Sunday, June 28, 2009

Along the river

I've long imagined that music had two origins.  The first as a extension or heightened form of speech, essentially and immediately communicative in function, and the second, more absolute and aesthetic in nature, an articulation of time passing, as relief from boredom, accompaniment to work, travel, falling into sleep (and dreams).   These two causes have long been comingled in music, but I'm not altogether sure that that is a good thing.

I was reminded yesterday that not only does music articulate passing time, but it can also articulate space. It has a physical presence with a center which it fills and thresholds into which it dis- and reappears.  I went cycling with the family alongside the Nidda, a small river near our house which empties south of us into the Main.  A lightly clouded Saturday in June was a perfect day for festivals, and as we passed over the bridge in Praunheim, a cover band on could be heard from a stage some hundred metres away in the center of the village.  As we drove on, that sound steadily evaporated with distance and barriers both natural and human-made.   Further on up the river, as we approached Heddernheim, small fragments of low brass intercut with bits of snare drum begun to cross our path, eventually revealing themselves as whole swathes of tunes and countermelodies and bass lines played by the local Fanfarenzug.    With a weakness for brass bands, I swerved off the path into a churchyard to hear the wind band more closely, especially enjoying the way in which the percussion was used to provide a continuous bed of sound for the winds,  and the gradual addition of the more higher pitched (and consequently more highly attentuated by physical distance) instruments to the total mix.  Cycling onward, the process was reversed and Heddernheim receded both as a civic and acoustical location.  The next villlage up the river soon spoke for itself in quite a different way, through a peal of church bells, announcing the hour, or — for it seemed to go on longer than usual — perhaps a special event, maybe a Saturday wedding in June.   As we went further upriver,  the gently creaking sounds of the river and the whirr of other bicycles, sometimes the steps of joggers (some of whom put their iPods or mp3 players up loud enough to "share")  were only interrupted by a pair of bridges underpasses with their ignorable traffic,  a family of insistant swans at the edge of the water, and a pair of soccer matches.  Each physical space we approached, passed by or through, or departed, was as recognizeable from its acoustic signature as from its physical shapes and forms.  Having ears means time — and space — passing need never be dull.       

Friday, June 26, 2009

Copy that

At least half my training as a composer has come from copying music. Not imitating the music of others but the note-for-note copying of scores by others both as work for hire and for my own use, to play and study. (See also this post). Whether with pen and ink on paper or by pointing and clicking with an engraving program, copying invites, indeed forces, one to attend to the music in an analytic and intimate way that, in my experience, casual listening to a recording cannot replace, and to hear imaginatively, interpreting both details and larger passages in the in-and-out-of-time unique to the written score. A major part of the copyist's work is planning the project, finding the most efficient way to move notes from the original to the copying, figuring out the most elegant layout of notes, measures, systems, pages, all of which is analytical work, tracing phrases, sections, processes, resemblances and differences, identifying local tactics and global strategies of both original and transcription, as well as the inevitable and incalaculable surprises. Even deciding where to place page turns is a matter that invites analytical and interpretive engagement!

Composers have probably trained by copying music for as long as music has been written down. The tales of the youthful Bach and Mozart copying music by others are familar to many young musicians (as I remember them, these tales often include mention of candlelight and ruining ones' eyes). While it is entirely possible that copying, indeed written notation altogether, will fade even further away from widespread use, in favor of more purely aural/oral transmission, recordings, and possibly even new technologies as yet unimagined, it is hard to escape from the recognition that copying has been a useful skill, and written notation an effective and long-lived technology for moving music from here to these as well as preserving and learning about music.

