Sunday, May 31, 2009

Shawn on Schoenberg

I've just read composer Allen Shawn's Arnold Schoenberg's Journey (Harvard 2002) and can recommend it highly.  It's a modest length (ca. 300 pages) work of advocacy for the music and for Schoenberg himself, written in a personal and concrete style making it a nice companion to both Charles Rosen's small Schoenberg book and Andriessen and Schönberger's wonderful Stravinsky book, The Apollonian Clockwork.  Shawn discounts his analyses in advance, but his treatment of the Six Small Pieces, Die Glückliche Hand and the String Trio are quite fine, clearly the work of a musician listening closely to music he loves and comfortable with the words needed to share what he has heard.  In his discussion of Schoenberg's life and personality, he is always interesting and musically relevant, whether writing of Schoenberg's complext relationship to religion, his passion for games and crafts, or even giving an entire chapter over to the topic of "On Being Short"*.   

It is a striking fact that Schoenberg remains a composer whose music — and person** —  is so often held only in the most reserved form of respect, only thinly concealing a serious disapproval, that advocacy is still required.  I contend that the difficulty with Schoenberg's music is its style rather than its substance or technique, and perhaps what his works need best is some defense against its devotees, whether from an Adornovian historical dialectic or dry Babbittonian technical description.  In truth, however, the style, one in which expression is so heighted and treats the darkest themes and topics which haunt our souls, has long become a permanent part of our musical language, if only most often encountered in its weak imitations found in film music.  Fortunately, in Europe at least, his work receives regular concert and stage performances and is increasingly well-played.  The 1998 Gielen/HR-Symphony recording of the one act comic opera Von Heute Auf Morgen, for example, was so brilliantly rehearsed that it revealed that the work, long considered only questionably comic and impossible to really pull off, was, in fact, a lost masterpiece, and the players under Gielen learned to play in the style with both the precision and spontaneity required of a comic work.  


* As someone who is often the tallest composer in the room,  it was very interesting to read that people who are not tall often adopt social strategies that are the opposite of my own.

** A vivid example of this was recently provided by the German musicologist Martin Vogel, who devoted an entire volume to disparaging Schoenberg's music and personality and an entire companion volume to disparaging Schoenberg's influence (Cage in particular) as the "Mistaken Path of Modern Music".   What a waste of paper.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


While free-reed instruments have enormous prestige in East Asian and Southeast Asian musics, they have often been a bit undervalued in the west, more associated with popular and pedagogical repertoire.  Occasionally, however, individual free-reed instruments have proven themselves to be valuable in art music as well -- just think of the harmonium in Rossini's Petite Messe Solemnelle, the accordion in Ives' Second Orchestral Set, Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts, and many pieces by Oliveros and Skempton, or the bandoneon in Mumma's Pontpoint, Tudor's Bandoneon! or Kagel's Tango Alemán.  (Not to mention the original orchestration of Die Dreigroschenoper or Oliveros' See-Saw (a duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato).   The number of composers who have written for the harmonic is long (here's one list), so I'll only note concertos by Cowell and Hovhaness.  

There has, however, been too little written for the friendliest of the free-reeds, the melodica.  Composer Christian Wolff has often used it as his axe of choice whether playing his music with others and an early tape phasing piece of Steve Reich carries the name Melodica and uses a toy example as its sole sound source.  Now is the time to remedy this lack of repertoire.    

SO HERE'S A CALL FOR SCORES  for the first online anthology of new music for melodica.  Pieces may be for any solo or combination of melodicas (although solos and four-part ensembles seem to be the most popular).  If you use specific pitches, I suggest using the range f to e''', which will cover both the most popular Hohner and generic models  (the Thomann model, for example, widely used around these parts, has the range f to f''').  Please send scores in PDF format to me by the first of September, 2009.

For some sound examples of the Amsterdam-Based Melodica Quartet ((Jeremiah Runnels, Sander Breure, Graham Flett and Taylan Susam - founder), composer and melodicaist Taylan Susam has usefully posted these:

Christian Wolff: Exercise 1
Mark So - Collateral (4)

Also, see this previous item about new music melodica, here.


Some Movement

I should be a short-term futurologist*: Steve Hicken is getting serious about twittered scores, here.

I've added some prose scores of my own manufacture to join the good works of the hard-working folk at Upload .. Download .. Perform, here.


