A displaced Californian composer writes about music made for the long while & the world around that music. ~ The avant-garde is flexibility of mind. — John Cage ~ ...composition is only a very small thing, taken as a part of music as a whole, and it really shouldn't be separated from music making in general. — Douglas Leedy ~ My God, what has sound got to do with music! — Charles Ives
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Harvest Home Chorale
He planted a umbrella misplaced and forgotten behind Erik Satie's piano. He planted Salome's last veil. He planted a siren used at the premiere of Ameriques and an airplane engine from the Symphonie Mechanique. He planted an echo of the riot that greeted Le Sacre, four minutes and thirty-three seconds of tacet playing, and the coughs Richard Maxfield borrowed from a Christian Wolff concert. He — very gently, mind you — planted a leather whip required for Millicent Cabbage's Donnamatrix for orchestra. He planted Schoenberg's hand-painted playing cards. He planted the last remaining Farfisa organs used for Four Organs (or were they used for Another Look at Harmony?) as well as a Moog, a Buchla, an Ondes Martinot and the KGB file of Lev Theremin. He planted the burning red end of Feldman's cigarette and a mustard smothered turnip left half-eaten by La Monte Young. He planted a ruler used by Boulanger to slap the wrists of errant contrapuntalists. He then scattered handfuls of scews, bolts, coins, erasers and weather stripping salvaged from years of piano preparation across the fields he had so carefully plowed into 12-by-12 rows.
When he was done, Alois took off his boots, sat down in the shade of of the dogwood tree just back of the well to wonder, lazily in the late afternoon sun, if the next harvest would be as rich as the last.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Thought of the day
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
That Vision Thing
Christopher Fox on the uncomfortable aging of (the Schoenberg-initiated) new music here. Some responses to Fox are here.
(Elsewhere is a peculiar response from composer David Salvage, voluntarily outing himself as a mainstream modernist, to Kyle Gann's — also peculiar, for better or worse — notion of an "absolute presentism" (which, all to Gann's credit is introduced as a rather tentative term in an talk about "The Trouble with Serialism" (here.))
My own response to all of this is
(a) with Schoenberg, as well as with any number of innovative composers, the roadblock for listeners is usually described in technical terms when, actually, the roadblock is style; Schoenberg's tonal practice is not the problem, it's his heightened expressionism that alienates audiences (although, when placed in a suitable context, for example suspense or horror films, even seriously watered-down pseudo- or ersatz-Schoenberg becomes unproblematic) ;
(b) that the really valuable new music (as well as the older music worth renewing our acquaintance) is an optimistic assertion that we can change the way we listen (and, consequently, the way we live, alone or together); the conservative/mainstream/institutionalised school of musical quietude, on the other hand, is ultimately pessimistic, doubting if not denying the possibility that our ears (and, consequently, our persons as individuals or groups) can change.
elsewhere: there is something rather disappointing about the state of the discussion of the aging new music when access to day jobs as College or University teachers has become such a central concern. The discussion elsewhere is between someone comfortably tenured, but still complaining about it, and someone who seems to want nothing other than to become comfortably tenured himself. That's the "mad scramble for crumbs" (Morton Feldman), that's not music.)
Jeez, am I relieved that everything went well enough yesterday. I'm just paranoid enough that worry about these things never exactly subsides (pace Gravity's Rainbow, Proverbs for Paranoids 3. If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.) My expectations for a new administration are limited, and I'm sure that there will be ample disappointment ahead, but if the US is to be governed at all, it is good to have the US be governed by grownups for a change. All of which provides a nice push to sitting down and getting more work done. I'm even looking forward to a trip to California next week, the land that's always been absolutely present, whatever that means...
Erik Satie: Pièces Froides (1897), piano solo.
