Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Complexity: sorry, Lisa, not quite yet.

Okay, I'm not quite done with complexity yet.  As indicated in the last post, complexity, for better or worse or (mostly) in-between, can describe a number of musical qualities or characteristics.  When used in connection with something very specific, especially countable items (notes on a page, for example), the aspect of complexity described can acquire a quantitative dimension and make comparisons within and without a piece of work possible; also, when a clear process is used in composition, one might speak usefully in terms of a measurable computational complexity (which, of course, has its own complications, indeed uncertainties, which many others online can describe much more credibly).  However, some of the most important forms of musical complexity are far less easily reducible to the quantitative, and some methods, while quantifiable, as often not particularly relevant when quantified to any actual music.  Among these forms (incomplete, I'm sure, off the top of my head and jotted on the back of a restaurant napkin) are:

*Linear complexity — How variegated or detailed is a single line of music?  Variety of materials, density and speed of their deployment, differentiation into principle, subordinate, and ornamental parts.  Which may be related to

* Textural complexity — Is a complex or ensemble heard as individual parts or a single gestalt? An ensemble texture may be found to be full of activity, indeed layers of activity — when analyzed into individual components — and there may well be considerable change over shorter or longer periods of time, but the net effect may instead tend rather towards coherence and continuity.  Which may be related to

* Pre-compositional complexity.  Like textural complexity, this is more about forests than trees: in much serial music, for example, the actual set-, row-, and array-work, while possibly comprising the greater part of the compositional time and effort, is actually the lesser part of the final composition. The pre-compositional design can make it possible to guarantee that the final composition has particular characteristics — for example a uniform (or weighted, as the case may well be) distribution of elements — which make the end result, the sound itself, possible, without making the particular methods used at all necessary for a listener to know.  Which may be closely related to 

* Mathematical complexity.  This is used probably more as a term of deprecation than estimation.  However, in itself, using mathematics in composition shouldn't automatically raise objections, and the variety of mathematics used shouldn't automatically lead to a particular evaluation.  Music theory journals happen to be filled with articles about a rather narrow variety of musically-applied mathematics (12-tone so-called "set theory" for example), but this reflects more on a heavily encouraged area of research than on the extents and limits of mathematical applications in music.  There are numerous lines of mathematics-related musical research and composition that have both received less academic attention and are no less deep or complex in their musical applications or mathematical sophistication.  I think, for example, that my recent work with Beckett-Gray codes is such an example, and as applied to scoring patterns in an ensemble work, has an acoustical immediacy that demonstrates perfectly that the mathematically complex can not only be completely accessible but musically compelling. 

*Material complexity.  Literally, how much and how wide a variety of stuff is in a piece of music? There should be abundant evidence out there that simply adding more stuff can make a work messier but does not automatically make a piece of music more complex, while the reduction of some material density can often facilitate the perception of complex musical phenomena that would otherwise go unheard.  Many works of classic early minimalism have this characteristic.

*Associative complexity: To what degree does a work depend upon its connections to other works or repertoires?  To what degree is does a work depend upon connections to extra-musical phenomena? Which may be closely related to

*Systematic complexity.  How does a work or group of works cohere and create networks of internal or external relationships?   The systematic complexity of Wagner's Ring or Tolkien's Middle Earth books have encouraged generations of geeks to commit large portions of their lives, memories, and imaginations to the acquisition of ever more details, terms, lists, characters, genealogies, maps, languages, motives etc.  in the gradual assimilation of artworks that aspire to evoke alternative worlds.   The material is simply rich enough in its structures and connections — many of them fragmentary, incomplete, ambiguous, or illogical, but hey, what else do you expect from a world? — to sustain indefinitely ethusiastic — geekily enthusiastic — extended examination.   (One common effect of such engagement is its sublimation into gaming, aform of play in which a fictional world can be permutated and extended well beyond the boundaries of a completed piece of fiction.) While neither of these examples are particularly attractive to me, I do think that they exemplify the potential for an artwork enbracing an encyclopedic form of complexity to be successful and even popular.  (I am much more taken in by the of-this-world-ness and flowing diction of Finnegans Wake or the erotic systematics of Duchamp's art and writings than Tolkien's stubbornly wooden diction and prudishness (to be fair, Tolkien suffered from being born into the most deadly wooden age of philology and translation; it shows up on every page of his work); likewise, I find the inter-penetrating worlds of musical and historical experience in Ives's Fourth or Second Orchestral Set or Cage's Songbooks simply more musically attractive and personally relevant than Wagner, but maybe that's just my own geekhood).