*I've always been amused by that term.  You would think, wouldn't you, that if a "futurologist" was any good, he or she'd be rich from their predictions about the future, and not reduced to peddling books and lectures?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Short Scores

I keep getting asked if I twitter.  I don't and I probably won't, but I do have one prediction: we're sure to soon see a number of twittered prose scores.   It strikes me that the constraints of the form lend themselves to prose scores based around images or tasks.  For example: THREE TRIANGLES THRICE or SO FAST THAT IT SOUNDS SLOW or ALL TUNES ALL THE TIME or CLOUDS BECOME RAIN or SOUNDS WITHOUT EDGES or EACH TONE CONNECTS TO THE LAST TONE or PLAY WITH EACH AND EVERYONE IN THE ROOM ONCE or REPEAT EVERYTHING AT LEAST THREE TIMES. 


A recent post here about all-white note pieces sent me looking for a copy of Virgil Thomson's Sonata No. 3 for piano (1930), written for Gertrude Stein who like to improvise only on the white keys.  As might be expected from Thomson, it's brief, witty, and wise, alternating between playing the naif and the wiseguy.  The disfunctional harmonies and athematicism keep the (third, of four short movements) waltz, in particular, safe from any out-of-place sentimentality.  That athematicism and all the right wrong notes make this very easy-to-play piece suitable for children and others with very short or very long attention spans.  

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Neglected Topiary

I had a nice first performance this weekend in Saarbrücken of a quartet for flute, clarinet, guitar & percussion, Neglected Topiary, a commission by Saarländischer Rundfunk for the Ensemble L'Art Pour L'Art.   

How does a listener make sense of a new piece of music? In traditional repertoires of music, "making sense" of a piece in specific or general terms is highly dependent upon a broader familiarity with the repertoire. But The New Music doesn't necessarily come to us embedded in a repertoire of conventional forms, styles, or figures, and if it does, the relationship to existing repertoire is often more of negation than affirmation.
Neglected Topiary is a book of music including 17 pieces played without pause for flute, clarinet, guitar and percussion, each about a minute long and each sharing the same rhythmic structure, which is often articulated by the percussion in the manner of Asian ensemble musics, but here using a battery mostly North American in character. The pieces includes one quartet, four trios, six duets, four solos and two "other" arrangements, the sequence of which was determined by chance operations.  Each of the individual pieces connects immediately to two other pieces, each solo, for example, is derived from the individual voices of the quartet, and each trio is derived, in turn, from a solo, and duos, in their turn, from the trios.  Thus, every piece is connected, if at some distance, to every other and, to a significant degree, the pieces can be described as pseudo-repetitions of one another.

Through this near-repetition, the pieces may allow listeners to gradually form the impressions of a repertoire of music, in turns ceremonious, mannered, sentimental, and whimsical, with all of the internal consistancies and differences encountered in "real" repertoires, not like Pinnochio trying to be a "real boy" by learning to behave well, but like a topiary animal in a forgotten garden, which is ultimately no more real than the observer wants it to be.
Something like a serenade, Neglected Topiary may be played inside or out-of-doors in a garden of appropriate size. The title was suggested by a line from Edward Gorey and refers either to the fact that the piece gathers together a group of materials (snare drum rim shots),  images (burst bubbles and torn pages) or lines of work (non-parsimonious voice leading) that I had been neglecting or to the fact that our tired world has, literally, all-but-abandoned too many pieces of once well-sculpted plant matter.  Either way, the piece sometimes verges on the sentimental and nostalgic, the neo-classical revision of a unknown — and fictional — repertoire.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cry Dr Chicago

From George Manupelli's Doctor Chicago trilogy, starring Alvin Lucier as the evil (and politically incorrect) surgeon on the lam, Dr. Alvin Chicago, with his sidekicks Sheila Marie (Mary Ashley) and Steve (Steve Paxton, who dies, dancingly, in each episode).

Ride Dr Chicago Ride

From George Manupelli's Doctor Chicago trilogy, starring Alvin Lucier as the evil (and politically incorrect) surgeon on the lam, Dr. Alvin Chicago with his sidekicks Sheila Marie (Mary Ashley) and Steve (Steve Paxton, who dies, dancingly, in each episode). This episode was filmed in Joshua Tree National Monument.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Symphonia Domestica

If I recall correctly, there is a Jules Feiffer sketch about a average middle-aged family guy, who just happened to be a werewolf, growing fangs and claws and getting hairy each full moon.  When his children complained that other fathers didn't do that, he ate them up.  And when his wife complained about that and other, mostly mundane, things, he ate her up as well.  The moral of the story was "werewolves shouldn't marry."

