Saturday, July 24, 2010

What is missing from too much new music?

Lightness and irony (alone and in combination).

Thursday, July 22, 2010

How many composers do you know within three zip codes of your home?

A friend in the US recently made this suggestion:

Many people appreciate the beneficial presence of art galleries in small communities, but these businesses struggle. Art dollars flow towards urban centers on grounds of prestige. How about making local art purchases, say within three zip codes of the buyer's residence, tax deductible?

Republicans and Democrats could get together on this: a tax cut through which the government funds the arts by encouraging private spending. And the government would lose little revenue -- some of the tax burden the collectors avoid would pass through the dealers and artists.

I think this is a splendid idea, especially when it is extended to artists working in non-visual arts. Yep, tax breaks for new music commissions.  It seems even a politically plausible idea, given the preference of Democrats for stimulus and arts funding and Republicans for tax cuts of almost any sort.  (The scale of this proposal would probably be dwarfed by the massively state-subsidized sports stadiums which have been widely supported by Republicans; see, for example, George W. Bush and the Texas Rangers baseball team.)  

An essential part of a more lively future for new music has got to be giving more emphasis to locally made music as a complement and contrast to music representing super-regional centers of funding or prestige and the consensus of large institutional programmers.  A local element necessarily introduces more diversity into the mix, which is healthy for the development of music itself and for performer and audience attention as well as helps to create a better bond between composer and community, which seems like a necessary element in increasing engagement in the music as well as commitment to live performance opportunities.  

In many ways, the contemporary music environment is more like the Baroque era than the late romantic with its quasi-heroic composers striving for international careers.  In the Baroque, there were clearly musicians and elements of music itself which transcended the local, and even the more obscure small-town composer was networked into this, particularly with regard to style, but the bulk of actual music making, for example all of the huge bodies of liturgical music written by a J.S. Bach or a Telemann, was intended for local consumption and was frequently made with the specific resources — be they strengths or limitations — of their communities.

Another useful aspect of a tax break for commissions is that it could help with the imbalance given to the large commissions — operas and orchestral works — over pieces for soloists and small ensembles.  All galleries love the big sales of works of substantial scale by better-known artists, often to large institutional collectors, but the bread and butter business is the sale of smaller pieces to individual collectors.  The same should be true for commissioned compositions.  


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

More Thanatophiles

Tim Rutherford-Johnson points to another one of those classical-music-is-dead-or-dying articles, this time a "manifesto for the future of classical music." It begins with the phrase:

The classical music industry is in decline,

and goes downhill from there.  Just listen to the way that word "industry" clunks up against the word "music":  does such a phrase give you any confidence that the writer actually likes the subject for which he claims to be advocating?   I mean, if you dislike music so much that you can — without any apparent sense of irony, sarcasm, or grotesque —  describe the live production of music in terms of industry, then you certainly cannot expect readers to take your proposals seriously.  

Classical music is not dying, it's changing, and it's changing as it always has changed.  It's changing in terms of the repertoire included by the term, the way in which it is played and presented, and how it is received.   Moreover the change is not monocultural, defined by the movement of a single mainstream of prestige and highly concentrated economic power but increasingly diversified. If anything, this movement is away from any semblance of an industry and towards a resurgence of value in artisanship and craftsmanship.  The most highly commodified form of music, the big label commercial recording, has been completely eclipsed, both by technological possibilities, economic realities, and the aesthetic advantages of having more alternatives available in recorded form and a coterminal restoration of the centrality and prestige of the live public performance.  The format and venue of that live performance may well change, but it has always been changing. Some people and some institutions will lose out in this process, but that's okay as long as the real bottom line of making sure more music gets played and heard live is met.  