Monday, June 28, 2010

Complexity: get over it, already.

The ever-estimable Lisa Hirsch has two items (here and here) in response to a Teachout article on musical complexity.   For music criticism, use of the term complexity is something of a blunt instrument. One has to be very specific about the materials or means or relationships which are being described as complex and even when identified as complex then there are no clear or generally accepted ways of measuring relative complexity, whether within a single work or among several works.  

Most critically, in the thick of a real musical event, it is not always clear — and this, in the best cases, is a matter of compositional design — whether composer, performing musician, or listener can catch or is supposed to be able to catch, some or all details or a more general gestalt, or even to move attention between levels of detail, or if the experience of whole and parts is designed to be ambiguous.  Most works of music which have the capacity to stay fresh on repeated listenings — renewable musics, one might say — offer a reserve of additional details and relationships.  To the extent that musical complexity is quantitative, filling a work with detail and internal or external connections, the central issue for composition is projecting and framing that content so that it can be heard.   From this point-of-view,  the most self-consciously minimalist composer is as concerned with managing complexity as the overtly complexist or maximalist;  the critical difference, I believe, lies in how the relationship between musical materials and audition is drawn.   

By my own measure, a work like Alvin Lucier's I am sitting in a room is a more effective compositional projection of an extremely complex set of internal, acoustical elements and external, and to some extent, extra-musical connections than the elaborate pitch constructions of many a high serial work which are lost to a surface which fails to project the construction in anything but the most impressionistic manner. 

Central Javanese Gamelan music, Karawitan, is  my favorite example of this: it is possible to hear a classical gamelan work coarsely, attending, for example, only to a single trunk melody carried by the loudest instruments, but experienced players and listeners learn, over time, to attend to more and more instrumental and vocal lines, learning to hear not just simultaneities but the ways in which individual lines relate to one another but also to the whole piece as well as to the repertoire and style in general.   

Never underestimate an audience

One of the most vivid musical experiences in my life was hearing Gary Bertini conduct Schönberg's A Survivor from Warsaw in the Alte Oper here in Frankfurt on a concert marking the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht.  I had never before and have not since witnessed an audience so stunned and shaken by a piece of music,  indeed struck deep to the viscera by a single moment in a piece of music, which is that when the male chorus enters singing a setting of the Sh'ma Yisrael.    The match of a piece, a performance, and a setting like this is a perfect illustration of the ability of a music to reach its audience — communication in the way that an iron handle communicates heat — regardless of its supposedly forbidding complexity, construction (it's 12-tone, and rather transparently so), or style (a particularly literal and hyper- version of the composer's Wiener espressivo).

One of the odd factoids about A Survivor from Warsaw that has stuck in the back of my head for further exploration was that its premier took place at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.  Stephen Soderberg has an interesting description and meditation on this event in his blog, here

Composition Today

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Still Fruitful Paths

Recently, I did one of my hit and run spells of teaching "composition" (I insist on the quotation marks, as my understanding of the term is often somewhat unorthodox) to a group of young musicians. One day, one of them made some jokes about serial music (you know the kind — about music for people with 12 fingers, or asking if you take milk and sugar with your serial?, etc.) so I decided to push the issue a bit and take a quick detour through the 12-tone and serial experience.

There was something of a cod liver oil taste to this proposal, but I find, sometimes, that it is useful and surprising to take a new look at a subject that would appear to have been dismissed from further exploration. For example, in one of my reading binges, I decided to re-read as much of the sci-fi and speculative fiction I had consumed in High School and College as I could get a hold of here. As might be expected, I found most of the novels awkward and very hard-going, and was, in general, disappointed with my old enthusiasms. But a significant minority of that stuff actually held up very well, either for ideas or for writing (rarely for both, but that's a high expectation for any fiction, no matter what genre). The more "social science" fiction generally held up better than the hard science fiction and space operas, especially the big space operas. Le Guin's anthropological fiction (a really graceful writer; I like the Hainish cycle, where her writing is best, while I have no patience for her fantasy writing), for example, or Dick's more psychological (Martian Time-Slip and Time Out of Joint are my favorites, examples where he was in control of a writing habit which tended to lose control in a messy, but not reliably interesting way). Others that, books I really enjoyed coming back to included the obvious classics like Cat's Cradle, and some titles that seem to have disappeared from memory: Jeter's Doctor Adder and Billias's The American Book of the Dead. It seems to me that there is still a lot of potential for social science fiction.

