Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Last Melodica Reminder

This is one last reminder to send in your scores (PDF format, to djwolf -AT- snafu -DOT- de) for the first international online anthology of new music for melodica solo or ensemble.  This is shaping up to be a remarkable collection, to say the least.

[Addendum: If you're thinking of making a late entry, here's one idea I had, complete with title, but couldn't quite make work and you are free to use it: HAND TO MOUTH, for one melodica, two players, one of whom is assigned to the keyboard while the other manages the mouthpipe, allowing for some rhythmically complex cross-articulations. ]

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On the fly

Alex Ross has a very good article on traditions of improvisation (ornamentation and cadenzas especially) in classical music.   The article is subtitled "reviving the art of classical improvision" and Ross means it literally, as in bringing back the dead.  And there really is a sense that the improvisatory tradition is not only moribund, but was murdered: Ross quotes conductor Will Crutchfield's characterization of a Caruso cadenza so widely duplicated as to have become the canonical cadenza for the aria into which it is inserted as the “death-of-tradition”  and Ross himself describes Beethoven's written-out cadenza for the Mozart d minor Concerto as helping to "kill" it.   

I'm of two minds about improvisatory elements in music.  I agree that they can make a performance more fresh, more lively and, in effect, open up the musical text, but that doesn't remove the composer's responsibility to compose a score that is, on its own terms, fresh, lively, and rewarding of repeated play and listening.  Also, the simple inclusion of improvisatory elements does not automatically make the performer an interesting or musically convincing improvisor.  Further, it is one thing to consider improvisatory practices which are part and parcel of a musical style, in which the particular turns and figures chosen will be understood rhetorically in terms of that style, and it is quite another to consider improvisatory elements in the context of new music, in which the stylistic background radiation is highly diffused.

Nevertheless, the project of re-opening the musical work to the extemporaneous has been an important part of the radical music.   The examples of music which invite or require improvisatory elements — Christian Wolff's cuing pieces, the variable forms introduced in Feldman's Intermission 6 and widely expanded upon, particularly in the European avant-garde, or the animation of small cells of music common to many pieces in the West Coast experimental tradition, or Richard Maxfield's concert works using soloists improvising against tape works based on their own recorded improvisation, for example — continue to be rich in potential for new music.  There is nothing (yet) like the thick tradition of French baroque agréments, ornaments for which a composer can appeal to a body of figures and their shorthand notation  as well as a tradition for their appropriate placement within a piece of music which will be understood by a broad community of musicians as the point of departure for improvisation, but there are still recognizeable elements of a tradition in the works in which, for example, the cues of Wolff scores from the 1950's are echoed in the game-structure works of John Zorn or in the networked improvisations of small computer-based ensembles.

The project of recovering historical examples of improvisation is musicologically interesting and musically useful if, at the very least, it brings alternative cadenzas and ornamentations into the concert hall.  But performances of these revived examples are still not a restoration of improvisation to classical music, and the repetition, from a notated transcription of a historical example of improvisation is definitely not improvisation either.  Early music performers are, in general, further along this route than mainstream classical players.  The best recorder and gamba soloists today are gifted, inventive improvisers as well and when they play a set of divisions their fidelity to style is so high that it is often very difficult to know where composition ends and improvisation begins.  One is clearly hearing "the piece", but "the piece" has also been made anew through the extemporaneous elements. 

A parallel project, of recovering, through transcription, landmarks of more recent improvised music, raises lots of questions.  Again, this is musicologically interesting and a player can learn a lot from it, but as successful as a particular improvisation may have been, the composer/improviser is fallable, and more than likely to harbor some doubts about some or all of it.  But more critically, isn't simply reproducing the transcription out of the spirit of the initial enterprise?   It would be entirely possible, for example, to play a transcription of a single performance of La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano, but a performance of the transcription would not be responding to the particular set and setting in which the original performance unfolded and would not be open to the possibilities for alteration that the composer always allows himself.  The better way, it seems to me, is to learn the piece as the composer prescribes, rehearsing with him directly until such a point that one has the confidence (one's own as well as that of the composer) to make one's own realization.  Even more so with works of music in which the composer's own open notation is available: while it would be possible to learn to play a Christian Wolff piano piece by transcription of a David Tudor recording, the composer's notation was specifically designed to create an indefinite number of realizations, so freezing the piece around an old Tudor recording is introducing an unwarranted restriction on the work itself, the avant-garde version of the "death of tradition."  The notational tools for a very precise, closed musical text are readily available to composers and when a composer makes a deliberate decision for a score in which elements are not all precisely or decisively described or are to be defined in real time by the performer, then it is a plain misreading of the score's notation not to reserve these elements for the improvisational domain.     


