Friday, April 30, 2010

W is for Words



Jo Kondo:  "I am interested in words more than in sentences, in sentences more than in paragraphs, in paragraphs more than in a whole page. Thus, it could be said that in music I am more concerned with each sound than with the phrases they create."

John Cage:  Empty Words. (Cage quotes N.O. Brown: "Syntax is the arrangement of the army"; removing syntax is demilitarizing language.)


Gertrude Stein: a sentence is not emotional a paragraph is


Charles Seeger's Dilemma:  that thinking and discoursing in the "language mode of communication" about the "music mode of communication" dominates, directs and, above all, limits research about music.

I work with sounds with the same pleasure that I take in kneading dough or riding a bike or walking early mornings with daughter and/or dog in tow.  But I wrestle with words, fool persisting in his folly, and more often than not — especially when the words should have something to do with music — something fails. Do words fail me?  Or have I failed to manage the words? 


In a recent comment thread here, Charles Shere mentioned OULIPO, the famous "workshop for potential literature."  The best work associated with the OULIPO — Queneau, Perec, Mathews — is entirely comfortable with its playful approach to language.  With music, however, a playful approach is often discouraged or put down.  For some, "playing games" is supposed to be at odds with the really musical; musical compositions are criticized for having playful systems and structures.  This attitude is wrong in so many ways, so profoundly pessimistic about music, not least in its rejection, if not denial, of the potential for music to work on multiple levels, as well as the multiple and surprising ways in which these levels may interact.   

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

V is for Velocity

The results of research into the physics, psychophysics and neuroscience of music are often fascinating, but also, as a practicing musician, often frustrating.  This frustration is due, in part, to an inherent pessimism, in that the subject of research is typically constrained by existing musical repertoire and its material qualities and existing conditions for performance and audition. Far more interesting, for a composer like me, would be exploration of the potential and means for musicians and listeners to go beyond those constraints.   It is one thing, for example, to determine limits for pitch perception under conventional listening contexts, but it is quite another thing to investigate ways and contexts through which these limits may be expanded.  Further, there is a real frustration that much research — research in audio recording somewhat excepted — does not focus on issues of urgent compositional interest.  For example, I would really like to know more about how fast a listener can take in and process musical information. In some cases — as real musical variety encompasses both clarity and opacity —  the compositional interest is not only creating music which can be taken in and analyzed by a listener but also in making music which overwhelms the whole sensory and cognitive apparatus.  It would be very useful to have more empirical insight into this issue.  

U is for Umbrella

I am an owner and user of umbrellas.  No, more than that: I am fond of umbrellas.  A well-made umbrella is light but sturdy, mechanically stable and smooth in operation.  It is capable of protecting against rain, hail, sun, or — within reasonable limits of strength and velocity — wind. It may be used to hide from unwanted gazes or to disguise a private conversation. A umbrella can make both an excellent improvised directional sound reflector or a mute — this was a particular specialty of my days as a young trombonist — or, in a snap, it may be used as a foil to fend off attackers or to defend ones honor.  Erik Satie was said to have owned dozens of them. At one point in time, I owned more than twenty of them, and took great pride in keeping them all in good maintenance, cleaning them, lightly oiling the mechanism, straightening ribs gone askew and patiently sewing loose ends back onto their assigned ribeyes.  [Warning! Some umbrellas come with sharped tips and rib-ends; others may be sharpened by their owners.]  I once used the opening and closing of a large ensemble of umbrellas as a somewhat visually distracting musical accompaniment to a dance.  [Jo Kondo's early masterpiece of pseudo-repetition, Under the Umbrella, for five percussionists playing 25 cowbells and a gong, does not require an umbrella, but is clearly the work of a musicians who understands and appreciates the entire concept of an umbrella.]   Like a passion for this music or that, and the radical music in particular, an affection for umbrellas is not, however, universal. One of my oldest and best friends is a gifted writer who has long worked a day job in the Financial district in San Francisco. Being physically tall, he finds that he has to defend himself on rainy days against a sea of eye-level umbrella edges while attempting to go peacefully to his office.  Consequently, he is as much of the anti-umbrella party as I am a pro-bumpershootist. (As I am somewhat taller than Tom, it may be the case that I have a sufficient advantage in avoiding what, for him, would be eye-level umbrella edges, which demonstrates that some partisan differences are, indeed, more due to nature than nurture.)   To date, we have successfully avoiding scheduling our all-too-rare reunions on dates with a high likelihood of rain. When we do meet, I make a point of stashing my umbrella away from his view and we both take care to avoid talking about this controversy. Thus our friendship has remain unaffected despite the potential of these partisan differences to cause a serious rift. Many successful friendships, one supposes, are like that.  