Cold Pieces: three songs (without words) and three dances (without steps). Familar textures are reduced to minima. In the three Airs à faire fuir (Airs that chase away) a right hand melody hangs over an elemental accompaniment of bass notes alternating with middle register chords. The three Danses de travers (Crossed-up dances) are each made of ascending, open fifth-at-the-bottom arpeggios with only a bare suggestion of a melody emerging from the top notes of the accompaniment. Although notated without barlines, songs and dances alike are in unrelenting and dispassionate, indeed cold, four-quarters measures.
But, as usual with Satie, things are not as simple as they first sound. The regularity and familiarity described above are essentially framing elements, a dull construction upon which interesting things stand in relief. The tiny, tender melodies here are modally unstable (sometimes suggesting the chromatic genus of classical antiquity). Harmony functions locally with absolute clarity, but the progress from one measure-long block to another and, globally, over the course of an entire Air or Dance seems arbitrary and unpredictable. Thus while each of the constituent parts is clear, familiar, even banal, the sequence of those parts is eccentric, even complex, creating vivid little worlds in which the outlines of patterns and tunes are are stable memories but precise tonal memory is only short-term and prone to wandering. A fine example of that which I like to call disfunctional harmony.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Monday, January 19, 2009
Food on TV is the new radio drama
I think that I've figured out the boom in food programming on TV. It's more of the magic of selective sensory deprivation. Above and beyond the obvious commercial interests and the draw both high and low cusine has on the conspicuously consumptive, I think that food on television which, deprived of taste, scent, and touch is reduced to image and verbal testimony, is actually an equivalent of radio drama, in that individual imaginations are forced to fill in missing details.
The notion that the book is always better than the film follows the same logic, and in the days of radio drama, the book was likewise preferred to the radio play, and the radio play in turn preferred to the television program. The aesthetic premise here is that making more and more aspects of a work explicit has an inverse effect on its interpretive richness.
(I recently read through a number of reviews of Wagner Ring productions and recordings. The common thread throughout is the passionate devotion of the reviewers to "the work", but the equally passionate disappointment in the actual realizations. Because of that disappointment, you have to wonder what, precisely, "the work" is supposed to be, when it certainly doesn't appear to actually exist in any of the concrete forms on offer. I, for one, would be very disappointed to learn that "the work" is some singular platonic ideal.)
Works in which some aspect of the sensory experience are left open to the imagination of the audience carry with them a certain charge, not merely the suspension of disbelief required by all fiction (or theatre or film or TV), but the invitation to actively go beyond belief, indeed beyond what we know from our own experience, whether it be the taste, aroma, and texture of Basque sweetbreads, the movements of a Rhinemaiden, or the evil which lurks in the hearts of men...
I've been trying to write a post about music and the US presidential inauguration, but it's kept turning into snark. I wanted to write about the John Williams commission, but it should speak for itself, another part of the deep embrace between official State pomp and the Hollywood representation of the auspicious in American today. The society of the spectacle is your government at work. I also wanted to write about the interesting institution of the "President's Own" Marine Band, in practice the staff musicians of the White House, but — anachronistically, to my mind — organized as a military unit, but I have a weakness for Sousa marches and the Band does have a serious commissioning program (well, within the limits of a musical school of quietude, i.e. not yet ready to commission Anthony Braxton or Alvin Lucier). But then, this evening, I happened upon a broadcast excerpt of the concert on the mall today, with Pete Seeger leading Woody Guthry's This Land is Your Land. Seeger, accompanied by Bruce Springsteen, chose the verses which were ommitted from our grade school textbooks, warming this old leftist's heart and taking, if only for a moment, all my snark away:
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn't say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
A phrase recently came across my monitor, meander scar, and I know in the instant that it had to be the title of a piece. I've got dibs on it.
I like titles, sometimes like them better than the work to which they are attached (this is particularly true for blog entries; I've thought of having a month of only titles) but I can't take them all-too seriously because a great title is never going to save a lousy piece. A title can be a form of added value, helping during composition by capturing a mood or an image or an idea, and it can similarly help a player or listener, but it can be ambiguous and misdirecting as well, particularly when taken too literally. But then again, ambiguity and misdirection can often be VERY useful in a performing art. (See also legerdemain, applied musical.)