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Choice comments

The Feuilleton in today's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung led with an article about the phenomena of audio guides in museums.  The article closely mirrors the discussions online and elsewhere about Twittering realtime program notes during concerts.   The critique of concert twittering has mostly centered around annoyance that audience members might be looking at their cell phones instead of "really paying attention" during the concert.  I think that critique is somewhat misplaced, as the deeper issue is not the degree to which Twitterers and those who sit next to Twitterers are distracted but the degree of uniformity and control which the particular narrative medium reinforces.  For popular museum exhibitions, the most important function of the audio guides is probably their ability to regulate the speed of visitor traffic, as earplugged visitors do tend to move to the next room whenever the little voice tells them to move.  I like traffic jams as little as anyone and so I appreciate this, especially when the technology allows the listener to linger or rush to the next gallery at will.   (Actually, I find the choreography of a crowd of gallery visitors suddenly taking flight to a cue inaudible to me to have a certain post-Judson Dance beauty; though there isn't much to be said for a concert audience concentrating on their crotches, there might even be some beauty in the faces of an audience lit by the glow of little cell-phone screens).

However, this practical function for a high-traffic exhibition comes coupled with the packaging of an official-seeming narrative or interpretation of the images they see and, presumably, Twittered concert commentaries will do the same, while not even having the traffic cop function of the gallery commentary.   At present, as far as I can tell, concert twitters and museum audio guides alike represent only single points of view.  (An especially odd case is that of the conductor who pre-programs a Twitter feed to narrate, or even justify, his or her own performance.  There's so much meta-weirdness in that.)  There's no market choice before a concert as to whether the comments will come from a stuffy old-fashioned musicologist with the standard bits about standard forms and a handful of favorite anecdotes or from a new musicologist with some formal deconstruction and semi-appropriate pop-cultural references accompanied by some really juicy anecdotes or from some experimentalist with commentary chosen via chance operations from a library of thousands of possible program notes... the possibilities are endless.  (Much more interesting than the conductor's auto-narrating Twitter is the possibility of audience member's own Twittered messages.)  I want my relationships to art in a gallery or to music in a concert to be intimate, and if I wish to share that intimacy, I want to choose my partners, even my virtual partners.  No, I'm not going to take a Twitter feed in concerts or put one of those earphones on in a gallery until I have some substantial choice about the voices I might hear.    

[Addendum:  I posted this and — with a typical slow uptake — realized that I was not even considering the compositional potential of a live textual commentary to an on-going piece.   A composer who has some facility with text could surely find interesting ways of working in parallel, oblique and contrary motion with the music.  Moreover, there is no necessity that all audience members receive the same Twitter: there could be multiple composed textual counterpoints, perhaps even generated by live chance operations.  This could be a useful way of bringing new life to the open, polyvalent work of music we that was so celebrated in the '60s. EVEN BETTER THAN THAT:  Let's combine the museum guide and the concert twitter.  How about a labyrinthine work of music, the parts of which are distributed through a series of halls and galleries, through which audience members are individually guided, each getting their own sequence of musical materials and text? The possibilities are exciting.]  

Friday, August 21, 2009

Further Excerpts from the Minority Report

(1) "... nothing wrong with failure.  Experimental music is all about accepting the risk of failure.  And I'm not just talking John Cage-experimental.  You want to know an experimental musician who failed?  Wagner failed, that's who.  Wagner failed bigtime. He wrote music dramas that are unsingable and unstageable.  You don't believe me?  Name one production in which the singing and staging get all-round praise.  I'm talking praise from card-carrying Wagnerites.  When the vocal and orchestral writing demands voices that don't exist, and probably, without some form of amplification, will never be able to exist and the staging requires old-fashioned stage magic that no one believes in anymore, you've got a big recipe for failure... ...being a Wagnerite, even a Perfect Wagnerite, means not just the ordinary operatic suspension of disbelief, it means the perpetual suspension of complete satisfaction, the Tristan chord extended forever, having to be satisfied with small tidbits and morsels because no performance will ever succeed as a whole, voices, orchestra, acting, staging.."

