few remarks by the director that local forms should be presented alongside European imports.

On the other hand, when one considers this project in terms of costs and potential benefits, the costs appear to be modest enough that one is sorely tempted to suspend criticism and just say "why not build the damn thing and see what happens?"  Schliengensief has been careful to make sure that funding for the construction does not compete with funding for conventional aid projects, and the costs of construction in Burkina Faso, for example, with local, environmentally friendly, materials are extremely modest.    



Friday, October 30, 2009

Seasonal item

If you had to choose a Hallowe'en costume of a famous composer, who'd it be?  I'm about 16 inches too tall to pass for Richard Wagner and, as cool as his sideburns were, he had that weird under-the-chin beard going on.  Rossini, especially as he reached my age, is a more attractive idea, between the pajamas, the tournedos and, presumably, some other conspicuous signs of a sinful old age.  A choice more consistent with this particular holiday might be Gesualdo, sword and gun in hand (for more colorful and ghoulish parties, however, Gesualdo's cuckolding victim, the Duke of Andria, might make a more exciting apparation, bloodied and wearing Donna Maria Gesualdo's  dress.)  Or how about going soaking wet, as Robert Schumann, freshly fished out of the Rhein?  Or all in black velvet, as Erik Satie?   Perhaps because their images are still so fresh, contemporary composers don't appear to provide many more attractive alternatives, with Cage's denim uniform, fungi basket in hand, or a Brook's Brother-suited RCA synthesizer-operating Babbitt seeming harmless at best.  But perhaps, in the right jack'o'lantern light, encountering a Morton Feldman imposter or La Monte Young double might just cause a fright. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Metzger, again

Too little of Heinz-Klaus Metzger's writings or interviews have been translated into English; even — or especially — when you disagree with him, he can be a pleasure to read. Here's a taste  (my hasty translation) of an interview from 2002:

"History has really shown that the emancipation of the dissonance was easier than that of women or of gays, let alone the proletariat.  It really happened easily.  Thus, it's no great wonder that certain revolutionary steps, in areas where they are easier to realize, get realized and even done well.  Somewhere in his Aesthetic Theory, Adorno notes, entirely as an aside, that even the most ingenious architectural plan must necessarily be left behind by a simple musical composition, because, by nature, it is already limited by practical concerns that a musical composition must not face.  In architecture, new structures should be built so that they do not collapse.  In music, it can be good it they collapse."

From another interview in the same year:

"Indeed, the power of music to change the world appears to be far less than the power of the world to change music.   That is the shocking recognition.  The Viennese atonal revolution achieved the end of the tonal hierarchy through the atonal idiom, as this was based not only on the equality of the tones, but rather also on the equality of all conceivable relationships among them. Thus, the superstructure for a real, long overdue revolution was taken away and remains in society, to date, absent.  For this reason the New Music still has no social basis and remains hanging in air."

"... that damned bourgeois age.  Actually, one should have been able to go directly from Marenzio and Gesualdo into atonality.  And then three hundred years of bourgeois  society and culture would have had no musical superstructure.  Mind you: One would have had the trans-bourgeois freedom and equality directly from the madrigalists — and therein, one must always consider Adorno's definition:  Equality would be the condition in which one may be different without fear." 

Heinz-Klaus Metzger

The critic/theorist/philosopher/musician Heinz-Klaus Metzger has died at the age of 77. Metzger trained to be a private piano teacher, then studied composition in Paris with Max Deutsch, a student of Schoenberg. Metzger's earliest allegiances were to the Schoenberg school and his theoretical bent brought him into early contact with Adorno.  The relationship to Adorno's work — more as sparring partner than as student (a collection of their correspondence is in preparation) — was far from simple and Metzger's article The Aging of the Philosophy of New Music (1957) — the title plays on the titles of an essay and a book by Adorno — was an important document of the Darmstadt moment, defining a critical break with prior musical practice that Adorno was never really able to comprehend.  