The parallel voyage of discovery into all that 12-tone and serial music (AKA the stuff which was supposed to be oppressing to us experimentalists) also turned up some real surprises. Of course I like the Schoenberg String Trio and Phantasie and the Stravinsky Requiem Canticles or Movements, and Webern's vocal music is really the core of his achievement (if somewhat obscure to many musicians who focus on the instrumental music). I had always been fond of Hauer's music, having played some of the piano pieces for more than 30 years, but discovering more details of his technical achievement (the harmonic band technique, especially, which can insure a constant flow of a variety of triads with very smooth voice leading is extremely rich in suggestive possibilities) more than made up for his naivety and arbitrary quirks (like his preference for beginning or ending with minor or major seventh chords). Ernst Krenek was another case altogether; although my own introduction to 12-tone technique came, in 9th or 10th grade, with Krenek's little Counterpoint book borrowed from the Claremont Public Library, and I had actually met the man , Palm Springs tan and all, I had never actually liked any of the music, including the early tonal music, which has always left me with some suspicion that the was just not particularly musical. However, some very beautiful performances of choral works by the RIAS Kammerchor (which have made a specialty of Krenek, singing his works for decades, beautiful to hear, but somewhat disturbing to watch with the constant banging of tuning forks against their skulls to keep on pitch) and a CD by Ensemble Recherche of string trios and solo string music has changed my mind somewhat. Perhaps his music really suffered from bad performances. Perhaps choral music was his genre: the neutrality of the pitch world, mixed with a pseudo-renaissance choral style just seemed to click with the mysticism in Krenek's chosen texts. In any case, we do owe Krenek as a teacher some debt: Robert Erickson was an important composer and I am curious to hear some music sometime by Gladys Nordenstrom, Krenek's student and widow.

It was no surprise that a re-encounter with Goeyvaerts's early pieces (famous in some texbooks, but not often actually heard) was very positive, as with Lou Harrison's Suite for Piano and small opera, Rapunzel, some works of Dallapicolla and of Roberto Gerhard (especially some later chamber works: The Concert for 8 and Gemini, Libra, and Leo (what is it about twelve-toners and the zodiac?!)) All of these examples were pretty straight-forward, technique-wise, but much of the 12-tone/serial repertoire rapidly moved beyond straight-forwardness, especially with the goal of making works of significant length. In the postwar high serial era, it was precisely this issue — of creating large-scale pieces in which the order and deployment of 12-tone or serial resources was anything but arbitrary — that became a central focus, whether in Babbitt's techniques for the composition and projection of arrays or the moves of Stockhausen or Boulez into groups or constellations of elements.

The two best descriptions of the nitty-gritty of compositional technique in the high serial era I found were Stockhausen's booklet about his In Freundschaft and Lake's article about Babbitt's Fifth Quartet. I'm not a great fan of either composer, and certainly much less a fan of their respective camp followers, but each have works in which envelopes of the truly weird have been opened and the musicality of the results are abundant enough that we shouldn't allow ourselves to be prejudiced by our expectations. The key serial works of Stockhausen, for me, are the early piano pieces and tape pieces, while Babbitt really comes into his own with the move into super-array compositions, in which the dogma of 12-tones gets loosened by the so-called "weighted aggregates" and it becomes more than clear that the real substance of the work is not the pre-compositional array (indeed, he uses and reuses a small collection of arrays, some of them second-hand arrays, assembled by others) but the actual composed-out surface of the music, the notes, some of which are very nice, some teasingly naughty, and others nothing much to write home about. (Here's a homework assignment: what features of In Freundschaft share techniques associated with Babbitt? what features are shared and what are different in the arrays of Babbitt and Boulez and the charts of Cage? compare and contrast partitioning operations in Babbitt and Boulez... Okay, okay, this stuff was just built for classroom instruction...)

The music of Barraque remains very puzzling to me, as the scores are all messes, in many cases without a final, definitive form, and the proliferating series technique generates a series of rows in which there are simply no audible clues for connecting one to any other. Nevertheless, there is some real style to his writing, maybe the inexhaustible source of rows was simply an impulse to improvise while insuring a continuous circulation of pitches.