An effective technology, but not a perfect reproductive technology, in the sense of a perfect digital copy of a sound file: the risk and the charm — and, to my ears, ultimately the advantage — of the handmade copy is the interjection of interpretation into the path of transmission. On the one hand, this is just another example of (Richard K.) Winslow's law at work — "if you want a perfect copy, learn it by ear, if you want to garantee that it changes over time, write it down" — but on the other, this interpretative act can be a first step in a process moving inevitably towards new composition. Each work I have copied (as a teenager, I copied lots of Webern and Machaut and Cage and Harrison and Purcell and Lully and transcribed almost every note of Harry Partch, I later earned part of my living copying for colleagues and doing ghost-scoring for films; now I do some interesting work for Material Press) has been an invitation to compose something new, as if tracing the paths of each of these pieces has made more urgent the paths not taken.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Landmarks (41)

Richard Ayres: No. 37b (2003/2006).  Never mind the neutral title — this is a work of symphonic dimensions and classical formal proportions. The composer — as far as I'm concerned the most technically gifted composer of our generation — is an exuberant orchestrator, inviting the orchestra here to do everything that an orchestra can do well, and the performances I've heard have uniformly showed the orchestras honoring the challenge with equal exuberance.  He has made that rare thing: new music that orchestral musicians love to play.  The writing for the brass and string harmonics is spectacular, with some passages for the trumpets in particular touching my heart with a characteristic drag that resembled something in-between New Orleans funeral marches and mariachi playing.  (In this score, Ayres has also raised the process of muting a tuba to a cooperative musical skill of the first art. )  No. 37b  is a more than a bit of a madcap adventure, comic in genre, but with the entire range of comic expression in use, from droll to intense and from gentle to slapstick.  A comic symphony is naturally more classical than romantic, and the rapid cuts and transitions never look backward, but are sometimes detoured by cul de sacs and hairpin curves, seizing that same cinematic impulse that was captured in the some of the best works of early 20th century neo-classicism.  Why isn't real movie music ever this good?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Listening for the day

Henry Cowell: Homage to Iran; Terry Riley: Persian Surgery Dervishes

Cowell's music is an homage, with a casual relationship to Persian classical music; Riley's piece has even less to do with that tradition.  But who cares?  Each piece makes an honest gesture of tribute to a valued culture.

Losing the game

Are downloading killing recorded music sales, or is it the competition from games? 

Brant on Orchestration

Very good news: the late Henry Brant's handbook for orchestrators, begun in the 1940's and completed in 2005, Textures and Timbres, has finally been released. Music Books Plus lists the book already, Amazon, SheetMusicPlus, and should have it soon.

Brant had a unique career, not only orchestrating his own extraordinary works — most famous for their use of physical space as a compositional element —, but also working in commercial music for Broadway, radio, and in Hollywood films (his longstanding collaboration with Alex North is best known, but his credited and uncredited work for film was much more extensive.)  Several of his students have described Brant's approach to scoring as uniquly empirical, practical, and rule-of-thumb systematic, but always imaginative.

[I frequently get asked to recommend orchestration textbooks. My first recommendation is to get some hands-on experience with each of the orchestral instruments, for example through an instrumental music education course. Then, go to the books: Andrew Stiller's Handbook of Instrumentation is essential (it's now available in cd format; I think of it as the successor to Forsythe's Orchestration, an underrated book with a lot of good practical information), as well as a good introduction to the physics and psychophysics of music (there are several good choices) and William Sethares Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale places timbre within a larger context. (Likewise for Robert Erickson's Sound Structure in Music). Then a good history of orchestration (Adam Carse will do) and Berlioz's classic treatise. If you have any conducting ambitions, Hermann Scherchen's Handbuch des Dirigierens is an elegant and cultivated book but it is also very useful for orchestrators. Have a look — but not too long — at Rimsky-Korsakov, Widor, Koechlin, and Piston for some distinct aesthetic approaches (Riemann's Katechismus der Orchestrierung, too, if you can read the German in Fraktur type). The most-used contemporary university-level textbooks (Blatter, Adler, Kennan), are certainly useful as one-stop-shop references, but I find none of them as good as Stiller for basic questions of instrumentation, nor do any of them offer particulary distinctive aesthetic approaches.

There is nothing in English quite like Hans Kunitz's 13 volume series, Die Instrumentation, which treats individual instruments in detail, but the last 30 years have given us many books which advise on contemporary techniques for individual instruments, including Turetsky for contrabass, Dempster for trombone, Rehfeld for clarinet, Strange for violin, Artaud or Dick or for flute, Van Cleve or Veale/Mahnkopf for oboe, and Solomon or Schick for percussion. Several books have treated contemporary techniques more comprehensively; the book I grew up with was Gardner Read's Contemporary Instrumental Techniques, but it surely ought to be updated or succeeded.]