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How (Music) History Moves

Reading Paul Feyerabend's Against Method for the nth time and can't help but once again recognize how much his anarchic account of how science is done echoes how musical invention is made, how contingent it is on individual experience, taste, insight, and circumstance rather than formal programs or dialectical forces.  Why, for example, was European serialism more reliably musical and musically interesting than the Perspectives of New Music-brand competitor, even though PNM had the more legitimately scientific approach (cf Backus's PNM review of die Reihe), and why was experimentalism even more so than either?  Daring to be naive is often more productive than trying to know everything before moving forward.  Feyerabend: "Confusionists and superficial intellectuals move ahead while the 'deep' thinkers descend into the darker regions of the status quo or, to express it in a different way, they remain stuck in the mud." (fn. p. 53)  

Feyerabend described Against Method as a "collage" which is both accurate and confirming in its self-deprecative tone that the book has, formally, a self-similarity to his own description of the scientific enterprise.  While the history of cosmology is, famously, the central concern, on re-reading, I'm struck by the author's casual but powerful use of other examples, in particular the excourses into anthropology and the techniques of epic composition and recitation.  

Perfect Storms

Last week, C. & I had planned for an anniversary picnic dinner along the Main, and a series of hot, dry days left us expecting nothing other than a pleasant evening but as we reached the river bank — on bikes — it started to sprinkle.  Optimistic as she always is, C. insisted on spreading out the blanket and provisions on the lawn rather than head back into the city for cover, and just as we settled down to eat, a strong gust of hot dusty wind blew both bikes down and was quickly followed by rain, not in drops but constant, like faucets. We scrambled to gather food-and-drink-stuffs and move under a nearby footbridge, which would have provided some protection, were the wind less strong and were the bridge not designed to channel drainage directly below.  Too wet, too windy to make a run for it, there was no alternative to going with the storm rather than against it and, somehow, we managed to make our meal there under the bridge, balancing things on the bikes and remaining prepared to shift from here to there whenever here became the outlet for a new downpour from the bridge above.  Another anniversary was made unforgettable by the unforeseen and — once we made sure by cellphone that the kids and the house were safely hatched down —  the hilarity of our situation overcame any frustration, and we had a marvelous time, picnicking and dodging downpours in the best company I know.

A couple of years ago, we were visiting in Budapest, staying in a small apartment on the Pest side half a block away from the Danube.  It was the St. Stephen's Day, the major national holiday in Hungary and C. and the kids had gone to watch fireworks on the river.  I was stuck in bed with a 100 and some fever and only a hope to hear some of the fireworks.  The apartment was a former servants' room in a rundown late 19th century building, with only a pair of windows to the inner courtyard.  I heard some explosions, and there were flashes of light outside but then came thundering and crashes, and I could see concrete, plaster and roof tiles start to fall into the courtyard.   The window was thrown open by a strong wind, with rain pouring this way and that and, as I rushed to close it again, I could see bits of a sky in which rocketry and lighting were sharply etching a sky which, a hour earlier, was clear but had now been filled with dark clouds.  I got dressed to go look for my family but, fortunately, they were all able to make it back without injury and as they dried off, they told of the huge crowd (a good part of that city of two million people were there) enjoying the fireworks display, shot off from several bridges and hillsides, and the arrival, without warning of a twisting storm from upriver, bringing lightning,  thunder and rain, drawing water directly up from the river and scattering everyone everywhere, running where they could in the search for some distance, some shelter, from the storm, while all the while the rockets continued to shoot off on their planned schedule, but not necessarily on their planned trajectories (it turned out that the company which produced the display felt obliged to continue shooting things off, public safety ignored, as their contract allowed for no payment should the explosives not be ignited on that evening.)  Here was a perfect match of an act of nature meeting human incompetence, and it must only be due to a long-practiced patience and resourcefulness of the Budapestites that so few were killed or injured. 

Our general sense of helplessness in the face of nature's potential and the acoustical power, specifically, of a storm is an natural fascination for composers.   Beethoven certainly knew his storms, as did Mendelssohn (Hebrides Overture), Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Hugo Wolf, Debussy. Both Stravinsky and Britten had their storms, in their treatments of the Noah's Flood mystery play.  But more recently, musical mimesis of storms seems to have become more difficult.  I suspect that the ubiquity of recorded and synthesized sound has altered some of our expectations about how a storm "should" sound in a theatre.  Ligeti famously struggled for many years to make an operatic version of The Tempest and it seems that the storm — for which he wanted to employ non-linear dynamics in the composition — was a particular challenge. Likewise, John Cage had long proposed a work, Atlas Borealis with Ten Thunderclaps, based in part on the ten 100-letter thunderclaps in Finnegans Wake, in which electronic sound processing was to be used to transform vocal and instrumental sounds so that the experience would be "more like going to a storm than a concert." (Cage's terms fit nicely with his transformation of traditional musical mimesis from the imitation of nature in its outward attributes to the "imitation of nature in its method of operation.")   