Friday, April 23, 2010

T is for Trainwreck (short version)

The fifth volume, Music in the Late Twentieth Century, of Richard Taruskin's The Oxford History of Western Music.  

(A long version of this item will follow, but for now, let's get on with this alphabet.)

Just asking

I may well be missing some activity, but judging from the blogs I follow, there has recently been a aggregatel decline in the frequency and volume of independent classical music blogging, with the number of institutional music blogs increasing.   The pace on this blog has slowed due to some large projects elsewhere and a share of some serious self-doubts about writing.  I'm not altogether certain that the slowdown here won't be more permanent, perhaps by way of transition to some other format.   I've often thought that sharing a magazine-like format with some mix of like- and contrarily-minded colleagues might be interesting, but that starts to smack more of conventional column journalism than of the free-form made possible by the blog medium and composition, mostly a solitary activity, tends to attract folk like me who did not necessarily get good marks for "plays well with others" in elementary school.  Your ideas about this would be welcome.   In any case, how do you perceive this trend — as an Adagio between fast movements (the lull before the next storm) or a general ritardando (the great fade-out)? 

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Blind spots

Charles Shere writes about Copland's The Tender Land, here.  I think Shere's characterization of the piece as "hokey and pretentious" is right on the money: the opera's music is thin and both libretto and score are unable, dramatically, to make anything particularly engaging out of its most potent theme, forbidden sexuality (which ought to work and which Copland handles so astonishingly well in Appalachian Spring, showing that the problem is compositional and not a direct function of either the materials or the style.) 

Shere also writes that:

I've always thought of Copland, Britten, and Shostakovich as an interesting triad. Each was immensely gifted and intelligent; caught in an uneasy relationship to the prevailing Modernism-Reactionism duality of the early 20th century; apparently self-assigned to a position of National Spokesman for his art. Each composed masterpieces, particularly early masterpieces, then went on to an uneven output often troubled by indecision as to whether to be Popular or Principled (with respect to personal musical style).

It is, indeed, interesting how these three became "national spokesmen", as none of three came equipped with the biography or personality which could be described as a cookie cutter for such a role and the part of the local political and musical institutions in assigning these identities was perhaps more critical than their own contributions.  While each lived through real political difficulties, on balance each showed a talent for adaption to their local systems.

Besides being the unavoidable composers during their lifetimes (as a kid, these were the three reliable exceptions to the rule of not-programming contemporary music on local radio and concerts), the members of this triad have received substantial attention of late from music historians with both scholarly (Taruskin) and more popular (Ross) projects.  I'll have to admit to having large blind spots (deaf spots?  why are we so persistently forced to use visual metaphors when talking about sound?) for the music of all three and this, collaterally, has made reading these histories a real chore.  In Copland's case, for example, the music which lasts for me are the most "difficult" early and late pieces, The Organ Symphony or even the much-maligned Inscape, for example, with Appalachian Spring being the elegant exception that proves the rule for his "mainstream" pieces.  With Britten, whose music I have really heard far too much of, the Church Parables remains impressive, and with Shostakovich, I have absolutely no patience left and now publicly pledge not to let myself get hauled once again to a new production of The Nose or Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk under the promise that "this time, you'll really like it".  No I won't. 

This is music which fails to renew the musical imagination.  But then again, maybe, the official, mainstream status of these men and the stuff they made simply precludes any such ambition.   It would have been best if we could've grouped the three into a Poe/Silliman category of a Musical School of Quietude, and let it all fade away.  But it is in the nature of such boat-not-rockers that they continue to dominate concert programs and have a decisive influence on the young quietist and careerist composers of our time.  And, unfortunately, in music, as opposed to poetry, our quietists are not restricted to the piano end of the dynamic range.  There is one, small and slightly evil joy I can take, though: these are the three 20th century composers whose names are most likely to get mispelled on undergraduate music appreciation tests. Take your small pleasures wherever you can find them, I say.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Be prepared.