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Have Windmill, Will Tilt

... if I were to have a logo promoting my work as a composer, that'd pretty much be it.   Composing is fundamentally an act of independence (Blake's fool pursuing his folly), not doing what everyone else is doing.  When everyone else zigs, you zag.  Composing is not so much putting things together as making an act of imagination concrete (the Hungarian word for composer zeneszerző, literally a "music catcher", is so much more to the point): hearing a dragon where others hear only creaking windmills and figuring out how to make that explicit for others. Photographer Ansel Adams once said something to the effect that he never pushed the shutter until he saw an image that wasn't literally there.  Gregory Bateson advised prospective field workers to be prepared to simply sit a good long while, not to try to document everything, not to  try to take everything comprehensively in, but to wait for something interesting and important to happen. It always does.  Every new work of music, if it rises to the extraordinary, must be an error, a mistake, even wrong-doing or a violation, by the standards of the work which proceeds it and, often,  the community of listeners.  (Blake again: Error, or Creation, will be Burned up, & then, & not till Then, Truth or Eternity will appear.)   Composition is resistance against the existing social construction of the musical.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Composing is mostly on the solitary end of a private-public partnership.  Performing, recording, broadcasting is the public side.  Many composers carry out their end as covertly as possible, often in near- sacred spaces, our hermitages, garretts, and ateliers.  (Mostly a good thing, too: I'm not alone among my colleagues in never having gotten good marks for "gets along well with others" in grade school.) Some work privately and keep it so, other hold on to every scrap and sketch, allowing the possibility that their steps to be retraced by others (for examples, see the Elliot Carter and Roger Reynolds archives online at the LOC site)*.   

However composition is often taught in institutional settings and taught to groups of people, whether in formal courses (with exercises and assignments) or in more open seminar environments (Paul Bailey usefully points to a New Yorker article about creative writing workshops, an enterprise parallel in many ways to composition instruction, which asks good questions about the value of the enterprise pedagogically and the nature of its impact on writing itself.)  Typically, though, most composers who are taught in institutions get a mixture of group and one-on-one instruction.  My impression is that most directed composition ends with the model compositions associated with theory sequences, but directed composition assignments in groups can be very exciting (Cage's assignments to his New School classes and Stockhausen's group projects at Darmstadt are cases-in-point).  

Some composition teachers like to examine every detail in a student's work, others are most focused on the bigger picture.  Personally, I don't find much value myself in having my work edited note-by-note by a teacher.  Iin the end, I take responsibility for every note; another set of eyes canusefully help me with the editing, but they don't have to belong to my teacher and I refuse to be cross-examined on every detail.  That said, I do value highly the exchanges with teachers that focus on getting the ideas right, and the execution both clear and polished.   I was lucky to have composition teachers and fellow/sister composition students who shared that preference, but there are certainly ideal student/teacher pairs and groups who have worked and do work on a more nut-and-bolts level.   (This too: Seminar groups and private lessons can run a certain risk of turning into encounter groups and therapy sessions.  Having lived through California in the 1970's, I don't have much need for that myself, but if it's good for you, fine and dandy.) 

Composers also, sometimes voluntarily group together as professionals and sometimes get grouped together by others.**  There are a lot of good reasons for clustering or grouping — exchange and promotion of music and ideas,  playing each others' work, pooling of material resources, sharing concerts and publicity — and there are also some problems (who's in and who's out of the group?  what if the group falls apart, like a marriage? what if one member is more successful career-wise than others?  what if you now disavow a group?). (Ron Silliman has some thoughts on poets clustering).   Maybe it's wise for groups to have some form of pre-nuptial agreement, for the worst case scenarios.  My own engagement with other composers around Material Press has been both personally and musically rewarding;  the association is voluntary and  fair— like Frog Peak in the US the publisher only earns from scores sold, not demanding the usual 50% publishers' share of license fees, and the times we get together, socially or musically have always been good.  We could, perhaps, have done more in the way of promotion, but our lack of pushiness is also a matter of style.