The two pieces I began my little survey with a bit of a tease, but still very close to my own sensibilities: a solo flute piece by Howard Skempton and the Christian Wolff Duo for violins, the first of which is transparently, tunefully 12-tone, the second of which uses 12 discrete pitch configurations but not 12 pitch classes; I found that these usefully and transparently illustrated a number of polar aspects of the entire 12-tone/serial project, and pointed to aspects that remain vital concerns for composers, including melody, order, variation, variety, pitches versus pitch classes, the relationship between horizontal and vertical projections of material, collections, tonality versus an even distribution of pitches, particular versus undifferentiated collections of intervals, etc..

Of course, when you start taking such a broad prospective, moving away from the "classical" four row-form technique described by, say, Eimert or Krenek, it becomes less and less tenable to speak about a uniform and hegemonic technique and repertoire. This is a good thing, on the one hand because it is much closer to the historical reality, a reality in which, for example, early minimalism came, in part, out of concerns that cannot be entirely separated from the serial project, but on the other (and more important) hand, because attending to such historical diversity can be highly suggestive of the potential for new compositional ideas.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

One to Nothing

Whatever you think of soccer, or of sports in general, and even if you're ill-disposed to either country involved or think that competition between teams representing nation-states is silly, the game yesterday between the US and Algeria was a model of formal beauty: sustained activity and attention captured for 90 minutes without a score, delaying any satisfaction for the duration while aware, the entire time, of an ominous score from the parallel game, until a single goal pops elegantly in the second minute of penalty time.  Talk about delayed resolutions! Talk about saving everything for the coda!

Generating Heat, Generating Light

(An encore posting from February, 2007)

We've all heard the talk about the low-level of attention, support, appreciation, etc. for new, contemporary, and experimental music. After having spent too much of the past two weeks monitoring activity in the online new music blogs and fora, I've come to the conclusion that one problem is that we, as a community, are generating simply too little heat: too little new of interest in the way of sounds, scores, or ideas, and too little controversy or passion, and even too little in the way of intellectual challenges. But most of all, through the underwhelmingly small amount of material we present to the world, we're simply giving out the impression that nothing is really happening in little Newmusicville. At this point in time, a new music equivalent of the "Instapundit" could probably get by with a bi-weekly post delivered by burro.

It's not so much a matter of clever promotion, it's more a matter of reporting and record-keeping. More information has to be out there, and more useful information. Media are cheaper and more accessible than ever, but we hardly have a presence, and when we have a presence it's shocking to see and hear how badly we use the media. Composers' webpages are usually prefaced with lists of institutional affiliations, awards, and scholarships. Come on, children, grow up! No one cares about your diplomas and merit badges! Dare to say something about your music and yourself first (or at least pretend for a moment that you are not the in-vitro product of those institutions). And composer's blogs are rare, and usually far too timid. Why the caution? Is is fear of repercussions from hiring and prize committees? It's a composer's job to have a posture, an attitude, and opinions about music, and it's through that posture, attitude, and opinions the we make the decisions that form our work, making it distinct from the work of others. We are going to disagree, and often be disagreeable, but that's how we keep music lively. We talk about it, in and among ourselves, all the time, but why are so few willing to make it public and write it out?

In a functioning cultural landscape, there is no way that this blog by this composer ought to be in the top 50 music blogs. I could list 50 other composers off the top of my head who ought to be out there before or instead of me, with their sharper ideas and sharper words. And there are hundreds more about whose work I'd like to know more: tell us what you're writing, or about with whom you're working. Got any fresh program notes to share? How about some sound or score snippets?

There are dozens of schools around the planet with lively composition programs, with pieces being produced by the rows and rows of apt disciples. Tell us about it. There are schools with staffs of faculty composers, each with a handful of grad students: show us your work, UCSD, UIUC, Yale, Eastman, Princeton, Cal Arts, Mills, Den Haag, Berlin, Brunel! Academic activity is supposed to end in publication, and online publication is a much better service to both you and to the new music community as a whole than via direct deposit to a personnel file in a closed cabinet. A composition professor who is not encouraging his or her students to get online is not helping those students, and students who are not getting online by themselves are not helping themselves.