(2) "...unable to write a piece of significant length.  Not every piece needs to be as long as the Hammerklavier or the second Feldman quartet or The Well-Tuned Piano.  And we certainly don't need programs filled with twenty-to-thirty minute pieces.   The Debussy Prélude is ten minutes long, the faun's orgasm included.  Ten minutes.  Ionization isn't seven minutes long and it's still a "sock in the jaw". The great dirty secret of the 10-minute-plus and the 20-minute-plus piece is not that they are automatically more significant, it's that, once you get past the 10-minute mark, the piece earns you more points with GEMA or ASCAP, and it happens again at 20-minutes.  We need more shorter pieces.  Serious music needs to reclaim the three-minute piece from pop music. Make the world safe again for the three-minute piece full of depth and wonder..."

(3) "...and the he started in on some business about 'Can the artist really draw?' He said that making the music I made was a sign that I couldn't write purdy, tonal music, "real music," in a traditional, classical style. Of course I can.  I'm a musician.  I've played purdy, tonal music in traditional styles all my goddamned life and I went to conservatory and learned to imitate dozens of styles of purdy, tonal music.  I wrote hundreds of counterpoint exercises and four-voiced chorales and then the canons and fugues and minuets and sonata movements and then I graduated to grading thousands of harmony and counterpoint exercises.  If that's drawing then, yeah, I can draw, but maybe I want to paint, and print and sculpt... ...the belief that no music that goes beyond the technical and stylistic of some arbitray point in the past is hopelessly pessimistic, necrophilia... and that ain't purdy..."


Thursday, August 20, 2009


A pleasant surprise sometimes repeats itself: while working on one piece, I discover that I have actually made at least one more along the way.  Recently, sketches and ideas for a quintet soon leaked or mutated into or revealed themselves to be better suited for another ensemble, another piece, in this case a small trio for woodwinds, tentatively named Came and Went, in which a three-player scoring pattern (not quite a Beckett-Gray code, as a B-G code where n=3 is impossible) is played six times, so that all the possible assignments of each instrument to a line in the pattern are used, but the whole is interrupted by moments of repose, not-yet-tonal harmonic passages like that above, which contrast with the patterned passages, which are more ambiguous harmonically (disfunctional-but-not-yet-atonal as is my want) but also more clearly melodic, albeit with a melody well-distributed among the instruments, a gentle hocket.  The quintet is still not done, but — dreaded dynamics aside — Came and Went is all but done and gone.  

An unexpected piece is a delicate matter for a composer.  It was made it out of musical curiosity, not in response to a commission.  On the one hand, there is a temptation to file it away, as a bit of a reserve for a time when a commission is pending but the muse is not around.  On the other hand, when you like the piece and the ideas in it have already settled in your mind and you think players and listeners might like it, too, why not let it go?  


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bona nox!

I sometimes think that catches, like limericks, divide into two categories: clean ones and good ones.(Click image to enlarge.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Orchestra: Organize yourself!

Mr. Cage had difficulties with orchestras, because orchestras tended to have members who found it difficult to be responsible when asked to distinguish between freedom and license. Performances of Atlas Eclipticalis and Cheap Imitation by very well-known orchestras turned out very badly because of this. Nevertheless, in spite of these experiences, Cage, the optimist, persisted in trying to get orchestras to do more rather than less, and to mature as social organizations while doing it.  Etcetera, a piece in which players not only volunteer to be conducted*, get to chose which conductor they are conducted by, and many of the late works return to the conductorless ideal, most of the time substituting the use of the neutral — and egoless — stopwatch for a conductor.  As an indication, perhaps, that this optimism is still an active force in the radical music, I'd like to point out a pair of recent works for orchestra without conductor.