Ligeti abandoned his Tempest in favor of a never-completed Alice in Wonderland; Cage, who made the practice of not composing without a specific commission and performance, never realized his thunderclaps piece and, indeed, took increasingly less interest in composing for electronics himself, but aspects of the work were perhaps carried forward into the environmental recordings used in Lecture on the Weather and the concert version of Empty Words, and the fascination with Finnegans Wake culminated in his Roaratorio.   Cage, understanding an account that Joyce's plan for a book to follow FW was to be called Ocean, began to plan a work of that title with Merce Cunningham, but did not live to experience the work which Cunningham eventually realized to a score by Andrew Culver, a long-time collaborator. Inasmuch as all storms, ultimately, end in ocean, the possibility that some of Cage's thunderclap ideas would have ended up in Ocean is a fascinating one. 

Monday, July 19, 2010

Keeping Lists

I usually have a collection of lists on my desk, of pieces or books or films that I'd like to hear or read or see.  For example, here's my little opera list: 

  • J.A. Hasse, anything.
  • Giachinno Rossini, Guillaume Tell (have heard but have not seen on stage)
  • Carl Maria von Weber, Oberon (the English original)
  • Hector Berlioz, Beatrice et Benedict
  • Hugo Wolf, Der Corregidor
  • Giselher Klebe, anything
  • Henry Brant, The Grand Universal Circus
  • Louise Talma,  The Alcestiad
  • Virgil Thomson, Lord Byron
  • Robert Ashley, That Morning Thing
  • Richard K. Winslow, anything

Nothing on any of these lists is of particular urgency, but each item represents a gap or a curiosity that I'd rather have filled than left open.  Keeping lists also functions as a kind of negative image of the listening, reading or watching which I have done.  I realized recently, for example, that I'd never seen the 1934 Ozu film, Story of Floating Weeds and since Ozu's 1959 re-envisaging of the film as Floating Weeds is such a favorite, this got promptly put on my to-see film list. 

Friday, July 16, 2010

From Vox Humana to "Digital Drugs"

The vox humana stop on organs produces a vibrato-like effect by adding pipes tuned slightly off from the rest of the organ, creating audible beats.   Musicians tune to one another by listening to and eliminating such beats.  The characteristic throbbing and shimmer of Balinese gamelan music is due, in large part, to pairs of instruments being tuned far enough apart from each other to produce desired beating rates.  Much of the music of Alvin Lucier is based around creating audible beats between instruments, voices, and/or electronic oscillators.   Beating is an elementary technique in electronic sound production.

And now we learn that listening to beats — in the form of binaural beating, with sine waves slightly varying from one another in frequency sent to individual headset channels — is being promoted as a "digital drug" and, America being America, groups of bureaucrats, parents and educators have already been found to complain about this as a "gateway drug", with a young person's willingness to experiment with the psychophysics of sound being construed as a warning signal for further experimentation.

Now, it is undeniable that experimentation with sound is a form of exploring the boundaries of perception — right alongside Op Art and eating wasabi or capiscum —;  and it seems plausible that certain acoustical effects, like beats, can have identifiable psychological and, indeed, therapeutic effects*,  but associating such explorations with the consumption of controlled substances is plain BS:  musicians have always been investigating ways to optimize and extend the limits of sound production and perception, using the physical and psychophysical properties of the sounds themselves.  It involves no injection of chemicals and does not lead to physical dependency.  It is about being able to hear more rather than less, and use music to express more rather than less. 

I suppose that what this episode does say is that there continue to be agents out there who wish to instrumentalize the choice of sounds or music we hear for purposes that have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual sounds or music, but rather much more with distracting the public from attending to real issues and, perhaps, just to be able to demonstrate a capacity for exercising social control, in this case, over what we hear and how we hear it.