Metzger was one of the first public advocates for the work of Stockhausen, but also the first who would make a public break with the composer.   The disappointment with Stockhausen's development was largely replaced with Metzger's enthusiasm for the work of John Cage, whose work and ideas he promoted throughout years in which Cage and his music was otherwise unplayed in Germany.  Metzger founded, with his partner, the composer and conductor Rainer Riehn, the Ensemble Music Negativa, a loose grouping which played and recorded works by Cage and other American composers, including Feldman, Brown and Wolff.   In the late 1980's, the conductor Gary Bertini invited Metzger and Riehn to serve as dramaturgs at the Frankfurt Opera, and the two probably made a more significant musical and intellectual impact upon the house than Bertini himself, with their commission and production of Cage's Europeras 1 & 2 a landmark event. 

Metzger and Riehn also edited together, from 1977-2003, more than one hundred volumes in the series Musik-Konzepte, which was founded as a "polemic (Kampfschrift) against the prevailing absence of criteria."  This "series about composers" was, under their editorship, a unique instance of critical theory and solid musicology combined and, with a range in subjects from Perotin and Monteverdi through Cage, Nono and Lachenmann, also including some of the first serious scholarship and criticism about (then) less-well-known composers including Morton Feldman, Giacinto Scelsi, Hans Rott, and the Skryabinistes, and even included two important volumes on performance practice in Beethoven by Rudolph Kolisch.  

Metzger's own writings over the years (the most important are collected in a Suhrkamp volume Music wozu), were never prolific, declined in frequency in the later years, but he was always insightful.  About the Europeras, for example, which have truly beautiful orchestral music,  he cut to the chase with the observation that  he had always been told that there had been a diatonic and then a chromatic music, but that the instrumental parts — which were extracted from the instrumental parts to standard repertoire operas, many of them representing only inner voices and accompaniments — had made transparent how much of western classical music was composed of five, four, or fewer tones.

In the US, as a student, I had heard some vague stories about Metzger, some of them concerning his years in Cologne, where he, as an extended house guest (along with pianist David Tudor) of the artist Mary Bauermeister, was known to commandeer the bathtub on every Monday morning for long enough to read Der Spiegel from cover to cover, or at Darmstadt, where he provided virtuoso and edgy translation services in English, French, and Italian (Metzger was also a serious reader and collector of old Yiddish literature).   I had also heard some wild stories about Metzger's years with the composer Sylvano Bussotti and about his unique relationship to cash (he didn't touch it).  But it was Metzger's essay on Music in an Entertained Society that really impressed me, a coherent argument for quality in music and against its value-free commodification.

John Cage introduced me to Metzger in Darmstadt in 1990 and, though I never knew him very well, always enjoyed his slow-burning wit,  linguistic virtuosity and his mix of brilliance and eccentricity.  I was very happy to introduce him to the work of some of the American "new" musicologists and was honored that he asked me for a small essay for a Musik-Konzepte volume on the theme of progress.  But my favorite memory of Metzger was of a post-concert reception, in which we talked — both of use carefully avoiding the topic of the concert itself, which had not gone well — for a good hour about the decline in free reception food and what that said about western civilization.  


Forcefields and Constellations

What music does a composer respond to?  What music does a composer have to be responsible to? Is there repertoire of such importance that response in inescapable?  With so much repertoire available that an overview is increasingly impossible, why can't a composer just pick and choose arbitrarily among influences?  Or forget influence altogether and begin from scratch, from first principles, tabula rasa, with blissful disregard for the past?

Ron Silliman has an interesting post (here) about poets and influence and a "center of modernism" that seems, at first, to have a curiously strident historical determinism about it in its critique of a poet colleague's idiosyncratic version of history, but he saves his argument with the same turn that saves Adorno from only being the advocate for a particular and parochial program of German modernist musical hegemony and makes it possible to use Adorno's methods in fresh contexts, wholly unimaginable to Adorno himself*.   This turn is described by Silliman as a dynamic, but it seems to me to necessarily imply Adorno's notions of a forcefield and a constellation.  Any instance in any local music (or poetic) culture is necessarily located in a field of influences, and the attractions and repulsions that an individual working in this moment will have are in a dynamic relationship to this field.   On the other hand,  real work created in this field will appear as more or less fixed constellations of influences and connections and these concrete examples — which will have personal/individual and sometimes even arbitrary qualities — necessarily become terms by which subsequent worked is defined.**

I can't resist Silliman's money line: The polished poetics of Marianne Moore, as hard-edged as any Jeff Koons rabbit, seems to me the very denial of this dynamic.  But this is also where I disagree with him; a Moore or a Koons is a perfectly adequate term for defining the dynamic, even through negation, if that's all we want to do.  Isn't the bigger problem, however, with a Moore poem or a Koons rabbit, that, aside from being uninteresting, they are just not very good?   