Should composers marry?  Have kids running about?  The material and moral support can be wonderful (not to mention the "restorative affection", as Lou Harrison put it) and even the brutal instant critiques of a captive audience.   But a composer's life can try that of his or her family.  We don't get rich, we sleep odd hours, run around with odder friends, and make all manners of the oddest noises, only some of which are immediately related to music.  Our expectations for quiet or even servitude (i.e. when a deadline is approaching my grammatical moods are reduced to the imperative) from the family can be extreme, our companionship often vague when in the middle of concentrated work,  and at those times our reliability for household tasks is near nil.  When the music or career is not going well, we can get irritable or rude.  But very few of us, as far as I know, ever actually resort to eating our children or spouses.

The one concrete affect I've felt of family life is that my attention span has been reduced due to the complicated schedules of shuttling kids about to school and lessons and the other hunting/gathering activities a household requires.  This has meant either making shorter pieces, or longer pieces composed of many short stretches of material.   Development, in the classical sense, can get shortchanged in favor of multiple and serial expositions leading nowhere in particular, and not always clearly from one exposition to the next.  Things are apt to follow one another with the same unpredictable mixture of care and inattention that children bring to tasks.  As the kids are getting older and more self-sufficient, this has waned somewhat and, perhaps, I'll start back into development and all that.  For the time being, however, this state of affairs (domestic bliss plus restless composer syndrome) is perfectly pleasant.  And no one is getting eaten up.  Composers can marry, after all. 

Sunday, May 17, 2009

La Disparition

Some minor blogkeeping:  There have been about 1200 posts here.  Some of them have been deleted, but most of them are still available in the standard blogspot archive format, indexed in the sidebar.  About half of the entries have been tagged by subject.   I have not downloaded archival copies of any of this for myself, and am not even sure if there's a good way to do it.  

But I'm not even sure that I would actually want to keep such an archive.  These items are essentially journal entries by a working composer.   In the interest of helping New Music to have a more lively presence online,  I have made these writings public.  I would have written many if not most of them anyway (in particular, I'd like to have some record for my children to have, if they should later have any curiosity about why Dad made such odd music),  but the blog format has provided a format which encourages some useful discipline, encouraging one to write at a more regular rhythm and keeping it dressed up enough for others to read, while at the same time having neither the formal constraints and length of a journal article nor the forced brevity of a twitter.  The items here have also been written to some compositional constraints that are related to my music: I use chance procedures to determine the timing, length, and, sometimes, topic of each post.  In many cases, formal or vocabulary controls have been applied, sometimes fairly elaborate games or experiments have been attempted, but not as often as I would have liked.

While I cannot say that I have personally received any commissions or performances as a result of this blog,  I believe that the blog has been useful to the New Music community in a few ways. The first has been in contributing to some discussions of musical politics and the composition competition system in particular.  The other is the online anthology of 15 brief piano pieces, A WINTER ALBUM, here.  (A SPRING ALBUM, of percussion pieces, is still taking entries, and I will soon announce a similar project for melodica and melodica ensemble).

1200 posts over four and a half years is probably enough, if not too much, verbosity for a mid-career composer of modest reputation and ambitions.    Eventually, I will just stop and delete these pages without much ado, retiring to my orchids, bon-bons, and philately*, but for the moment, I'll keep at it, because, on the one hand, it does seem to complement my composing well,  pushing it further along into interesting areas of inquiry and, on the other hand, New Musicland online remains far too quiet.   In the end, I'm blogging because not enough other — and especialy those more verbally gifted — composers are doing it.  If we want our music to be a lively presence in the world, we have to let the world know that our work is deep, lively and available and is full of sounds and ideas to which attention is well worth paying.  Anything less conveys the impression that we do not believe this ourselves to be true.

That said,  June 2009 will be requests month.  What would you like to read about here?


*No, I don't really have interests in either orchids or philately.  As Sen. Claghorn said, it's a joke, son.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


The word "repertoire" gets used here often.  This is in part due to training in ethnomusicology (see this post), a field in which defining and characterizing a repertoire and its extents and limits is a central concern.  But my concern here is more that of a working composer, trying to figure out how my own work fits into "the rep", if at all.  From an entirely pragmatic viewpoint (especially with regard to the livelihoods of composers), art music took a seriously wrong turn in the 19th century with the development of the masterpiece ethic, which was perpetuated and extended to to a ridiculous — and sometimes pathological — extent in the 20th century.   When the goal became that of making, of each new work, pieces of such import and significance and so conspicuously consumptive of resources for their realization that it becomes all but impossible to perform these works with any real frequency, then one has elevated the work into a Valhalla of special esteem, which certain shows respect for the work, but in doing so has also removed it from everyday music-making with its intimate connections to the normal rhythms of life, the only repertoire that is meaningful to me. It may well be argued that broadcasts and recordings offset this, but I will argue even more strongly that these forms, as marvelous as they can be, are essentially a different experience from live music making, whether private or communal, in realtime and in real physical spaces, and are by no means a substitute.  A record shelf (or an iPod playlist) is a collection but not a repertoire.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Waiting for the repetition