As people who take music seriously, who want to present work in a high qualitative standard of production and presentation, we want both heat and light. But that second quality, light, is only going to be recognized if the context is known, and, I assume for most composers, that context is one rich which is rich in experiences of sounds and ideas, precedents, contemporaries, sketches, fragments, missteps, even failures, such that it is only by keeping the volume of our recorded activities high will we ever be able to let potential audiences even begin to recognize the qualitative in our work.

Heat and light. Don't take this as a rant, but as a sober recognition of opportunity. Never before has there been such an opportunity to present ones work in its own depth, not to depend upon the received local cultural and historical context. This is an opportunity to fashion an optimal context for an encounter with your work, to share it, and yes, to promote it. For better or worse, this, my friends, is the direction that publication will inevitably go, and not taking the opportunity now carries a risk for your own work, but also for the new music community at large, and that is the risk of becoming invisible, inaudible, and irrelevant.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Known and Unknown Unknowns

Here's a prime example of why Errol Morris is the best blogger on the whole damn blogoplan. The problem of known and unknown unknowns faces every composer the moment a hen scratch or flyspeck is applied to a sheet of manuscript paper.

Monday, June 21, 2010

No greater pleasure

You won't get rich, you won't get any measure of real fame, and it's not usually a guaranteed route to love and affection, but, seriously, is there any greater pleasure than imagining a music that hasn't been made before and then making it?  I can look back now on 30 years of living like a student, countless day jobs, no paid vacations, no pension plan, and unpredictably long gaps between freelance gigs and commissions.  Wife, kids, and dog all could have lived in more luxury — having a great big fridge or going to a restaurant together more than semi-annually, for example — but they seem to support and value my music, even when they don't altogether understand it, which is a great gift, and on the whole, we're very happy. We've managed the mortgage and paid for the car and the shed full of bikes and even that supreme folly of a whole gamelan in the basement.  My music has brought me to interesting places and through music, I've met people I shall always treasure.  Riches can be lost, fame can flee, but music — ephemeral as it is, just molecules of air being pushed about — stays with you.  It really doesn't get any better than this.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Glass: Kepler: bring on another Zamboni!

I skipped the soccer game last night and instead watched a broadcast of Philip Glass's opera, Kepler. I rather like the odd and (small "b") baroque balance of stylistic forces that have come to settle into Glass's stage music: a set of harmonic patterns reminiscent of the gallant style, sometimes interrupted by moments of polytonal overlay which function here a bit like cinematic cross-fades and an orchestration style, first noticed in Glass's section of the CIVIL warS, that reminds me of Meyerbeer's, of all things, here punctuated by some startling percussion, temple blocks, IthinksIhears. Dennis Russell Davies led a well-shaped and precise orchestral performance and the choir and young soloists were all quite good. I still can't wrap myself with much affection around the solo vocal writing, but here the problem clearly begins with the German libretto, which is basically one declarative sentence after another that Glass sets as one square declarative phrase after another, parroting the punctuation of the sentences. The choral writing is both more fragmented, textually, and phrased more eccentrically. The staging, in which the soloists basically wandered aimlessly, staring here and there without much apparent reason, with Kepler's upward gazes most annoying, made one realize how good both Robert Wilson and Peter Sellars are at giving performers on stage purposeful movement in highly abstract settings. Finally, the stage setting was a pair of all-purpose sets that conveyed little or no purpose, let alone specific connection to the opera, at all. Once again, letting a Zamboni meander and gad about onstage would have been far more interesting and, in an oblique way, maybe even more relevant to the subject matter.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Live and Local

Let me out myself once more: I like live music, played by warm bodies, for warm bodies, in real rooms.   I prefer live performances of music made for live performance to recordings.  I like the spontaneity and variation a live performance necessarily brings to a work and I like the way the music dissipates in a real room or out-of-doors space, as the sound waves are absorbed and reflected into both air, architecture, ear, and memory.  A live performance of music is a unique event in time, space, audition and memory for which there is no adequate substitute.  I prefer even a clumsy live performance by an amateur but spirited group of local musicians to the best-engineered recording by the most prestigious big city orchestra.  Recordings do have definite virtues, as tangible, portable, divisible comodifications and records of a part of that experience (and, though I harbor serious doubts, I don't discount the potential of such media to have some positive economic effects), but I find them most valuable as a medium for music made specifically for a recorded format.* 