That a cloud of ashes from an Icelandic volcano can cause air traffic in most of Europe to shut down is a nice reminder that redundancy can be useful and valuable when the unexpected happens.  Where rail lines and ferries can take up the slack, most travelers are inconvenienced but not stuck, but wherever airplanes have a monopoly, tough luck.   The present bootleneck is costly to the air carriers and big trouble not only for passengers but for the increasing share of post and freight that is flown.  The time advantage of jet travel is real, but shouldn't there be more travel alternatives available?  Fast and affordable passenger ships, for sure, and isn't this a good argument for a more thorough revival of dirigible airships as a more gentle mode of air travel?  

Here's the reminder: a bit of redundancy in musical performance practice is also useful. Conducting cues, for example, can often avert difficulties or rescue a performance when caution was insufficient.  Doublings and cued notes in parts are useful.  Players are wise to bring extra reeds, strings, bows, mallets, etc., the spare tires of concert life.  When electronics are in play, redundant power sources, mikes, cables, amps, speakers, recordings, computers and software can save a concert.  And in the composition itself, repetitions and doublings can serve multiple purposes, both aesthetic and a practical.   

Monday, April 12, 2010

Rote Politics

Ron Silliman points to this post with the statement Why memorizing poetry is inherently right wing.   The question of memorization is, of course, sometimes an important one for musical performance as well and sometimes we musicians also make a similar distinction between rote and "by heart" memorization.  Generally speaking, the pro-memorization camp is our conservative party and it is typical for competitions and recitals on the establishment circuit to insist that musicians play without sheet music visible on stage.  (This insistence comes with that same weird macho-but-prissy swagger that only conservative pseudo-intellectuals carry.)  While there are cases  in which getting rid of the paper is unavoidable — in opera, for example, or with some percussion instruments for which visual contact with a music stand cannot be maintained —, I side decidedly with the opposition party here.  This is because when playing notated music one can too frequently discover that notation is a gift that keeps giving; reading music is seldom a task which is completed with rehearsal and a live performance is often a valuable additional opportunity for discovery.  This possibility was brought home to me first by playing baroque music, realizing continuo and ornamentation in real time.

Addendum, 14/4/2010:  I think that I wasn't clear enough here.  My problem is not with memorization but with the insistence than musicians play without notation and the deprecation of musicians who chose to use notation.  Although my own memory is probably average, when I rehearse something well, it is almost inevitably committed to memory, but I still want to have the notation available.   And not for insurance but out of optimism, that there is still more music to be found in the act of reading.  

Sunday, April 11, 2010

S is for Schematic

A performance last fall of Le marteau sans maître left me once again astonished about an unresolved tension in the piece, a tension between structural concerns — the interlocking cycles of two, three and four movements and the systematic orchestration and scoring patterns in particular — that were made explicit, expressed at the immediate surface of the music, and the note-to-note continuity, the precise sense of which was not aurally recoverable beyond the most general and impressionistic considerations — contour, registration, and to some extent pitch complementarity.  Although Le marteau is a piece which I have listened to, intently, for more than 30 years, and has some qualities — not least its notorious coolness — which I actually find attractive, the absence of a compelling connection between local continuity and global order makes for an increasingly frustrating listening experience.  Moroever, there are some scoring pattern changes and choices of instrumental register in the piece that are almost shocking in their clumsiness.

The problem here might be described as being too schematic.   A schematic diagram uses topological abstraction to present the relationship between the functioning parts of a process, system, or organism in a clear fashion by ignoring actual size, scale and precise orientation and by eliding detail.  Of course, such simplification is often extremely useful, but when the process, system, or organism is something as precious and sensuous as a piece of treasured music, then the loss of precision may very well come at the expense of those details, dimensions or parameters of the music which we value most.  