In ninth grade, Mr. Tackett, an English and Drama teacher and my school's resident hipster, handed me a copy of Waiting for Godot with the instructions: "Read.  Now." I started immediately and read during, and with complete disregard for, whatever classes I had that day, and by the time I'd finished the second act, realized something fairly profound about form that is as true for music as for theatre:  You have to be careful to get the repeats right.  If you get them right, you necessarily go beyond simple reproduction, as the experience of the repeat changes the memory of the original.  

The grand audacity of Godot is not that it's a play in which little is said and less happens, but it is a play in two acts in which little is said and less happens, twice.*  The repetition here is not exact, but pseudo-repetition, combining the feeling of worn routine with the sense that the repetition occurs in a world in which time has really passed and the world and the actors and audience in it are all a little more worse (but not necessarily wise) for wear, thus nothing can ever be exactly the same.   The edgy discomfort and awkward laughter of the audience during the first act takes on an entirely different edge when the formal repetition of the second act invites expectations which are inevitably disappointed.  But disappointment is erased, no, transcended, by the joys of variation, whether in major changes (can the blinded Pozzi of Act Two see any less than the sighted Pozzi of Act One?)  or in the smallest details.  

The game here has everything to do with memory, particularly the tension between the memories of the audience and the fragile, fractured memories  of the characters (has the boy come before?)  Moreover, the second act is perfectly scaled down in duration from the first, picking up that trick from slapstick or story- and joke-telling, in which a sequence of quasi-repeated actions gets acted out or told in progressively shorter durations (I wouldn't be surprised if Beckett — intuitively — hit on a golden proportion here), scaled to maximize our attentions.   The effect is uncanny:  even less happens after intermission than before, yet the laughs lose their awkwardness and become relaxed, honest, tender, and sympathetic and the scant bit of hope  that closes the act is just enough to leave one half-hoping for a third act, another day, of similar uneventfulness.


* None of my observations here are particularly novel.  Wikipedia quotes the critic Vivian Mercier: "a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice." (Irish Times, 18 February 1956, p. 6.)       

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


I just got a worried email from some performers concerned about some dynamics in a piece.  In the score, I have a flute playing at a moderate dynamic and suddenly a snare drum rolls over the flute for a measure of forte, after which the flute continues on, more or less as before.  This interruption occurs a few times.  The players were concerned that, during the drum roll, the flute would be inaudible, so they suggested upping the flute's amplitude to match the drum.  I wrote them back not to worry, as the flute, through the continuity of its line and its distinctive character, would be perfectly present, if not literally "heard" and so attempting to balance the two instruments was unnecessary. 

Monday, May 11, 2009


New Musical Resources is a blog with a swell Cowellian name which shows that yes, Virginia, musicologists can do interesting work, too.  Among other things, blogger Peter Gillette is doing research into some American composers who have slipped through the cracks.  In addition to a lot of valuable work about Albert Fine, a composer with connections to East Coast early '60s experimentalism, he has an interest in the ultra-modern music of the early 20th century.* Good stuff, and I hope more musicologists can soon follow suit, allowing people like myself to rest on our imaginary laurels.

*I was particularly pleased to learn from this blog that the book The Relation of Ultramodern to Archaic Music by the Skryabiniste Katharine Ruth Heyman is now online,  which Dane Rudhyar (perhaps America's best-known Skryabiniste) once recommended to me while a precocious high-schooler (a recommendation which I have filed, for some reason, in a corner for unexplored esoteric advice, alongside that time when Ornette Coleman recommended Cyril Scott's Music: Its Secret Influence Throughout the Ages and the Dick Gregory Diet.)   I have mentioned the Skryabinistes here before, as an example of a path mostly untaken by modern music, except for isolated figures like Rudhyar, a handful of Russians and for that all-but hidden thread which runs via Wyschnegradsky and Obouchov to Messiaen and Boulez.  It's strange and heavy stuff to which I've never been able to get particular close, but perhaps that is an inescapable aspect of such a free and intuitive style.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The Joy of Orchestration vs. The Orchestrator's Companion

Over lunch (a plate of left-over chicken momos), skimming through Rimsky-Korsakov's Principles of Orchestration (skimming because you can't really read it, unless, perhaps, you have a thing for excerpts from Kashtschei the Immortal or The Legend of the invisible city of Kitesh or Snegourotchka) , noticed that almost all of the scoring suggestions for string and woodwind ensembles are based upon the reinforcement of score order (flutes over oboes over clarinets over bassoons and strings from high to low) and more eccentric skips and mixtures within the score-ordered lists depricated with, ultimately, the goal of smooth part-writing (especially avoiding voice crossings and cross-relations) and an ideal spacing (approximately that of a harmonic series (intervals getting smaller as the register ascends)).  