This article, by Terry Teachout, proposes a "thought experiment" (the quotation marks are Teachout's own) in which, essentially, all but the upper tier of big-city professional orchestras are abandoned and those of us in localities without big orchestras are to be satisfied with recordings. Teachout sees the minor leagues in the orchestral world as no longer performing a function they filled in the days before recordings.  This is historically wrong, as the local orchestral life in the US developed in parallel with recordings and, in the early part of the 20th century, was closely connected to immigration from Europe.  (Before that, the US had largely been a wind band country with orchestral and operatic music largely restricted to the biggest cities.)  Further, Teachout sees other locally-produced art forms as more diverse, innovative and higher in quality in offerings and the orchestra standing in a zero-sum competition for resources with those other organizations.  I believe that this is missing something important about the nature of orchestral music-making — what other archaic performance form, aside from sport regularly puts the better part of a 100 people on stage? —  with its unique relationship to a community.  

Not all concerts are perfect environments for either those bodies or the music they make or hear — far from it — but there is always opportunity to optimize the experience and, if history is any indication, the experience will change.  There are indeed survival-level-serious questions about local orchestras, but thinking about these problems from the top-down, from the vantage point of big-league orchestras is exactly wrong and in many cases, the greatest contributor to these problems has been a fixation on commuting conductors and big music management.  Local orchestras, if they are to survive, will have to recognize and capitalize on their advantages of locality, flexibility, accessibility, cost, and diversity.  They can only profit from emphasizing that they can do things that the major orchestras don't and that their recordings cannot.   The range of living composers played by the majors, for example, has been seriously restricted to coteries of "approved" composers** and the only possible solution to this cartelization of orchestral opportunities lies in the locals.  By doing business in a town like Pasadena, or Teachout's "Podunk", you have the absolute luxury not to parrot what is being done in the big town.  And this is where I agree substantially with Teachout:  the solution is not in "schlock" (Teachout's word) entertainment concerts, no Wookies-on-ice-with-lasers-meet-Benvenuto Cellini, but in an authentic extension of what they actually can do best.   I do not wish to suggest that local orchestras are doing a particularly good job of this now, but finding common cause with local musical innovators is a real part of the solution.  If serious music is to do more than survive, if it is to thrive, then it has got to be an active presence both deep and wide, from children to seniors, from amateurs to professionals, from the living room to the school auditorium or church  to the fancy endowed concert halls on campuses and in big cities.


* Recordings have become so cheap and ubiquitous that their main function among new musicians is not as an object of commerce but as an advertisement for concert music, for the gigs where money is actually made.  We used to hand out calling cards, now we hand out cds. 

**The worst part of this is that the effect is self-sustaining: a small group gets all of the opportunities to compose for orchestra, and the ensuing lack of experience with composing for orchestra gets used against programming or commissioning composers who are outside of the group.  This is in best (worst) evidence with the present regime at the Cabrillo Festival, which is now basically a summer satellite activity of east coast conservatory composers at the expense of Cabrillo's traditional commitment to west coast experimentalism. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Just a reminder

The radical music isn't so much a way of composing, or even a repertoire of music associated with a way of composing, but rather a way of listening.  And listening not so much to music, as for the possibility of music.

Off the Scale

Maybe it would be useful to rethink the whole topic of engagement with musical scale. I have written here previously about composers — including Ashley, Young, and Feldman — for whom issues of scale were or have been important. I suppose that obsession with larger (and evermore-larger) scales of musical production goes back really to Berlioz and Wagner (with both inspired by the example of Beethoven's Ninth, the only non-Wagner work ever programmed at Bayreuth). Thus, in music as in economics, scale became a central concern with industrialization and nationalism and remained central in the parallel developments of corporate capitalism and state socialism (still active, for example, in the military-owned enterprises in China). Attributing a thematic, ideological, or causal relationship between the lengthy works of Young or late Feldman and corporate capitalism is, of course, a ridiculous proposition and an unnecessary line of inquiry. As with Stockhausen supposedly "serving" an imperialism that couldn't give a damn about his formulae, moments, groups or points, the works of Young and Feldman as well as Ashley are essentially invisible and inaudible to the economic powers-that-be, but they are clearly dependent upon conditions of corporate capitalist life — leisure time, tax deductions for charitable contributions, rent-protected industrial lofts, the reliable delivery of electrical power etc.. I don't believe that this is a terribly profound point, and certainly not one which would constitute a major point of criticism (indeed, one may well credit these composers for resisting the imperative of corporate music production to ship everything in three minute and album-length packages), but it does make me want to listen more closely now to musical miniatures (my family is sort of obsessed with Howard Skempton's all-miniature and mostly solo accordion CD Home and Abroad) as well as pursue the idea of works with wildly variable as well as "anonymous" (i.e. not particularly either small or large) scales.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Utopia, un/Limited, or The Flowers of Progress