* It is always so shocking, for example, to read how blocked Adorno was about the important pull that French music — Berlioz, Debussy, for starts — played on German music. On the other hand, some forcefields can be surprisingly weak due to the taste and will of individuals: Couperin and Rameau lived within walking distance of one another for 11 years and appear to have never met.

**This strikes me as the real rough spot in dialectical accounts of  history:  as terms in your dialectic, you are stuck with history as it really happened, and the individuals, events and artifacts that really exist are inevitably far from ideal terms.  Ezra Pound was far from an ideal figure around whom modernist poety might be centered, but there he was.  Czarist Russia was far from an ideal place in which to launch a socialist revolution, but there it was.    

Monday, October 19, 2009

Layer Analysis

This is the season which is marked, in this part of Germany by the Zwiebelkuchen and, across the border in Alsace and Lorraine, by the quiche, and a very good season it is. For better or worse — mostly better, but let's face it, fingers have been cut and tears have been shed — the onion, Allium sepa, the lowly, bulbed, garden onion, the center of both these closely-related savory pastries, is the center of European cooking, indeed, virtually all of the world's cuisines. Sure, wheat and rye and milk, butter, and cheese and olive oil and salted cod and all manner of things that rise, rot, ripen, cure or ferment or take astonishing form or flavor when smoked, fried, baked, grilled, or boiled are each and all important. The truffle and the saffron thread, capiscum, ginger root, and the cardamom pod are miracles. But the onion provides a uniquely useful bulk and range of flavors upon which good things become better. What would Hungarian cooking, for example, be, without the countless recipes which begin: "fry a kilo of onions in lard"?

The onion is an object deserving some serious contemplation and reflection. As you peel, and slice, and dice, accidentally or purposefully allowing cell walls to open, breaking down amino acid sulphoxides and converting them into sulphenic acids, may your tears accompany the pleasure of exploring a structure of astonishing consistancy and integrity. We may joke, with ethnological wisdom, of a universe composed of elephants "all the way down", but onions really are all the way down, shoots composed of multiple, self-similar layers. I find that the appeal of this structure is less cosmological than aesthetic, and musically aesthetic in particular: works of musical depth reveal themselves to extend in time — much as each layer of the onion extends the bulk of the shoot — via rather elementary processes. This is true of form in Javanese music with the irama system uniquely relating tempo to density, or the prolongation and diminution techniques of early music or the classical tonality described by Schenker (or Stockhausen's formulas, as long as we're at it), and it's true of the self-similar structures ranging from Cage's square root form to numerous works by Tom Johnson.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


For some time, the series of landmarks I've been compiling for this blog (see the list of links in the sidebar) has been hung up over a single piece, Luigi Nono's 1980 string quartet, Fragmente-Stille, An Diotima.  As a marker for the European post-War avant-garde's final turn away from a dertain ideological and technical rigidity, it clearly has some importance and there are features in the music — the exploration of the lower threshold of audibility, the glacial tempi, Nono's use of a scale of fermati, the fragmentary continuity, and the incorporation of poetic-philosophical texts (by Hölderlin) into the score, as messages to the players —  which are extremely attractive.  However, I am not able to hold back a persistent sense of doubt about the piece as a whole.  Some of this doubt is because these features are romantic in character, a spirit not quite my own, and more of this doubt is of a technical nature, as the facile application of the slow and the low and the use of the arbitrary and fragmentary to suggest something of cryptic significance can lead to an impression of a profundity, when none is really there.  At times, Nono's score has had me convinced, but at other auditions,  more aware of my gullibility, doubt exceeds any conviction.  

A difficult position to have with regard to a work by a composer whose music was so intimately tied to (one or another form of) belief.   