Well, okay, Nikolay, but how come almost all of my favorite moments in orchestrated music (violins and contrabasses doubling aeveral octaves apart, bassoon over clarinet over oboe over flute...)  happen to make just exactly the moves you advise against?  Perhaps the Principles could be thought of as the collection of bland, everyday orchestration recipes (bland, but trusted and familar, like The Joy of Cooking) , the default setting you want to avoid whenever you want your music to be something other than bland and everyday (attractive in an exotic and maybe dangerous way, like The Gentleman's Companion).  

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Future Imperfect

The New Music Box (of the American Music Cartel Center) autocelebrates its tenth anniversary with one of those rounds of articles prognosticating the future of music.  Among the inevitable appeals to technological progress and even Fukiyama's now-discredited neo-Hegelian (and neo-con) "end of history", there are no real surprises, but it is good to see that at least one contributor, George Lewis, decided to experiment with the prose format.   The money line is the closer:  musicians will take a chance,  which is more to the point then the ever-recyclable Kinder! Schaff' Neues! There ought to be more of this online — composers are supposed to be inventive, after all —  and it was disappointing to read a younger blogger barking at Lewis for doing exactly this.  I mean, if all we expect from words about music is prose, then we can just settle for the sixth ring of hell, you know, the special one reserved for musicologists. 

In any case, congratulations to Frank J. Oteri & his colleagues on ten years of making musical lives more, rather than less, interesting.   And if I tease the Boxers from time to time, it's only out of affection, a loyal fan encouraging the team to do ever better and more challenging work.

Monday, May 04, 2009

A Monday Miscellany

In no order in particular:

Kenneth Woods has a fine essay on Ives & Mahler here, imagining what the conductor Mahler might have found in the score to Ives' Third (my much less elegant attempt the the I & M topic is here;  N.O. Brown once mentioned that Carl Schorske wanted to write a book on the two composers... wouldn't that be something?).

Want to learn Latin?  Here's an online course based on the method of Reginald Foster, whose "experiences" are based on immediate engagement with real Latin texts (and spoken Latin) with grammar introduced as needed (rather than the other way around).

And some music:  Here's Anthony Braxton's Composition Nr. 58 as played by the Taylor Ho Bynum Chicago Big Band.  The video and the performance are both in a rough'n'ready style, which is altogether appropriate to the musical topics in the piece, but I do wonder how the piece would sound in a very tight, precise performance style.  It's not that I think such a style would be better, but it might bring out other aspects of the piece.  (Here are Braxton's own notes on the score).

Another illustration of the elasticity of the term minimalism in an article about the poet Robert Creeley: "an interesting instance of a post-Modernist writer whose career was to a considerable extent the 'story' of the development of Miminalism in America"


Recently overheard, from a pair of student composers chatting: "Arpeggio?  Philip Glass so OWNS the arpeggio!"

I recognize the sentiment — it's widespread enough that the arpeggio-heavy theme music to the TV series Fringe was instantly pegged online as faux-Glass — but still, if that's the case, that's a major piece of musical territory to own, at least on par with Ted Turner's two million acres and share of the North American bison herd, and also something of a limiting factor for others writing tonal music.

Which made me wonder... if all existing music were wiped from the planetary memory, and you could stake a trademark claim to any one musical element or figure, strictly on the basis of its income-generating potential, which would be the most potentially lucrative by locking others out of your territory?  A major triad?  An authentic cadence?  Common time?     


Sunday, May 03, 2009

About Time

Musicians can usefully pay attention when others are talking about time.   Here, via a Blogging Heads conversation*, is an elegant essay by physicist Julian Barbour on nothing less than The Nature of Time.   The two basic problems of time for physicists — the definition of duration and simultaneity of events at spatial separation — are also very much problems for musicians, complicated (of course) by questions of perception, cognition, memory, and cultural or personal habits. Barbour views about time (especially in his book The End of Time) are controversial among physicists, but his notion that time is an illusion is perhaps a useful metaphor for the sleight-of-ear aspect of the work musicians do: extraordinary musical moments as unique configurations of space.  


* Still waiting for a new music Blogging Heads episode... I'd give an eyetooth to watch Lisa Hirsch go up against A.C. Douglas...