One of the paradoxes of the radical music is that it thrives at both extremes, at densities both close to zero and at or past the point of any perceivable order or distinction among constituent parts. A further paradox here is that, on the one hand, an ever-lower limit on materials or methods can create  ever-more mysterious and inscrutable musical objects and processes while, on the other hand, ever-more densely overlaid materials and complicated procedures can lead to sum totals which are heard as ever-more elementary surfaces or gestalts.  YET A FURTHER PARADOX is that composing under ever-more narrow restrictions or limits may yield ever-larger numbers of possible realizations while a lack of limits may force a composition into a density that is essentially ergodic in nature.  

Among composers, John Cage and James Tenney were perhaps most focused on these paradoxes, composing at both limits, but the concern is widespread: much of the music of Nancarrow and Ligeti depends on it, Alvin Lucier's string quartet, Navigations for Strings or La Monte Young's Well-Tuned Piano feature it.  Heck, Monteverdi's concitato style and Berlioz's use of spatial polyphony with very restricted pitch materials and even the Javanese irama system, coordinating material density with tempi, depend upon it, too.  And, outside of music proper, the productive use of restrictions are extremely interesting: the Oulipo, of course, or the fiction of Walter Abish, the Dogme 95 films, or even the Mundane Science Fiction movement are all good examples that limitations can focus and form work but are not necessarily limiting.

The Stuff of Legends

Composer Tim Parkinson has begun a great series of video interviews with some legendary UK experimental composers, including John White, Richard Emsley, Chris Newman and Michael Parsons, here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Drone from South Africa

The sound of those plastic stadium horns is a constant background presence in the broadcasts from the Soccer World Cup in South Africa. Although there must be considerable variation in the exact size and shape of these instruments with consequent variations in frequency, it all averages out in a massive example of the chorus effect into such a warmly modulating Bb that each time I pass through the room where my son is watching games, I annoy the hell out of him with an inability to refrain from launching into bits of South Indian solfege: sa ri ga ma pa dha ni sa! or some rough and ready overtone singing (betraying, among other things, definite signs and symptoms of a musical youth in early 80's Santa Cruz). Bb is a comfortable tonic sa for me and after only two games the TV looks like it's going to become my tamboura-ersatz of choice, replacing our aged fridge for the rest of what looks to be a seriouslz drone-y World Cup.

Z is for Zero

One impulse for the radical music is the notion — some would say conceit — of a music built from scratch, from first principles and their consequences rather than built within the default settings of an existing tradition or practice. The turns to minimal means or algorithmic composition or free improvisation or even the use of chance or the dense overlay of so many processes that the end result is unpredictable were or are, often, chosen precisely to follow this impulse. My own conceit is that my pieces are games very much akin to the language games in late Wittgenstein, experiments in the consequences of finite sets of materials and rules for their deployment with the potential (the Oulipo has it right with their idea of a potential literature) to emulate or even achieve the condition of music, but very much also the potential to fail to achieve that condition. The problem here, of course, is that there is an inherent conflict between the clarity of this experimental approach and the obscurity and elusiveness associated with defining the musical. Of course, one could just pull a Potter Stewart and be satisfied that one "knows music when you hear it" — after all, I spend most of my waking hours with music and music traditions I love and know with some intimacy — but isn't that just avoiding the responsibility associated with a commitment to an experimental approach to composition, which is to keep exploring and redefining through composition the extents and limits of the musical, as played and heard? Yeah, my conceit is that the piece begins from nothing, that it is only constructed (a la intuitionist mathematics), but as each sound or structure or process or pattern begins to shape that nothing into something, all of my prior experience of the musical inevitably enters in, sometimes setting rules, sometimes imposing an inexorable logic, sometimes calling on training or habit. There is a wonderful, tense, unpredictable interplay here between forces — choice, consequence, chance — that is the very source of the joy I find and recognize only in the practice of composition.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Wagner staging: bring on the Zamboni!