The first is Samuel Vriezen's Local Orchestra (score available here) which is notated in a text format not unlike that found in prose scores by Christian Wolff.  However, I think that the spirit of Vriezen's music is here is as close to late Cage as it is to Wolff, particularly in the implied economy of tones, which is related to dynamics.  There are, however, distinctive elements here, and the primary distinction comes in the division of the work into two movements in which the orchestra is successively characterized as "consonant" and "dissonant".  Consonant or dissonant relative to what? Vriezen's "consonant" is pythgorean in character, favoring intervals of octaves, fifths and fourths; his "dissonant" movement, effectively makes an M5/7 transform on the consonant movement and favors semitones.   The major compositional decision here was formal, in Vriezen's decision to place the "consonant" before the "dissonant", the retrograde of traditional tonal resolution.  There is also one articulation trick here: the "consonant" movement is punctuated by silences, while the "dissonant" movement is continous.  The score is only a page of text, but in that page Mr. Vriezen has practically managed to write the compact edition of an early 20th century Harmonielehre.    

(Many other prose scores by a variety of composers, myself included, along these lines, are also available at Upload .. Download .. Perform ).

The second score I'd like to mention is a work of Douglas Leedy, Shining Path - Sendero Luminoso (1992-93, a score excerpt is reproduced above), the first of Three Symphonies for Unison Orchestra.  Not only did Leedy intend a conductorless ensemble, but the initial version of the score was produced on a single page (with instructions on the back side) with the expectation that the piece would probably be played without rehearsal.  the score has a Cagian pedigree,  not only in Leedy's acknowledgement of Cheap Imitation as a model, but also in the use here, of the temporal structure of Cage's Music for Marcel Duchamp.  Shining Path is many things, but most strikingly, it is a form of reckoning with the western symphonic and harmonic/polyphonic tradition.  Most members of the orchestra play a very slow, long, and winding — locally tonal/centric and directed, mid-level unpredictable, almost aimless, and globally, bound to a tonic G — melody in unison whole notes (the melody is 358 whole notes long at a tempo of half note less than 40 mm), but all have the option to articulate the melody in a variety of ways, a form of simultaneous variation more familar in non-occidental ensemble music traditions.   Furthermore, the mostly sustained whole notes are aperiodically punctuated  by sharply articulated quarter-note G's by a group of tympani and  bass instruments, following the logic of their own internal pattern but also suggesting formal markers more akin to the gong schedule of a classical gamelan work or East Asian court music than the cadences of western functional tonality.

Neither Local Orchestra nor Shining Path have been performed to date [addendum: in the comments thread, composer Lloyd Rodgers was kind to mention that he has played Shining Path with his Diverse Instrument Ensemble in Fullerton, California: Great News, but I still want to hear it live, myself, and live alongside Samuel's piece!], but both of them should be played, at the very least as a sign of some confidence in the human spirit.  Let's stay in the spirit of Cage's optimism and try to make that happen.  


* One of the greatest joys in my musical life was rehearsing for Etcetera with Cage, Richard Winslow, and Alvin Lucier:  volunteering to be conducted by any of them was both servitude and cooperation of a special kind.   

Monday, August 17, 2009

Intermissions with Feldman

To break up some capricious and possibly ill-advised research,* I've been filling up ever-longer intermissions with the transcripts of Morton Feldman's late Middelburg lectures  (published in two volumes by MusikTexte as Words on Music/Worte über Musik). Feldman's lecture style was famously engaging. He was a great substitute for a favorite anecdote-and-general-BS-delivering uncle, unschooled but educated, unpolished but in his own way erudite, and simultaneously vague and razor sharp.**  Even in print you tend to hang on every word, especially, it seems, when you disagree most with him or when Feldman has mixed something up or even got it altogether wrong.  The editor, Raoul Mörchen, does a great job of identifying obscurities and correcting errors, which are, sometimes, slips and, not infrequently, intentional slights on Feldman's part. (Hilariously, after a series of insults on Feldman's part about the recorder, the MusikTexte publishers themselves even step in with a footnote of their own to defend, as it were, the honor of the recorder as a serious musical instrument for new music.)  Highly recommended.     