See also this post from 2007 on Co-Composing, this on The Convivial Cage (2006) and this on Loneliness or Conviviality (2007).


* There are three very practical and potentially profitable reasons for saving sketches: for revising or extending your own work, as material for teaching, and as salable archival materials.  I don't save my sketches, having (a) a small horror of someday being overwhelmed by them, such that I cannot do anything new and (b) some committment to the notion that there are always more than one way to create a given musical surface, with no certainty about which one is the best or most efficient way, but those are my personal quirks.  I recommend that my younger colleagues carefully save every scrap of paper and analog or digital media they make: this is your work, too.  

**The best/worst example of this being the minimalists, with the most curious moment happening when the dubious, but original, quartet of Young, Riley, Reich, and Glass got re-booted (the culprit seems to have been Nonesuch records which, no surprise, was making a heavy investment in Reich and Adams) with Young out and Adams in, albeit with Glass, Reich and Adams running as fast away from the label as they could...

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Unbearable Languidness of Institutions

If we had been limited to mainstream media this weekend, with the exception of BBC's Persian service, we'd have almost completely missed news of the events in Iran.  Traditional media institutions — aside from the fact that they never perform well on weekends — simply don't have the agility and networks of witnesses to cover stories that are not lead by releases from official sources and move faster than hourly deadlines. Internet reporting, on the other hand, while often — and wisely — having to carry caveats about verifiability, have proven themselves to have both considerable agility and a astonishing breadth of networked resources, many of them appearing nearly spontaneously.   (I'm personally amazed that two of the best sources have been diaries at the (left) Daily Kos and (conservative) Andrew Sullivan's page; new pages of photodocumentation from inside Iran and translations of twitter messages have also been very informative.)  I have no doubt that, with the weekend closing, mainstream reporting on Iran will improve, but the internet provided essential information bridging the mainstream's absence and has set a high level of quality for further reporting, changing the initial mainstream spin on the election, which essentially accepted official statements. 


I didn't notice that Perspectives of New Music has — or had? — a blog.  Seems like no one else did either.  It's here but seems to have moved to a Google group here, which is just as quiet.   I'm not exactly a fan of PNM, but it has been moving in more interesting directions in the last decade or so (with features on composers including James Tenney and Pauline Oliveros; good stuff even if two decades too late), but this good news appears not to have reached a wide audience.  This is a shame, because for New Music to stay news, it has got to communicate its breadth, depth, and liveliness.   For breadth and depth, PNM could be an important component, a marker of our diversity and controversy and as a forum for the more intellectual aspects of our art form (yes, Virginia, musicians can be intellectuals), but to succeed, it has to appear lively, with a greater online present and a more rapid delivery of new information, idea, opinions, and, yes, music. I honestly hope that the inherently slow pace of PNM's paper-based journal culture does not keep it from finding a lively presence online.


It was both a revelation and a confirmation for me, when as a young composer, I discovered that Europe had recognized the music I loved most — that of the American experimental tradition — as our most vital and important.   Cage and Feldman and Reich were important names here, while the American compositional establishment — the best upper set, so to speak —, the ones who got commissions and teaching jobs and other plums, were largely (and, to my ears, correctly) obscure.   In my recent listening journeys through the archives of RadiOM, I've been delighted by the realization that, in the end, we valued the experimental tradition more as well, for it has been the experimental repertoire that has survived in the archives.*  In part, I suspect that this is because the outsiders running music programming at Pacifica stations, for example, recognized both the historical importance of the radical music and its material fragility, and understood that if one was to be responsible, as journalists and citizens, that documentation was essential, not a luxury.  (Being able to rehear KPFK broadcasts by Carl Stone or William Malloch lately has been a bit like going through a second musical adolescence.)  On the other hand, where are the archived broadcasts of mainstream new music performances or interviews and the like? The programming lists of a traditional, commercial, "classical" station, like LA's KFAC, actually included a modest number of mainstreamish new music performances, but there's been no foundation created to store those archives.   I suspect that there was a form of institutional hubris at work here, not unlike that found in the large financial institutions that have fallen so greatly of late, a sense of entitlement that comes with establishment status: "we don't have to worry about archives because we're too big to be forgotten..."