Friday, October 09, 2009

Our ephemeral canon

One of the best-kept professional secrets among classical musicians is the wild state of affairs that persists in sheet music for even the most standard repertoire.  While meticulously researched editions of scores are readily available and new editions, based on alternative souces and editing principles, appear with some regularity, very often the sets of parts that an orchestra will have on their stands — whether an orchestra owns or borrows a set and which particular set they own or borrow often depends upon some delicate practical and financial considerations —  belong to older editions, at variance with the chosen score, and many sets of parts can only be brought into reasonable concordance with the conductor's preferred score through considerable amendation by the conductor, orchestral librarian and/or section leaders.  For this reason, orchestras with their own libraries work hard to conserve such edited sets and many of the best conductors make a point of owning their own sets of parts, hand-edited to their satisfaction. While, on the one hand, this makes for a certain amount of lively variety in at least the details of the repertoire, on the other hand, this leads to some fairly substantial existential uncertainties about much of the music.  I've heard, for example, that the set of parts of the Mahler First most often owned by orchestras — which is a cheap reprint of an edition with a lapsed copyright — has on the order of eight to nine hundred non-controversial errors which have to be corrected by hand before one has a set of parts that can reasonably be expected to function together.  While Mahler, who was liberal in the extreme with the quantity of his marking, may be an extreme case, the indeterminancy here should at least give some philosophical pause when one wants to point at The Mahler First, because, amid the variations in Mahler's own manuscripts and parts, amid the various scores and sets of parts, and then amid all of the interpretive and accidental variations that enter into real performances, there is scarcely anything to hold on to.  All that is solid melts into air, and all that...  

Thursday, October 08, 2009

It's not the tune, it's the telling

This afternoon, I was sitting on a bench outside the stage entrance to the Frankfurt opera, waiting for my daughter to finish her rehearsal with the childrens' choir. It was about an hour before the evening's performance was to begin, so there was quite a bustle of musicians and singers and technicians and supernumeries coming into and going out of the house, in addition to the street noises behind me. Accompanying all of this was a low lyrical brass line that came out of a rehearsal room window, a cimbasso, in fact, the valved contrabass for the trombone section required for a lot of Italian opera repertoire. (If you haven't ever encountered a cimbasso in the flesh brass, suffice to say that it looks like something that Dr Seuss could've built, and sounds much lighter and agile, if somewhat thin, in the low bass register than a tuba or a low slide trombone.) The actual music that the cimbassist was playing during his warm-up was negligible, forgettable, just bits and pieces of warm-up tunes from opera accompaniments, but as an more-or--less continuous accompaniment to the unpredictable and transient sounds of all that activity around me, it was absolutely marvelous.


Ron Silliman has a great post (here) on reading Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day.   He zeroes in on Pynchon's ability, as a storyteller, to weave so many strands and elements and characters together into a book which is more about that experience than about carrying a single plot forward.  Indeed, the most breathtaking aspect of ATD (like V and Gravity's Rainbow before it) is Pynchon's ability to let disparate threads resonate together at the level of theme and tone rather than the immediate connections formed by conventional narratives.  (Even in Mason & Dixon, in which Pynchon has a relatively conventional plot line to follow, the deeper coherence of the novel is not the tender story of the friendship and adventures of the two title characters, but much darker themes which Pynchon almost never allows to be explicitly articulated, making the book a curious experience of simultaneous good cheer and profound melancholy.)  

One of the real wonders to me, though, is that Pynchon's work remains in such a special class of work.  When one considers that it has been more than two hundred years since Tristram Shandy, in which Sterne definitively elevated storytelling above the mere act of telling a story, to the point of almost obviating the plot altogether, it is somewhat disappointing.


I think that it was Hector Berlioz who definitively pushed music into this direction.   His idea of intermittent sounds remains astonishingly radical.  In the Symphonie fantastique, they punctuate the big tune at unpredictable, almost random intervals, yet their presence is essential. Indeed, when one thinks about it, the tune is just another tune, with very little special about it, but those accidental bits of accentuation and interruption make the tune into something auspicious.  Or in the Scène d'amour from Roméo et Juliette, in which the composer's heterodox harmonic practice renders the tonally banal into something very special: another melody, with nothing special at all about it, becomes one of the most effective and affective tunes in the repertoire, in that, in its initial appearance, it is harmonized wrong, an A major tune harmonized in c# minor; indeed, it is presented so strangely that the eventual presentation in the "correct" tonality cannot be heard as ordinary.  Like a good storyteller, Berlioz makes a tale told a million times interesting by the way he tells it.  



Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Holding back the snark

In the midst of the word he was trying to say
In the midst of his laughter and glee
He had softly and suddenly vanished away
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

I've begun a baker's dozen worth of blog postings in the past week, and abandoned all of them for their tone.  Readers of music blogs have plenty of places elsewhere to turn for daily doses of detritus, snark, surliness, or lamentations of worldly wrongs, so any of that on my part would have been superfluous. So, instead, here are a few items that have brought cheer around here:

(1) Debussy's meme. Here are the questions — in their original English — from a young girl which a 27-year-old Debussy answered; consider it a new internet meme:

Your favorite virtue.
Your favorite qualities in man.
Your favorite qualities in woman.
Your favorite occupation.
Your chief characteristic.
Your idea of happiness.
Your idea of misery.
Your favorite color and flower.
If not yourself, what would you be?
Where would you like to live?
Your favorite prose authors.
Your favorite poets.
Your favorite painters and composers.
Your favorite heroes in real life.
Your favorite heroines in real life.
Your favorite heroes in fiction.
Your favorite heroines in fiction.
Your favorite food and drink.
Your favorite names.
Your pet aversion.
What characters in history do you most dislike.
What is your present state of mind?
For what fault have you most toleration?
Your favorite motto.

(2) Here are excerpts from two favorite piano pieces, premiered on the same evening almost twenty years ago, sharing some surface features but moving into wonderfully diverse directions. Hauke Harder's 76 BPM, and my Planxty:

(3) Here's W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty in the 1933 film of Alice in Wonderland, one of the strangest bits of film ever made:


Thursday, October 01, 2009

Robert Irwin

The work of artist Robert Irwin is essential; I find that the way he talks about his work is essential, too: a model of radical clarity. 

Monday, September 28, 2009


An old friend recently pointed out this title clip from the 1967 film of Casino Royale, with a dare that I couldn't blog about it.  The movie is notorious as an incoherent mess, due to a production gone wrong in just about every way a film can, proving that the more large ego-ed filmmakers and stars you can gather together the worse the outcome will be.  It ought to be unwatchable for too many reasons to count, but somehow, almost every awful bit manages to contain some spark that keeps you glued and — the neural receptors for pleasure and pain being as proximate as they are — willing to endure more.   

With the major exception of Alan Price's score to Anderson's O Lucky Man!, I actively dislike pop music soundtracks*, but Burt Bacharach's score here is not one of the film's problems, and although the score (much of it played by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass) was very much part of the commercial music of the era, it has so many features that are untypical of mid-60's pop music that it ultimately has to be put into a category of its own.  First of all, it provides precisely the continuity that the movie's producers threw out when the last traces of the source novel were ultimately abandoned to the horde of actors, directors, and screenwriters who assembled this dog's breakfast.  If, however, with the passage of time, we can look — and listen — again to this film, not as a work of mainstream narrative, but as an effort — if only in part intentional — in '60s-pop-tinged avant-garde filmmaking, then the strengths of the score become even clearer.  

I will even venture that the block-like construction of the opening credits above reveals Bacharach standing in an authentic lineage, via his teacher Milhaud, back to Milhaud's mentor, Satie, and Satie's score for the ballet Parade, and the film insert Entr'acte, in particular.  While there are details of Bacharach's harmonic practice — modal progessions, chords with "added tones" — that immediately make a Satie-via-Milhaud connection, and the negotiation of all three composers with popular genres is obvious, the important shared features here are really formal, with the deployment, almost at random, of a limit set of blocks of distinct material without development in terms of tonality, figuration, or texture.  Where Bacharach here innovates is in the sound production, in which the various blocks are assigned distinctive dynamic profiles and discrete positions in the stereo field, an innovation in projecting the block structure which I find entirely within the spirit of the Satie-Milhaud tradition. 


* For that matter, I'm skeptical about the whole notion of a musical soundtrack for film; Robert Bresson's rejection of non-diegetic music almost convinces me, but I can't be that strict and serious: as long as we grant films license to suspend disbelief, there will be a place for music in film.