* Under the motto "now that serialism is all over, or at most completely unfashionable, what can be learned, recovered, or renewed?", which has led to some strange and wonderful stuff, not only from the usual suspects on either side of the Atlantic but also to works and writings by people like Golisheff, Hauer, Eimert, and Heiß.   There have been a number of musicological publications on this topic of late (see, for example, volumes by Grant, Whittall, Straus) but none of these have struck me as particularly useful for composers looking for productive possibilities in the serial residua.   If we look for elements common to all of the music which might conceivably have flown under the flag of serialism (and the flag*** I'm waving is large enough to find serial elements in Music of Changes, In C, and I am sitting in a room...), we won't find much, but two ideas fundamental to serial practice — order/series and set/collection/gamut  — are so basic to so much music, that there are certainly some historical cul de sacs with potential for new music.

**As a Californian, and hopelessly constrained by my dialect, I'm constantly impressed by Feldman's ability to do this, efficiently getting across rather pointed arguments with incomplete sentences without ever without interjecting the all-utility  "you know" into every sentence.

*** My apologies for all the flag waving around here these days. Must. Find. Better. Metaphors.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Dynamic Crisis: Blame Michael Jackson

Three scores sit on my desk that are, in theory, almost finished, waiting for dynamics.  Just a couple of markings in bold italics and maybe a hairpin or two: loud, soft, and refinements of or transitions between these two.  It would be easy enough to either go through the score and just add them instinctively, improvisatorially, or by chance or to devise some system for using dynamics to better project characteristics of other parameters in the score,  or, even easier, just leave dynamics out of the score altogether, and identify them as a matter for the performers to decide.   But each of these possibilities strikes me at the moment as a bit of a cop-out, not making a move I can actually believe does what is best for my notes.  For some composers, the materials in their pieces are born with dynamic detail or gestures or have a prevailing dynamic mood — as soft or as loud as possible, for example — but my notes happen to have come into the world rather unemcumbered by dynamic shape and, if they have any dynamic profile at all, they seem to be both comfortable and robust enough, to my ears,  to be nestled in that almost anonymous zone between mezzo piano and mezzo forte, with only brief excursions out of the zone.  But all of the other aspects of the piece are so carefully done that just making a facile or overly broad assignment of markings risks appearing, if not actually being, insensitive and arbitrary.  

The difficulty here is actually shared by many other composers, and the difficulty has several causes.  

The first lies in the subjective, contextual, and transient nature of dynamics themselves.  What a marking of forte may mean to a performer depends upon which instrument or voice is used, and in which register(s)  and in which particular combination or passage.  It may also depend upon the physical space in which one sings or plays.   It certainly depends upon the conventions of style.  How about forte in early music, which may only recognize forte and piano (if even those)?  We certainly don't operate noewadays in an enviroment in which musicians will immediately understand dynamic markings as embedded in a particular local or historical style. What is the dynamic level of In C, for example?  Or forte in 1950's/60's serial music, in which it is assigned a theoretically distinct position in a scale of dynamics?  And if you have such a scale, is a dynamic marking absolute or relative? Are the markings to be scaled up or down for the particular set of instruments or voices in play?

The advent of recorded sound, with its necessary flattening of dynamics and the disconnect between the original sound level and the sound level the recording gets played at, has also affected our understanding of dynamics.  Electronic amplication and the the use of loudspeakers have changed our relationship to amplitude (as well as spatial position) of musical sounds in substantial ways and I don't think we're even close to understanding what this means for music. We can probably agree, however, that much of the music that makes up the acoustical background radiation in our lives is music in which the conditions imposed by electrical amplification are — for better or worse — inescapable.  From Bing Crosby to Les Paul or to Michael Jackson*, the prevailing image of musical dynamics has been to a large part determined by musicians dependent upon amplification.   While there is probably no going back to a lost (and probably fictional)  acoustical paradise in which dynamics were not constrained by electronics  — as Heinz-Klaus Metzger put it: "Webern was the last composer before the advent of air conditioning" —  there has surely got to be room for a musically meaningful use of dynamics in which the constraints of electronic sound production are not the overriding criteria.    

* Isn't it strange that in all the discussion about Jackson's use of various technologies to modify his body that the most important bit of modification was that involving a microphone?      