[There is a widespread misunderstanding that Schenkerian analys suffers from the same such loss.  This misunderstanding is probably due to some weak pedagogy, in which the act of analysis is seen — and, tellingly, not heard — as the production of ever-more reduced graphs, a confusion of product with process.  Schenkerian analysis can, in fact, be an excellent strategy for the recovery of detail and dimension.]

In the Left End of Newmusicland — where one might likely locate the radicals, experimentalists, & minimalistas as well as some of the complexers — the relationship between a music and its construction is a persistent theme. * But one without a persistent resolution.  In some music, it's an advantage if the way in which the music was put together is clear, while in other music, the advantage goes with hiding any traces of the compositional work.   Piano Phase and I am sitting in a room are two examples of music in which such clarity is essential, while Music of Changes is an example which finds advantage in opacity.  And still, for all the immediate aural evidence of their construction, in neither Piano Phase nor I am sitting in a room is there a lack of mystery in terms of either sonic quality or musical continuity, while in Music of Changes — the construction of which is all-but-impossible to recover — there is a prevailing sense of precisely the purposefulness and restraint one would expect in a tightly constructed work.   I think that the reason these three pieces work for me (and Le marteau doesn't) is that the clear and opaque elements are complementing and reinforcing one another in optimal ways.   The immediacy with which the constructive, procedural elements are comprehensible in the Reich or the Lucier facilitates hearing the music made possible by and above and beyond the process, while the anticipated ergodicity of Cage's surface soon reveals itself to be much more discrete and eventful than expected (it is music that really does change!) 

A bit of constructive technique that I have find useful of late involves composing with pre-determined scoring patterns.   I have sometimes combined these with rhythmic structures akin to Mr Cage's famous square root method and have found Gray codes ( and, specifically, Beckett-Gray codes) to be particularly useful scoring patterns.  Now, this probably sounds like a lot of abstraction — and even, as I later discovered, with the Gray codes, some fairly sophisticated maths — but, my goal has never been to let this become so abstract as to not relate audibly to the immediate musical concerns of a musical continuity. 


* Morton Feldman is here unavoidable: "It appears to me that the subject of music, from Machaut to Boulez, has always been its construction. Melodies of 12-tone rows just don't happen. They must be constructed....To demonstrate any formal idea in music, whether structure or stricture, is a matter of construction, in which the methodology is the controlling metaphor of the composition...Only by 'unfixing' the elements traditionally used to construct a piece of music could the sounds exist in themselves--not as symbols, or memories which were memories of other music to begin with."


Friday, April 09, 2010

R is for ||: Repetition :||

For a time, say '78 through '84, my music used a lot of literal repetitions, notated often between happy pairs of ||: :||s. Repetition was a useful element in music which was more immediately static than dynamic, more about being somewhere, than going somewhere. Of course, no repetition was ever precisely identical to that which was being repeated, the most careful of human performances always carried traces of subtle alterations, and even in the most mechanical repetition, the context, of time delayed and experienced, altered the identity relationship in a fundamental way.

For a time, say say '78 through '84, my music used a lot of literal repetitions, notated often between happy pairs of ||: :||s. Repetition in music was useful for creating contexts that well self-sustaining and self-similar. Canons were a particularly useful extension of repetitive techniques, as the music was simultaneously asserting something about where one was, where one had been, and where one might be going. Canons became increasingly important to me in the late 1980's, and now I can't imagine working without them, but they are increasingly loose, rather than strict, in character. Letting a voice which had been trailing gradually move to a leading position in a contrapuntal environment (John Cage, borrowing an idea about Gagaku from Henry Cowell, called this a "Japanese Canon"; Morton Feldman would brilliantly use this same idea, borrowed perhaps from simultaneous Torah recitation in the Orthodox Schul, Jo Kondo's idea of a "shape" and its "shadow" was definitely in the same ballpark) was literally like getting ahead of oneself.

Before I get ahead of myself: For a time, say '78 through '84, my music used a lot of literal repetitions, notated often between happy pairs of ||: :||s. Attracted initially by the impossibility of the exact repetition, I became more attracted to the idea of an explicitly imperfect or quasi-repetition. An example of quasi-repetition which continues to haunt me is Jo Kondo's Sight Rhythmics, in which the same piece is "repeated" six times, but from each "repetition" to the next, one element in each measure is altered, with alterations accumulating until the sixth "repetition", called a Skolion, in which the material is rewritten altogether. But the changes here always remain clearly within the territory, the ballpark if you will, of repetitions rather than variations, because the sensation is always one of sameness rather than the variety a proper variation would demand.

