Friday, October 30, 2009

Seasonal item

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Metzger, again

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

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

From another interview in the same year:

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

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

Heinz-Klaus Metzger

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

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

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

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

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

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


Forcefields and Constellations

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

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

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


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

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

Monday, October 19, 2009

Layer Analysis

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

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

Saturday, October 17, 2009


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

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

Friday, October 09, 2009

Our ephemeral canon

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

Thursday, October 08, 2009

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

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


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

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


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



Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Holding back the snark

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, October 01, 2009

Robert Irwin

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