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Only Way to Win Is Not to Play the Game

Lesson one for young composers: Not everyone will love your music, and some people will decide that you, too, are unloveable, because of your music. 

Lesson two for young composers: Get over lesson one and get on with your own work.

Lesson three for young composers: Should people in positions of real economic or political power within the musical community use their dislike for your music and/or person as a basis for exercising their power, then feel free to call them on it, even if the stakes are modest.  Keep cool, speak clearly and loudly about this, but do not expect lasting change and make concrete plans for the independent material and moral support of your work.

Lesson four for young composers: Having wrestled with the authorities, get back on with your own work. 


The most rewarding part of this blogging experience has been the exchange and conversation with musicians and people who like music who happen to inhabit very different corners of New(andnotsonew)musicland.  I'm continually surprised by the amount of fruitful practical, technical, and aesthetic exchange I can have with someone who writes tonal music for windband or modal music for church choirs or who specializes in big bands or rock or computers or hardware hacking or is a serious student of film music or even hard-core opera fans or barbershop quartet singers. The only lasting conflicts I've encountered online have actually come from people with musical repertoire interests closest to my own.  I guess that this is sometimes just a matter of strongly territorial competition, or fear of too much oxygen been consumed in a very small space, but it's mostly just a side effect of caring so much about the music and the ideas behind it: one can come to identify with some music or have the feeling that they own it, with all the exclusive rights associated with ownership. This often leads, to my ears,  to a dangerous intolerance for a diversity of viewpoints, which is hardly the most useful viewpoint for an experimental musician.  I have myself been guilty of this, and if you find me at it again, please call me on it!


If you write tonal or modal music, there will be partisans of music which is not tonal or modal who are unhappy with your work.  If you write music that is not tonal or modal, there will be those who do who are unhappy with your work.  If you write tonal music, there will be other tonal composers who are unhappy with your particular technique or syle of tonality.  If you write music which is not tonal, there will be other not-tonal composers who are unhappy with your particular technique or style of not being tonal.

If you write music, there will always be someone who is unhappy with your music for being too complex and there will be someone else who is unhappy with your music for being not complex enough.   If you use a system or method, some people will be unhappy; others are unhappy if you don't use a system or method, and still other are unhappy if you use the "wrong" system or method. There will be people unhappy if you write music with catchy tunes and rhythms or refer to any other repertoire, classical, popular, or outside of the immediate historical and cultural context.  There will also be people who are unhappy if you write music that doesn't do any or all of these things.  There are people who are unhappy with music that is not active enough or diverse enough in content or character and there are people who are unhappy if they find music to be too active or too diverse.  There are people who are only happy when music is neatly packaged while there are other people who are most unhappy when they find music to be too neatly packaged.  There are people who are only happy when music contains some intellectual, cultural, and/ or emotional depth and there are people for whom happiness only comes with music that entertains and goes away without disturbing the soul.   

If you write music for instruments there will be those who are only happy with music for voices, and the same goes in reverse.   If you use "extended" techniques with voices or instruments, some people will be unhappy; if you don't use "extended" techniques, other people will be unhappy.  If you write music using electronics, there will be souls who become unhappy anytime they see a power cable or even a dry cell in a concert hall, while there are others who are unhappy anytime they don't see an electric power source.  If you bend circuits there will be people who are unhappy because you're not using a computer, the big computer people have always been unhappy with the small computer people, and there are some people who are unhappy when you do not use the same Mac laptop model.

There are some people who are unhappy if you use an alternative tuning, while there are others who are unhappy if you do not. There are people who are only happy when they hear an accordion or a vibraphone and there are people who are unhappy when they hear a cowbell or a vibraslap.  Some people are only happy in the presence of vibrato, others are happy only in the absence of vibrato.  There are people who are only happy with live music and there are people who are only happy with a broadcast or recording.  There are some people who are only happy when music is played a certain way or by certain musicians.   There are some people who simply are not ever happy with music.

It is difficult, very difficult, when the music one makes and loves does not make others happy. But when you are in a position to recognize there are some people who will never be made happy by music and others for whom their musical happiness is predetermined by a categorical preference for this or dislike for that, isn't this an opportunity to recognize that these people are lost causes, and it's better to treasure and cultivate people who still have their ears open than to worry about, let alone make music for, lost causes?   