Titles that identify musical forms (Symphony, Sonata) would appear to be rather neutral in character but, in fact, they carry with them all of the baggage of tradition and the expectations that come out of tradition. In the fifties and sixties, some members of the high avant-garde used titles borrowed from maths or science, often with an intention to indicate abstraction and modernity, and clearly make a break with traditional forms. This is a practice with origins, probably, in the works of Varese, but the belated imitators rarely had the sense of romance that Varese brought to the works and listening to many of those works today rarely has the same charge of nostalgia for a lost modernity or vanished vision of the future.
Some composers get by on just numbering their works — Richard Ayres, for example, the most gifted composer of my generation — but, as someone who is never entirely certain about whether a work is done or when it is done and is often doubtful about works that are definitely dead done, I'm extremely hesitant to grant catalogue numbers that might later need to be taken back. And, to be honest, pieces with which I've spent enough time acquire the characteristics of persons and their characters seem to demand names more personal than one or two or three, but not as personal as Bobby Watson or Isolde Spoon. So, The Meander Scar it will be...
Monday, January 12, 2009
Mark Swed has a review of Arvo Pärt's new Symphony No. 4, "Los Angeles," which had been mentioned here before due to Universal Edition's unprecedented free online publication of the score.
Swed notes that the score is dedicated to the imprisoned Russian oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky and reports that "The composer called Khodorkovsky a great man and said Russia would be a better country had the oligarch, once Russia’s wealthiest man, become its leader."
I haven't spent enough time with the score to comment fairly about the music — though I did notice a number of features in common with the late works of quite a different composer, Robert Erickson — and my knowledge (indeed, everyones' knowledge) of the Khodorkovsky case is limited, but the information I do have strongly suggests that the dedication displays some real courage.
Given the recent trend for the interests of the Russian state and of cultural activities within Russia to become more closely connected, indeed to a degree unknown since the end of the Soviet Union, one must assume that Pärt's dedication will not faciliate performances in Russia, nor by orchestras or conductors closely identified with the Russian state. That is a rare and gutsy move for a composer in these apolitical days.
Mondays with Merce
NB: the footage of the 89-year old Cunningham leading the company class while it warms up to Keep You Sunny Side Up is a gentle reminder that even after more than half a century of allowing music and dance to go their own ways on stage, there is still plenty of opportunity for old fashioned piano accompaniments, while Cunningham's clear and precise setting of metre and tempo (and-a-one, two, three...) places him well within the universal tradition of the dance master, controlling motion in space by defining the rhythm. (I was reminded of a visit in Surakarta a decade ago to the home of the great Javanese dance master, Pak Ngaliman. He had suffered a terrible stroke which left him confined to a chair and only able to speak with great difficulty. Nevertheless, he continued to teach and choreograph, using the sharp drumming of a few fingers in one hand. It was enough.)
Sunday, January 11, 2009
not(e) on(e) method
Thursday, January 08, 2009
Further Adventures in Bedtime Stories
My daughter — six, almost seven — still expects bedtime stories. Sometimes I read, sometimes I recollect, other times I make things up. Like many children, she likes to have some stories repeated, and as certain passages are immutably stuck in her memory, she immediately picks up on the smallest variations from one rendition to the nest. Luckily, I have a small supply of texts in memory. One of my favorites, a little story from Finnegans Wake, I've mentioned here before. Ogdon Nash's The Strange Case of the Irksome Prude is a current favorite. Thurber's Unicorn in the Garden, of course, with ample opportunity to repeat the mantra "the unicorn is a mythical beast." But the one Emma likes the most is the stone-sucking episode from Beckett's Molloy. As I teen-ager, I once watched Jose Ferrer act this out, and I immediately had to learn to do it myself. This obsessive little combinatorial exercise, compositionally perfect and a perfect entertainment, given the right moment and the right company, begins so:
I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of sucking-stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones. Yes, on this occasion I laid in a considerable store. I distributed them equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had finished sucking it. Thus there were still four stones in each of my four pockets, but not quite the same stones. And when the desire to suck took hold of me again, I drew again on the right pocket of my greatcoat, certain of not taking the same stone as the last time. And while I sucked it I rearranged the other stones in the way I have just described. And so on. But this solution did not satisfy me fully. For it did not escape me that, by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four. In which case, far from sucking the sixteen stones turn and turn about, I was really only sucking four, always the same, turn and turn about. But I shuffled them well in my pockets, before I began to suck, and again, while I sucked, before transferring them, in the hope of obtaining a more general circulation of the stones from pocket to pocket. But this was only a makeshift that could not long content a man like me. So I began to look for something else ...