Don't get me wrong: we need institutions in our lives.  (Yes, Virginia, we need both the post office and the opera house).  There are just too many of us living on a small planet that somethings need to be organized on a large scale.  Efficience, reliability and redundancy all have their place. (I'm thinking now of Cage's Buckminster Fuller-inspired recognition of the essential role of "utilities" in our lives and the modest way in which it should interact with our lives.) The problem is created, however, when such institutions become bottlenecks, gatekeepers, or roadblocks, when the institution is no longer flexible enough to meet changes in supply, delivery, or demand, and particularly when the institutional will to survive is greater than its ability to recognize that it is no longer providing an adequate service.


[Added, an hour or so later.]  I'd thought I was done with my institution-bashing for the day, but here's something more:  perhaps the first decent English language newspaper obituary for Henry Pousseur, who died on March 6th, appeared in the Guardian on June 11th.  


* The survival of radical work in online archives is not a phenomena restricted to music:  check out the PennSound pages for poety, or UbuWeb for film, music, poetry, and much else.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Admission, granted

I like concerts.  I like going to concerts.  I like them to the near-exclusion of recordings from my life. But I must admit that I'm not always a perfect concert-goer.  I have, for example,  yawned during a concert. Yawning is rude and distracting to both the performers and the audience.  I shouldn't yawn during a concert.  I have also fallen asleep during a concert*.  That should probably be avoided as well. During intermissions, I sometimes move to more expensive seats that have been vacated. And, of course, as a penurious student, I did steal my way into more than one concert. Sometimes whole concert series or festivals. On occasion, I have left concerts at intermission and — albeit with somewhat less frequency — I have departed the hall in the middle of a piece.  I have coughed, to be sure.  Also sneezed.  I have made crispy plastic noises while opening packages of mints or cough drops, trying to avoid coughing or sneezing. I have sat in squeaky chairs and been unable to stifle all sqeaks.  I have worn shoes that squeak. When suffering stress, my jar has been known to crack.  Not quietly. I have dropped programs, books, sun- and/or reading glasses, articles of clothing, backpacks, briefcases, picnic baskets,  canned beverages, and — but only once — a bentō box during concerts.  I have expressed displeasure by not clapping.  But for all that, I do not talk while music is being played during concerts and I do not have a mobile phone, pager, portable music player, or wristwatch with an alarm that might go off.  Nor have I ever worn clothing so distractive as to compete with the music for the audience's attention.  To be absolutely fair, most of the things I have dropped have fallen on cushioned chairs or carpeted floors.  And while yes, a fallen bentō box is indeed annoying, but a tiffin or a schoolchild's tin lunchbox or carkeys or a handful of cutlery would be that and more so! My cracking jaw is a legitimate medical condition.   And supressing a cough or sneeze is often a hell of a lot more distracting than actually having the damn cough or sneeze and getting on with it.  And, pardon me, but I have never booed, hissed, or demonstratively exited any performance that didn't really have it coming.

In fact, I'd say that altogether, I'm just about your perfect concert-goer.   


* I have never fallen asleep in a work of Morton Feldman's, by the way.  But I have watched three men — my father, the late musicologist and philosopher Daniel Charles, and Feldman himself — all doze off during Feldman concerts.  Charles, a large man, snored loudly — if ironically — throughout a performance of Feldman's Piano, but somehow managed to wake, as if by some form of electric shock controlled by clockwork, promptly and impressively, given his gallic tonnage, at the piece's end, rising to his feet and shouting "bravo!"