I heard a first class Das Rheingold this evening at the Frankfurt Oper, the first production in a new Ring cycle.  Sebastian Weigle, the General Music Director of the house, began his musical career as a horn player, and the benefits of that experience were once again clear in his ability to balance local details and ensemble balance with long-term development.  As is typical for Frankfurt, the choice of singers was fortunate all around, and Kurt Streit's Loge and Meredith Arwady's Erda, in particular, were in top form both musically and dramatically. 

The only reservation I have with this production is the set.  It's yet another variation in the Wieland Wagner brand of discs/rings, intended as an abstract and all-purpose set for use throughout the cycle.  In this case a huge computer-controlled stage machine with a central disk on a lift and four outer rings independently revolvable about the center, the whole perilously raked (the singers in LA have nothing to complain about), so that the pieces can be turned in countless ways suggesting waves and paths and caves etc..   It's an impressive piece of machinery, but damn, aren't we bored of the rings already?  Even with imaginative lighting and projections as well as discreetly added props, I'm not sure that I'm prepared to sit through another twelve hours and change of looking at this thing turn about.   

Despite the world economic crisis, there appear to be a record number of new Rings in production or planning (we'll actually be having a autobahn series of Rings, soon, as Darmstadt, a half-hour down the road, is beginning one as well), and it's been fascinating to see the bits and pieces of productions that have appeared on TV or online.  I have a particular fascination with old fashioned stage magic and have been rather disappointed that newer technological possibilities do not appear to have consistently or reliably offered improvements on the old.  A Spanish cycle televised last Winter, for example, was dominated by on stage lifts and cranes.  Nice idea, one would think, to let Gods and Goddesses float about a bit; not so nice, however, when one sees (and hears — for they never get all the creaks and groans out of these things) more of the cranes than of the crooners.  If you want stage magic, you don't want to see wires carrying Peter Pan, you don't want to see Edgar Bergen's lips move when Charlie McCarthy speaks, and you don't want to see lifts or the underbelly of a Wieland Wagner carousel.  (And why is it that some part of the audience always starts clapping when the big machine does a 180?)  I want stage magic to be magical and appropriate technology.  If there has to be large machinery on stage, I'd much prefer that they bring on a Zamboni between acts.  If we're going to see machines on stage, the proto-steam punk of the Chéreau Ring was definitely a better point of departure: by setting the work during the Industrial Revolution, it maintained a frame of reference with a sufficient degree of mythological distance to our own technological landscape; a stage technology will appear magical if it is either so ancient or so advanced as to be unfamiliar. 

The other problem with an abstract set is that abstraction necessarily means a reduction in details.  The Ring, more than other operas, thrives on its details; their presence enables listeners to engage ever more closely with relationships and cross references and to go deep from the broadest thematic connections to the most conjectural arcana.  While it is possible, Story Theatre-style, to encourage audience imaginations to fill in an empty set, it is not always a reliable solution, nor do we want to be locked into that model of audition. (Not to mention the fact that an empty set often suggests a poverty of both imagination and resources on the part of the production team and management, respectively.)  Achim Freyer's new Ring staging in Los Angeles has the virtue, no matter what you may think of his style, of filling the stage with detail and detail that is directly derived from Wagner's content, thus capable of reinforcing or bringing out more rather than less of the score.   

(My fatigue with all-purpose sets is not limited to disc'n'ring Wagner stagings.  The current Don Carlo set in Frankfurt, for example,  uses a generic castle-like set and makes two very big, very basic mistakes in scenery:  the set pieces are imitation brickwork (which always looks cheap; junior high drama club cheap) and some of the imitation brickwork, including some very large pieces of imitation brickwork (pillars, stellae, whole walls) are made to move, up and down, right in front of our very eyes, a guaranteed killer of suspended disbelief.)

Addendum: I should have mentioned the one theatrical coup through which director Vera Nemirova successfully subverts the restrictions of the giant discman:  instead of using a projection behind the set or rearranging the rings, Valhalla is represented as the auditorium itself: the lights come up in the hall and the Gods, in black evening dress, gaze upon and then enter the hall as opera-goers taking their places before a performance. A nice break in the physical frame and a useful way to identify the evening as a prelude for things to come on stage. 

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Friday, June 04, 2010


An interesting article about John Cage and Robert Duncan, anarchy and the re-use of existing texts, here.

Thursday, June 03, 2010


An Hour is an interesting series of broadcasts by Ophir Ilzetzki featuring interview/portraits of composers working in experimental directions. Recommended.