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
All over the place
A brief essay by the Romanian-born Hungarian novelist György Dragomán on creating fictional worlds out of axioms.
A review of a translation of Inger Christensen's poem alphabet, a poem based on two major constraints: the number of lines in each section increases as a segment of the Fibonacci series, and each section begins with a successive letter of the alphabet, a through n. (Not quite Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa, but then again, what is?) (Hat tip: Silliman)
Charles Shere writes about reading Harry Mathews, a writer who understands constraints.
Shere cites Mathews on buying/collecting/reading books. Across the lattice of coincidence, Frank J. Oteri, at the New Music Box, writes about his collecting habits, books and many, many, recordings. Isn't this something that could have been in one those little Borges stories? An obsession for collecting creates such a supply of music or books that you'll never be able to listen to or read all of them. This reminded me a bit of Edward Gorey's collecting habits. Gorey was such a collector — everything from books and recordings to potato mashers, smooth stones, and odd sets of garage-sale porcelain — that the weight of his books alone was causing major structural damage to his house and the abundance of interesting things in any one room would often distract one from moving to the room one actually intended to visit.
I've now moved house too many times, crossing continents, oceans, and major borders, dealt with nasty customs agents and suffered the end of the US Postal Book Bag, to any longer afford to be sentimental about my library. I'm resigned: books come and go, a few stay, and you can't really plan which books will stay. I don't buy recordings, but people often give me CDs, which are like calling cards these days. I do buy sheet music, preferring to play music as long as I still can rather than play recordings of music. I buy many books, but all but the most prized must leave promptly when read, for space is precious here.* If I had stayed in California, my library would have suffered no such reductions, but now, if I were to return, I'd have to reduce even more radically.
A commenter to Charles's item points to the name Frederick Sommer, well-known as a photographer, but who was also an artist who produced "drawings in the manner of musical scores".
* Among many other ought-tos, I ought to keep a list of books I've read. Less for the more serious stuff, which I usually can recall, more for trashy airport novels, so that I don't get two chapters into one of them before remembering that I'd read it before. (Publishing practice includes giving the same trashy airport novel different titles in the US and UK editions as well as retitling them when republished.)
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Monday, January 05, 2009
Temporary Notes (15)
There is a time and place to count those smallest units, and to get them metronome-precise. But that time and place is not rehearsing the St. Matthew Passion with a group of good musicians. Those musicians should have already internalised the body of rhythmic patterns that can happen at that level, so that practice, in an ensemble, is about putting these patterns together in musical ways, sometimes smoothly, sometimes sharply articulated.
Here are three pages from a worksheet I have used with young musicians. There is nothing particularly profound here; others can certainly make up more useful or elegant layouts of the same material. It's just a collection of patterns within single metrical feet — notated here as quarters and dotted-quarters — followed by a number of metres composed by adding these quarter and dotted-quarter feet togther. The idea here is to practice performing each pattern so that they can be sight-read and played or sung precisely and fluently, and then to compose and/or improvise in each of the metres, substituting in the various single-foot patterns. This is closer, methinks, to the way musicians really read and play music then the count-every-single-subdivision model used by the Very Famous Choral Conductor. This worksheet goes up to five-fold divisions of a foot. For less advanced students, one might well get along with stopping at division of the foot into four, so the quintuplet patterns have been somewhat segregated on the page. More adventurous students will most likely find their way into more complex divisions and metres without outside assistance.