Friday, June 12, 2009

Genre Trouble

Once again, I'm thoroughly enjoying myself with a new China Miéville novel, The City & the City, which is a kind of late 19th century mystery story set in a wierd fictional/sci fi/fantasy universe in which the two cities in the title share the same geographical space but are otherwise essentially distinct from one another.  Miéville is a writer who clearly loves his genres, and generally respects their conventions, but not their borders (I hear echos of Kafka and Dickens here as well)  and his respect is never at the expense of getting the language right, and his language is beautifully right.  Similar in my experience to only Pynchon (and, with respect to non-"literary" genres, like legal briefs, Gaddis, or technical and commercial writing, Wallace), Miéville understands how to love a genre just enough to make it better.  If I were a 19h century romantic, I might even use the word "transcend." 

I have to wade carefully now when it comes to the subject of genre.  A post in the past which mentioned comic books casually was rightly torn in shreds by readers with a much less casual relationship to that jenre.  To be honest, with the exception of juvenile flights in sci fi and the hard boiled detective novel and the occasional but neccesary escapes into airplane novels, my reading has been mostly "literary", writing that has the conceit of being outside or even above established commercial genres.  My musical tastes, of course, are probably even more conceited.  I probably know less of or about more popular music genres — whether rock or jazz or polka or jaipongan or whatever — than most of you, and yet I am more or less convinced that the new music has a capacity — if often imperial in ambition — to both contain, critique and go beyond any other genres.  At the same time, I will note the complementary capacity of popular genres to swallow innovations whole if only to spit them out when they are done (anyone else here remember Joseph Byrd's brilliant The United of America or Stanley Silverman's Elephant Steps?  I wonder to what degree such efforts, from the late 1960's, might be considered as tales of caution for my colleagues, now, in the late years of the first decade of the 2000's, who are entering into similar cross-over projects?) (More interesting to me are the cases of composers who have parallel careers in genre musics, like Wallingford Riegger, who wrote band and choir music under a number of pseudonyms, or Jerry Hunt, who made his living largely by scoring industrial films and videos).

In his introduction to McSweeney's Mamoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, editor Michael Chabon (a writer who also knows his genres)  offers a though experiment: "Imagine that, sometime about 1950, it had been decided, collectively, informally, a little at a time, but with finality, to proscribe everyother kind of novel from the canon of the future but the nurse romance. ... I do believe that from this bizarre decision, in this theoretical America, a dozen or more authentic materpieces would have emerged.  Thomas Pynchon's Blitz Nurse, for example, and Cynthia Ozick's Ruth Puttermesser, R.N. ..."   May I suggest that any composers interested in joining our little melodica anthology project think of it in similar terms: Imagine that, sometime in the 1950s, it had been decided that the optimal vehicle for avant-garde music were the virtuoso solo melodica piece, that the melodica had had its David Tudor and Severino Gazzelloni and the Arditti and Kronos had been melodica quartets and that its repertoire had included its own Berio Sequenza, and a Cage star-chart-based etude, and an hour of Stockhausen's Klang, as well as the Steve Reich phasing piece or a Christian Wolff exercise.  (Oh wait, we have those last two. Oh well.) 

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Enduring Optimism

Composer Gordon Mumma (my teacher, so I'm partisan here) has a new blog, here, and an updated webpage, here.   The greybox images on his site are particularly elegant; definitely a new trick this old dog will have to learn.

I'm delighted, also, to learn about the music of composer Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, who has a website full of scores and sound files, here.  


Sunday, June 07, 2009

Vérités et Mensonges

For the Melodica project, I've been toying with some forgery.  The idea has been to compose the melodica pieces a few famous composers neglected to write before shuffling off.  The notion is that the world really needs a virtuoso Cage Etude and a Berio Sequenza and maybe even an hour of Stockhausen's Klang for solo melodica.  

I have discovered, however, that if you want the result to be both convincing and musical, you can't play fast and loose with your imitations or parodies, no matter how cheap or, well, funny, they might want to be.  If you want to fake a Cage Etude, for example, there's really no alternative to the discipline Cage followed, in which clear rules were established — whether for chance or choice operations — through which the notations on a star map are to be transformed into notes, intervals and chords arrayed in musical time, and then executing those rules precisely.   Forging a work that is supposed to pass as an unknown piece by a known composer requires replicating the same level of detail and depth that the composer brought to his or her work as well as using material that that is similar but not identical to material the model composer used in "real" pieces.  Anything less that that is likely to lead to an unconvincing result. The same goes, one presumes, for Ersatzstockhausen or faux-Boulez or fraudulent Ferneyhough or bogus Babbitt or counterfeit Carter or gold brick Glass or reproduction Reich... okay, you get the idea.  