But I'm getting ahead of myself: For a time, say '78 through '84, my music used a lot of literal repetitions, notated often between happy pairs of ||: :||s. I've recently been writing some music in which there are lots of literal repetitions, but repetitions which find themselves in conetxts which change enough that I'm not comfortable fitting them between pairs of ||: :||, no matter how happy they might be. The context has changed the material enough identifying any of it as a repetition now seems somewhat dishonest. I suppose I ought to write something now about not dipping into the same river twice, but having come 'round to recognizing that the same river is not a particularly useful idea (as a river is more of a process than an object), let's leave it at that, and you'll have some idea of the ballpark about which I'm currently bopping. Or something like that idea, but entirely your own...

(This is a repeat appearance of a blog item from December 2006.)

The Palatka Band

This is the Palatka Band from Transylvanian village of Palatca in Romania playing at the 2010 Táncháztalálkozó in Budapest.  Not the best sound quality, but a good illustration of the multi-ethnic region's string band style and technique.  The bass, three-stringed, uses a very short bow in heavy strokes and battuto.  The viola, or kontra, also three-stringed, tuned g-d'-a, plays a chordal accompaniment. The prima violinist, Lőrincz Codoba uses, in the slow sections, the typical right-hand style, in which most expression occurs in a space in which vibrato and portamento are not always distinct.   This is also a good illustration of a traditional form of music transmission in the relationship between older and younger players.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Them words

It's a standard piece of advice for composers that we ought not set our own words.  In general, I think this is true: having two pairs of ears and eyes to monitor words and music is a sensible move and there are precious few examples between Machaut and Ashley of composers who are equally gifted as poets (in Machaut's case, it is impossible decide whether the identity as poet or composer should come first) while there are — sadly — plenty of composers who have used their own texts or libretti to sinkingly bad effect. (Does anyone seriously want to go some rounds over the libretti of Wagner or Stockhausen? Seriously?)  

(I think that this principle holds less for popular music, but I'm just not engaged enough in popular repertoire to venture a substantiable reason why, but it may just be that it is in popular music that a continuity to the ancient idea of poesis, in which the composition of words is inseparable from their metre, rhythm, accent, and tune, is still, to some extent, operative.) 

A second standard bit of advice to composers is that it is better to set a good (or, in some cases, even a mediocre) text than an extraordinary text.  Setting aside any prima-this, poi-that personal rivalries between poet/librettist and composer, the thinking here seems to be that setting a text to music requires — if the music is to be interesting on its own terms — a certain amount of pliancy, perhaps too much abuse for texts valued highly, and we are even prepared to accept a near-complete acoustical erasure of the sense and continuity of a text to the needs of dramatic and musical continuity. There is, however, so much usable room for a composer in the composition space available for setting a text between having every word clear and comprehensible and the fantastic and melismatic opposite of that, that I have to assume that this second bit of advice is not necessarily true.  It may make some music-political tactical sense to avoid setting the masterworks in favor of the merely good — for example, by playing down expectations and attachments an audience brings to familar and treasured words — but I don't think that there are any unexceptionable musical reasons for this.     

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Q is for Questions

Qualms: Who wants these sounds, this music?  Is this music worth taking your time?  Is it worth breaking your silence?  What does this piece of music do that no other piece of music (or alternative activity) can do?  Quarrel: How does this music differ from other music?  Is that difference or disagreement potentially productive of more new music?  Quantity: Is there enough of this music? Is there too much of this music?  Are the internal proportions of this music right (or wrong, in an interesting way)? Quality:  Is this music well-considered, well-felt, and well-made?  Question: Have you heard something in this music that you have not heard in other music?  Have you learned something from this music?  Do you value this music, those sounds, these times?  Quiet! Does the music articulate phenomena, sounds, that are otherwise inaudible, unknown? In composing, in throwing these sounds out,  have I made it possible for you to hear something new? Is this music an opportunity for changing our habits of listening?  Can you, did you, hear that too?