Saturday, January 03, 2009
Olivier Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941) for clarinet, violin, cello and piano
The circumstances of Quartet's composition in Stalag VIII-A, Görlitz, are well-known; the subject of the piece — the end of time in Christian eschatology, made more urgent and vivid due to those circumstances — is better known, and probably most widely known among people who will never hear Messiaen's music, which, with its moments of ecstatic joy, deep melancholy, and transcendent slowness are a profound and moving reading of the Apocalypse, a world apart from the silly adventure stories of the Late, Great Planet Earth and Left Behind crowds.
While the world of apocalypse, sublime or ridiculous, is not mine, there is one moment in Messiaen's work, in the third (of eight) movements, Abîme des oiseaux (abyss of birds) that is — for me, at least — a musical landmark of immense measure. Messiaen's abyss, for solo clarinet, is home to extremely slow plaintive melodies, focusing on half-step, whole-step trichords, fleeting bird calls, and strange arpeggios over the whole range of the instrument, the whole punctuated a number of times by very long tones played in crescendi from very soft to very loud. The effect of these crescendi is as much timbral as dynamic, and when well-played, the successive overtones each come into focus like a swell pedal opening on a pipe organ. (Messiaen was an organist, an instrument which he was denied during his captivity in Görlitz, where the piece was composed and first performed.) It is the penultimate of these crescendi that is my landmark, for it ties the whole movement together. It begins on the lowest tone of the clarinet, e, and ascends, whole-step, half-step, to f# and g, all the time getting brighter and brighter, a single organ mixture opening-up register-by-register, quite literally opening the abyss, escaping in the manner of the birds themselves, upward.
Friday, January 02, 2009
This Time, Next Time
Since when did they stop asking composers about the future? It seems like only a moment ago when a Cage or Stockhausen would get asked with some regularity by big media about the future of music and matters beyond. And now?
So this site does another one of those end-of-one-year-beginning-of-the-next surveys, asking a number of the celebrated to say something wise about the future, answering, in this case, the question "WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?" Now, I realize that they give the question an expressly scientific turn by adding a supplemental, clarifying question ("What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?"), but I don't understand why the only non-scientists asked were popular figures like Brian Eno and Ian McEwan, neither one of whom strikes me as now being at the top of the new discovery end of the game. There is news out there in Newmusicland, and many musicians are working in areas that are definitely game-changing —and not only for music — but if nobody's asking, it's because nobody's noticing. That invisibility (or, more precisely, inaudibility) will, inevitably if incorrectly, lead to the assumption that the work is irrelevant. We've got to do a better job of keeping our music present.
Young, foolish, and on a student budget, my wife & I hiked and hitchhiked around the complete coast of Ireland, covering the whole coastline twice in two successive summers. We kept getting invited to weddings and wakes by drivers who picked us up. At one wake, in Sligo, someone pointed out that the bar across the street from the one we were in was also hosting a wake, but it was completely empty. I asked why? Didn't anyone like the deceased? No, came the reply, we loved him, but he died in debt, so no one wanted to show up out of fear that they'd get saddled with the bill for the funeral.
New music, especially the radical sort, ain't dead. In fact, at its best, it's kicking like a mule with many composers and musicians doing really astonishing things. But we — perhaps timid a bit due to the ever-precarious financial environment around experimental arts, and still shaken a bit by the tired old criticism (too intellectual, too dissonant, too noisy, too organized, too disorganized...) — act in public with much wariness and too little risk. But that caution — that quietism, thank you Poe & Silliman — is one step short of giving up the enterprise altogether and shows a profound lack of belief, often best seen in the way young composers tend to present themselves via resumes of awards and academic qualification rather than sharing their music and ideas about music.
We've got to do a better job, or New Music will surely have its own wake, in an empty bar, with no one showing up to pay the tab.