Tuesday, August 11, 2009

12 Strikes and You're Out

Amazon identifies a title,  From Chords to Simultaneities: Chordal Indeterminancy and the Failure of Serialism, as belonging to a series of Contributions in Criminology and Penology

Monday, August 10, 2009

The radical music will save your life. (Or at least keep you a happy camper. Most of the time. Probably.)

The weekend reading was Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist, not an exhilarating and disturbing read like Inherent Vice, but a read all the same, with enough of the characteristic Baker turns (obsessive little stories and jarring non-sequitors top my list of favorite Baker tropes) to make for lively breaks between composing sessions and some escape from a neighbor's hard-hammered house renovations.  The subject and narrator of The Anthologist is a mid-career, middle-of-the-road poet; although he's reached that particular pinnacle of American poets, being asked to edit an anthology, he's in a bad patch with writing, relationships, and day jobs, and so he fills the absences of writing, relationships, and a day job with procrastination, distraction and obsessive little lessons to reader, from the all-too familiar, all-too-slow straightening-up the office to helping a neighbor lay a plank floor to holding forth before us on poetic rhyme and metre as well as a bit of ancient poetryland gossip.  He is, it seems, in the middle of a career writing poetry he really doesn't believe in; he does seem to believe in an idea of poetry — and he can rattle on and about with some passion for a number of 19th and 20th century mainstreamers —but the talents he seems to have as a poet are not those most applicable to the poetry that he actually likes.  Rhyme, for example, is not one of his strengths.  For all of his enthusiasms for rests and enjambments, his rhythm and metre seems a little stiff, too.   But he is worried enough about rhyme and rhythm to share his worries and theories — and modest theories they are — with us. The novel, though, is a comedy, and the summer of discontent was just that; all ends well (too well, if you ask me, like the last act of As You Like It, in which the Goddess Hymen descends, suddenly and without preparation, to put everything in order) : the poet gets over his bad patch, he finishes his anthology preface, his dashes off twenty-three poems during a plane fight, and he gets some steady work, housepainting, for which he seems entirely and cheerfully suited.   But to get there, we had to spend a book-length summer listening to his signs and stories of  frustration and anxiety. All the while reading this, I couldn't help but have one thought: had Paul Chowder, Baker's narrator/poet/anthologist been an experimental poet rather than a poet of the mainstream sort  — and he is mainstream enough, for example, to worry about Poet Laureates of the US or to mention, in passing, that one of his poems got read on air by Garrison Keillor — we would have been saved reading an awful lot about the anxiety that he had for rhyme, metre or status in poetryland.  You see, that's the great advantage of experimental music as well.  Experimental musicians are interested in and work with the same questions of metre and tonality and complexity and systems and style and anything else remotely connected with music that the mainstream gals and guys use, but the detachment or distance necessary to an experimental approach, combined with the in-advance knowledge that a conventional institutional career with prizes and positions is probably not in the works (and when it happens is like an unexpected gift from gods in whom we do not believe so have no need to thank) is also a gift of Gelassenheit, letting-go-ness, an invitation to compose without anxiety.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


Sometimes you just have to move simultaneously in opposite directions: at this point, every score I make can, in principle, be delivered in electronic format, via the magic of electrons telling other electrons to "move along!" (just like little doggies), but at the same time, an obsession with the material form of the hard copy of my scores continues unabated, with several rolls of handmade Nepali paper waiting to be cut down as coverstock, and it'll be exquisite coverstock, with no two volumes ever identical.  Heck, I even went to the hardware store this week and had plywood cut for a test run of even more substantial covers.  Who knows what's next?  Stainless steel?  Cast iron?  Concrete?  

I won't push this parallel too far, but there is something here akin to my tastes in visual arts.  I am hopelessly lost in my attachment to the works of Duchamp and Irwin, one an artist who moved the artwork away from the retina and direct perception and to the mind, and the other an artist who retrieved the sensual from the mind once again.  Coincidenta oppositorum.


Saturday, August 08, 2009

Oh... THOSE clunkers

In Germany the subsidy program for new automobile sales has the odd enough name Abwrackpraemie, but the equivalent US program, the Car Allowance Rebate System, is better known as Cash for Clunkers, a phrase which carries a special resonance for musicians.  