* One of my favorites such effects is that a certain frequency can render Carlsberg Elephant beer unpalatable while another frequency optimizes the taste!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Fragility of Memory

The Hungarian conductor Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922) was the first real commuting superstar conductor, simultaneously holding positions with the top bands in Berlin, Leipzig, and London while travelling regularly to Russia, Hungary and elsewhere (he was also director of the Boston Symphony for four years). A charismatic conductor with a gently persuasive rehearsal style who always reserved a larged degree of spontaneity for performances, the closest recent equivalent was perhaps Carlos Kleiber; Kleiber, however, never sustained the volume of activity that Nikisch did, and certainly never went into a concert risking the imprecise or incomplete rehearsals Nikisch, with apparently some routine, would risk.

Nikisch was, however, the last great conductor not to have been well-recorded. He died before electrical recording and the few acoustic recording he made are all almost unlistenable, making Nikisch the last major conductor whose reputation is based essentially on the words of those who had witnessed his performances. Fortunately, RadiOM has archived William Malloch's 1965 KPFK documentary on Nikisch (here), an oral history composed of interviews with musicians who had worked with Nikisch. I was fortunate to have heard this documentary in a re-broadcast on KPFA sometime in the '70, where Malloch, the former music director of the station and an interesting composer, held forth for an hour each week with public and extra-academic musicology that was pioneering in its use of historical recordings of musical performances and interviews to investigate performance practice in the early 20th century. (RadiOM also has two Malloch documentaries on Stravinsky and a program on Revueltas which I recommend highly; Malloch's audio oral history I remember Mahler has been commercially available on an album with collected Mahler broadcasts by the NY Phil.)

As much joy as I take from rediscovering some Malloch programs online, it comes with the deep regret that such programming would simply be impossible today. Sure, there is much more information readily available online, between which one can flit at any time, pace, or place one likes, but the qualitative experience I had as a teenager, of being able to stumble upon a program like this (in my case while working at a summer job silk-screening shopping bags) and to become a regular listener to a trusted local voice like Malloch's is something very special.

Are you going to eat us?

The last post mentioned Michel de Ghelderode. If you're not familiar with any of his plays, here's a typically droll excerpt from his Christophe Colombe (among other things, a satire about the search for a better world):

MATELOTS. - Le Nouveau Monde ! Victoire !
COLOMB, dominant le tumulte et la situation. - Entendons-nous ? Messieurs les Sauvages ! Sommes-nous bien en Amérique ?
MONTEZUMA, somptueux, se détache et salue. - En Amérique du Sud, exactement.
COLOMB. - Je n'ai pas de chance. Vous parlez français ?
MONTEZUMA. - C'est une langue élégante. Préférez-vous l'anglais ?
COLOMB. - Il n'importe. Nous sommes faits pour nous comprendre. Que vous êtes décoratifs ! Mais dites-moi vos intentions ? Veniez-vous nous égorger ?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Not New and Not a Substitute for New

I don't understand the degree of praise that has accumulated around Newmusiconlineistan over the New York Phil's recent concert performances of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre (30-some years after its premier) and now in advance of a Varese fest in NYC (almost 45 years after the composer's death).  Yes, there should be congratulations for good programming, but none whatsoever is due in these cases for programming new music.  

Yes, it might be embarassing that the [East Coast  of the] US has not yet seem a fully-staged performance of the Ligeti opera, let alone have it enter a house's repertoire.  [Thanks to Lisa Hirsch for correcting me here: there was a full production in San Francisco!]  The piece is entertaining (if stripped, by the composer, of almost all the authentic mystery, cruelty and guignol/grotesque of Michel de Ghelderode's extraordinary play, La Balade du grand macabre, replaced with a silly text and all too many adolescent musician in-jokes*) and has had a significant stage life in European houses, and the performance in New York seems to have been very well-received, but it is reception due a tested work of the last century, not the reception of an unknown — and thus, risky — new work.