One other thing:  a successful sham requires that one concocts a convincing backstory.  Like that sweet little melodica piece Morton Feldman jotted down on a cocktail napkin and promptly forgot in a booth in the back of the Cedar Tavern in '58, or that tragic work Xenakis abandoned in a foxhole while running courier services for the resistance, or that very long solo La Monte Young forgot about during one of those years in the 1960's that has long been forgotten by anyone who was really there... 

Friday, June 05, 2009

Setting the Price

A bleg:  In my sideline as music publisher, we're having some serious discussions about the price of sheet music.  We're not exactly operating in a perfectly balanced supply and demand environment, and there are real costs in materials and time in handling individually printed and shipped orders of sheet music (often with some unusual formating issues), so the calculation is far from easy.  For my own music, and the music of some others at Material Press, I'm usually happy to give away electronic copies of scores (knowing that, if all is reported correctly, I'll earn money from performance licenses), but sell paper scores to libraries or others who don't like to roll their own.  But setting the price for those paper copies is tricky, particularly (a) when a single piece has a relatively modest — by page count — size, or (b) when text or graphic scores are involved, or (c) the score is published on demand.   Peters gets 5.95US$ for a copy of 4'33", perhaps two photocopied pages in a folder.  Peer Southern sells Thomson's Piano Sonata No. 3 — 6 pages of engraved music in a folder — for five bucks.     Anthologies of smaller works by either of these composers, in an engraved and staple-bound format, range from 5 to 25 dollars.  What would you be willing to pay for a single page of instructions for a piece of music?  For a piece 5, 10, or 30 pages long?  How about a cd of recorded sound required for performance of a work?

Think Again

Repetition is opportunity.

A nice line from Xenakis:

When you say repetition, it is "thinking again about the same thing." This is what I think of as the meaning of "repetition."

(from here), reminds me  (once again) of my favorite Lewis Carroll verse, The Mad Gardener's Song:

He thought he saw an Elephant,
  That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
  A letter from his wife.
"At length I realise," he said,
  "The bitterness of Life!"


and, of course, John Cage's advice:

If we are suffering, and we are able to recognize it, we have the opportunity to change our minds. 



Without thinking too much about it in advance, I recently set some small poems by the late Charles Chase, a hometown poet, radical, sculptor, teacher, instrument repairman, small businessperson, and a great friend.  One of them has gotten me into some trouble:

we're not so crowded / where we're going / but we got room for God / being he don't mind / sharing the work / except Sundays

My settings are for ATB voices, not too difficult technically, and are rather mild in musical character, even pretty.  But the reception from prospective singers has been cool.  I just hadn't reckoned with the fact that most choral groups are either attached to religious institutions, or peopled with church-goers so this modest bit of irreverence was just enough to place it in the not usable column.  

These little songs are not central to my work, so that this is is not a major issue for me or anyone else, but maybe it is a useful illustration of current religious sensitivities.      


Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Language Extinction

It's a good thing that there's so much concern these days about language extinction.  As someone working in a musical niche, I recognize something kindred in endangered, dead, and extinct languages.  These languages, like our musics, are repositories of alternative modes of expression (at their acoustical surfaces, at the very least)  and, sometimes, perception, and the preservation of such creative diversity is a critical task.

This conservative task is entirely complementary to the goal of encouraging new linguistic invention.  Nothing is more deadening to the imagination than prescriptive linguistics when it has acquired political power (in a country like Germany or France, for example, the rules about correct spelling are a highly political affair and inability or disinclination to follow those rules can be highly disadvantageous; I have recently watched the newfound American enthusiasm for the spelling bee with some horror).  The same certainly goes for musical composition:  innovation, like the recovery of neglected historical musical paths, inevitably means a confrontation with or negation of some conventions or rules.  