If lawmakers had decided to support, instead of the automobile industry, the musical arts, then they could have kept the popular name for the program.  I reckon that a Cash for Musical Clunkers program would be a great success: who doesn't have an embarrasing old score or performance that they'd love to erase from their collections or catalogues and replace with something new? I, for one, would gladly retire several old pieces in return for new commissions.    

Thursday, August 06, 2009


If you compose according to a strict plan, concept, idea, formula, how much variation or elaboration about that  idea, plan, formula, or concept do you allow?  One aesthetic pole would have the piece stripped down to the essence of the formula, idea, concept, or plan, allowing nothing more than that necessary to clearly and decisively project the concept, formula, plan, or idea.  The aesthetic approach polar opposite to that would strive to hide any overt signs of the formula, plan, idea, or concept, or even frame the whole plan, formula, concept, or idea within a larger musical context.  Of course, most real compositions will settle somewhere in the mushy middle between these two poles, allowing the concept, idea, plan, or formula to be accessible, if dressed up somewhat in ornament or affect or flowing along in some normative musical continuity, after all, in the end, and no matter what the idea, concept, plan, or formula, we are just making music, aren't we? But then again, isn't it pessimistic to assume that making music is, as a default, defined inertially, with respect to known or involuntary habits for articulating an idea, formula, concept, or plan. Isn't there something inherently weak (half-hearted, non-commital) about the overlay of a technical scheme onto otherwise conventional musical discourse in, say, the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra or Britten's The Turn of the Screw?  I'd rather go with the clear and overt presentation of concept, idea, plan, or formula in Reich's Piano Phase or Lucier's I am sitting in a room or Cage's Rozart Mix or Monahan's Piano Mechanics, each instances of optimistic assertions of the potential for music to do much more than that which habit leads us to expect.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Compositional space

Task: Describe the space in which the activity of composition takes place.  The labels associated with the axes above are only tentative and approximate: choice is fantasy but also convention, habit, tradition; calculation is planning, process, consequence, but may be complex enough to be unpredictable; chance, which is also circumstance, contingency, may be, globally, a more predictable element than either choice or calculation.  It may be more useful to think of composition not in terms of "putting things together" but rather as placing or locating activity in such a space, with finding balance (or absence of balance, as the case may well be) among methods an increasingly central concern.


Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Orchestra, Reformed

Somehow, in these scattered postings about orchestration, I have neglected to mention a pair of musicians doing important work on the music-technical and economic/social/political problems of making music with large ensembles.

The first is composer Daniel Goode, who has a long working relationship to the Gamelan Son of Lion (see this posting on Our Other Orchestra) and additionally has, in recent years, worked with both the concept and concrete examples of a "Flexible Orchestra", a mixed ensemble including at least one instrument in multiple instances (in a recent concert, the orchestra was composed of eleven flutes, tuba, harpsichord, trumpet, and contrabass).  Such combinations have the potential to provide very striking environments for music-making, in this case including timbral and registral variety but also allowing for at least one example of the symphonic qualities or chorus-effect made available by a single timbre in mass, an efficient and even elegant distilling of some of the most characteristic features of traditional orchestral ensembles. Mr Goode's homepage includes several articles exploring these topics (see especially the "Letter from Vienna" and "How can the orchestra be more like the gamelan?".)

The second example is composer Andrew Culver's proposals for an "anarchic philharmonic".  The first concern is obviously the institution of the "obligato conductor", but the standard composition, organization, rehearsal method, and concert structure are all rich areas for exploring alternatives. Needless to say — and precisely because I'm familiar with the pitfalls of previous experiments in this direction (Cage's orchestral version of Cheap Imitation being the central case in point, and Etcetera and some of the Number Pieces indicating some possible paths out) — I'm in complete agreement with Culver.  I can't wait to see a black flag flying oover Disney Hall or the Concertgebouw.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Don't forget your melodica!

A reminder:  one month remains before the deadline for submitting pieces for the first online anthology of new music for melodica.  The nine eight pieces (by six five different composers) received to date represent a startling diversity of music for solo melodica and melodica ensembles.