And then Varese.  I am deeply attached to the works of Varese, but there are no more brownie points given for novelty when performing his works.  The bulk of the tiny Varese catalog was written before the Great Depression (and Varese's own personal great depression)  and the catalog, as wonderful as most of it is, has been discovered and (supposedly) forgotten ever since with a wave motion, the regularity of which would have provided Kondratiev with a textbook example.  The most recent waves have come with the Frank Zappa seal of approval, probably increasing the audience size by an order of magnitude or more with the addition of a healthy number of lonely young weird-music-obsessed men to the crowd.  But the cycle has been more of spiral, with performances of Varese's music increasingly familiar program points, as established repertoire but not as new music.   (The recorded works have been steadily in print;  Ameriques has become a regular showpiece for conductors and orchestras, Density 22.5 is standard rep for flautists, Ionization for college or conservatory percussion ensembles; I've even heard Equatorial four times live, and that's a piece with a particularly hard-to-cover instrumentation, including a pair of Ondes Martenots)  For, fresh — indeed, renewable, as one says around here — as Varese's music can be, it is not modern music, it is not contemporary music, it is no longer new or experimental but it is — as Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn put it more than a generation ago —  a "look back at the future", at the ultra-modern (cum ultra-primitive) future imagined a very long time ago.  

There have now been several intervening generations of composers whose work shares Varesian concerns but turned into very different directions (including those who knew Varese, like Dlugoszewski or Tenney) .  And there are plenty of young composers today with interesting and alternative looks at a very different future.  The Philharmonic's new music advisor, Magnus Lindberg, certainly has an exuberant orchestration style that owes a lot to Varese, but just as certainly has an urgency that is of our moment.    


* Ligeti's fundamental lack of understanding for the Ghelderode makes me somewhat relieved that he abandoned his two later operatic projects, a version of The Tempest and an Alice in Wonderland. 


Thursday, July 08, 2010


This is the time of year in which every ex-pat American must think — if even for only a moment — about those low-explosive pyrotechnic devices used for aesthetic and entertainment purposes, about fireworks.   It's been my experience that not a few US composers have a weak spot for the sights and, especially, sounds of gunpowder used in its optimal form.   (And surely, composers of other backgrounds have their own moments around the times of year — New Year's, or national holidays — when fireworks are at play.)  Sometimes even the most cautious among us eagerly abandon caution, risking injury to limb, eye, and — most critically for a musician — ear, for the chance to cause and experience that uniquely painful and pleasurable combination of effects caused by simple chains of combustion.

During my poker-playing days, in the '80s, rounds of cards in Beatty or Pahrump, Nevada were frequently broken up by parking lot rounds of loud and colorful explosives, one of those Nevada pleasures not possible at home in California.  (I'm usually tight with money, but when the poker game was going well, burning up a bit of cash in the form of fireworks seemed perfectly natural: burnt offerings to Fortuna.)  There was a special delight in composing sequences of colors, sounds (whistles, zippers, crackers, and plain booms), as well as gradually escalating the altitudes achieved by arrays of bottle rockets. For some reason, however, this particular performance art was one I never considered integrating into my own musical works.

Other composers, however, have had no qualms about such an integated musical-pyrotechnical art form.  Handel, famously, made music to accompany fireworks.  Others have required explosions to occur during a piece.  And still others made music about fireworks (Ives's Fourth of July, Stravinsky's Feu d'artifice.)   One of the most endearing qualities about composer David Cope, one of my teachers as an undergrad in Santa Cruz, was his serious affection for fireworks. During my years there, he frequently reported about scouting out the perfect place on the beach for a big piece with rocketry and one piece, Vectors, a setting of texts by Ives, was one of the highlights of those years, climaxing with assembled on-stage musicians, two marching bands and electronics being overwhelmed by an indoor fireworks display, sending all the audience and performers to the exits as the the hall rapidly filled with smoke.  


Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Getting Paid: Still Looking for a Model that Works

If big-time, commercial music can't make a commercial success out of selling recordings, what expectations can we have for music from a commercially negligible genre?  