Monday, June 01, 2009

Arts and Crafts

I just read that Sam Maloof has died, at the age of 93.  A woodworker, Maloof famously refused to identify himsef as an artist and insisted that his rocking chairs were to be rocked and his cribs were for babies to sleep in, not just striking objects to look at but exquisite surfaces to touch and be put to use.  He was part of a Southern Californian crafts scene that, to my mind, included people like the ceramicist Paul Soldner (Soldner was a neighbor when I was a kid, with a stone house like ours in Russian Village on the Claremont/Montclair border; Maloof lived in Alta Loma, not so far away) as well as countless others working in niches between the ornamental and the practical that California seemed to have always attracted like a magnet.  
I don't think it's much of a stretch to also associate a number of west coast musicians with these craftsmen — Lou Harrison and Harry Partch and Erv Wilson, certainly, but also John Cage, for all of whom craftmanship (in notation or instrument building, for example) was important, as well as the inventive use of found materials, and were never narrowly constrained by the conventional and narrow definitions of their professional disciplines, but rather an attitude that any interesting line of work could be pursued, DIY.  Moreover these musicians seemlessly incorporated craft elements into their work in contrast to the way in which a Schoenberg kept his hobbies (designing playing cards or a cardboard violin) at home or Hindemith identified the craft of composition with a guild-like professional compentency.  
There is a well-known and rather formal art historical term, Arts and Crafts, that identifies a movement in architecture and the decorative arts that, with probable roots in the English movement of the same name, flowered in California and further up the west coast.  Facing the Pacific, Asian models were as important as those from Europe, and the European models as often as not were filtered through the Spanish and Mexican colonial/mission era.   I can remember, in the 60's, visiting the homes of various elderly relatives, all of which exhibited mixtures of architecture, furniture, decor, and objects which comfortably incorporated all of these influences.  My great grandmother's place in Paso Robles was a white-plastered, red tile-roofed adobe bungalow, where persian rugs inside looked up at wrought iron Mexican lamps, and dinner was served on real blue china from China, the model for her garden was, despite the hot climate, an English one with Japanese-inspired touches. The movement was never exclusive to professional artists.  That house and garden in Paso Robles was sketched on by the owner-builder on butcher paper and later on had hand-made lace, stained glass windows, and wallpapers to accompany the purchased items.  Russian Village was only one of several complexes in Southern California with houses made from rocks, salvaged slabs of flood-wrecked concrete pavement and any other bits of thrown-away but still usable material. (The famous Watts Towers are a close sculptural relation of these houses).   The movement reached outward and downward: a standard field of instruction in public schools was "arts and crafts" rather than the traditional fine arts trio of drawing, painting and sculpture. John Cage's mother, for a time, owed an Arts and Crafts store in LA, selling materials to home hobbyists; his engagement with graphic design and, later in life, with printmaking mixed the seriousness of someone who know the mainstream world of modern art well with the play of someone who was willing to try it himself.  I also think that there's an obvious straight line to be drawn from Cage's can-do music education experiments with his Aunt Pheobe and in WPA projects to his music for percussion and the prepared piano.   
Lou Harrison will always be a professional role model for me: if he needed a particular instrument, he had it built or built it himself.  (A friend once quipped that "with every step forward in technology, Lou was apt to take two steps backward".*) Two of Lou's own role models were William Morris and Arnold Dolmetsch, direct connections to that other Arts and Crafts movement.  His calligraphy was of a different aesthetic than Cage's, connected to older historical models (Morris especially) than Cage's more strictly modernist influences (i.e. Maholy-Nagy), but both had manuscript hands that were attractive, legible, and immediately identifiable as their own, impulses that go at some odds with the emphasis elsewhere on a more uniform professional copying style.    
* That same friend predicted that Lou would soon be making his own paper, but Lou actually became a serious advocate of non-tree papers and it was Cage who would incorporate his own paper (with ingredients including kitchen scraps) in his visual art works.  Lou was also not-entirely-so-backward with regard to technology.  With Carter Scholz, he devised several sets of computer fonts based on his calligraphy, which are now available from Frog Peak Music.