It's no news that there is no really good model for paying for new and experimental music.  To some extent, new "classical" or "serious" music has either sought to find advantage in low-verhead niche production or been able to parlay its prestige into a modest bit of piggybacking on the success of more commercially successful  musics in rights organizations like GEMA, but the former stream, that fabled "long tail", seems not to have played out as hoped and the latter has seriously declined in the face of stagnant or declining mainstream music revenues.  I've written recently about the inherent difficulties with reproducible media as a commodified form of music, (see also this item) and here are a couple of recent items from musicians representing more popular which reinforce this viewpoint.  

Here's rock star Prince, in the Mirror

He explains that he decided the album will be released in CD format only in the Mirror. There'll be no downloads anywhere in the world because of his ongoing battles against internet abuses.

Unlike most other rock stars, he has banned YouTube and iTunes from using any of his music and has even closed down his own official website.

He says: "The internet's completely over. I don't see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won't pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can't get it.

"The internet's like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated. Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets are no good.

"They just fill your head with numbers and that can't be good for you."

Also read this blog item by musical composer Jason Robert Brown, confronting a teenager who wants to download copies of his sheet music for free from a "sharing" site. 

We really, urgently, need to find a better model. I often wonder what such a model would look like if we were were able to start from scratch, without the cumbersome institutions (including rights organizations, management, and production firms)  and legal framework (copyright laws, in particular) that have, like Topsy, just grewed.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Five Pieces for Independence Day

Christian Wolff, Changing the System (revised version)
Charles E. Ives, Second Orchestral Set
Robert Ashley, Public Opinion Descends Upon The Demonstrators
Pauline Oliveros, Big Mother is Watching You
John Cage, Lecture on the Weather

(First posted here on July 4, 2006)

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Reliably Astonishing

Just finished Paul Auster's Invisible: once again had the enormously satisfying experience of an author in command of a style.  And since Auster is one of the writers I read all of (well, almost all: I couldn't even start to read his Timbuktu, preferring my narrators not to be canine) it was a distinctive but familiar style  The themes and material and diction were all more or less familiar, riffs off of a pool of Austeriana, but the particular mix was different and once again it was Auster's formal invention that made the whole work,  making the familiar once more new, strange and engaging.  I don't know that I would rank Invisible with Leviathon and The Book of Illusions, two books I have reread several times with increasing appreciation and pleasure (as well as a degree of disturbance!), but it is still a very fine novel with a striking form.

I've long insisted that it's the individual work — and sometime even only a moment in a work — that is important and not the entire catalogue of a composer or the particular repertoire of a place or time.  Catalogues and repertoires are uneven in quality — sometimes interesting just for their qualitative eccentricities — but uneven means good, bad, and everything (i.e. mostly) in-between. However, given the finities of a listening life and the vast vector field of possible music to pay attention to (or, books to read or films to watch or painting to see or dances to watch...), a catalog or a repertoire, when handled critically, can often provide a useful signal.   

Case in point: Last night, I heard The Damnation of Faust in the Frankfurt Opera. I went less because of the piece itself, which I had heard last as a teenager, but rather because Berlioz is simply one of the more reliable brand names among composers, reliable for a capacity to astonish.  And sure enough, Berlioz's Faust is quite unlike anything else.  It's neither opera nor oratorio nor symphony (the composer eventually named it a "légende dramatique" which certainly doesn't bring the matter of genre further) with only four solo roles, crowded scenes but rather discrete use of the chorus, and much of the narrative carried by the orchestra.   Some aspects of the work I can only describe as proto-post-modern  (I use the term with caution, intensely disliking much of the standard PoMo discourse)  with brilliant use of dramatic and musical framing devices, musics within musics, and a staggering use of highly differentiated counterpoint, sometimes using space as a critical parameter (heaven and hell are, acoustically, very different places for Berlioz).  His heterodox harmonic practice (with a particularly rich tension in his approach to voicing as to opposed to standard practice voice leading and tonal function) and his refraction of the revolutionary musical idiom are applied here with particularly sensitivity.  Now, all of these elements are the knowns and familiars about the brand name Berlioz(TM) , but the sui generis form of the individual work trumps all of that; the composer has his riffs and changes but his level of mastery and commitment to the integrity of the work at hand is such that the listener is never left with the feeling that the composer is just playing riffs and changes.   Berlioz could, famously, do large and outrageous things with an orchestra, but that's just not always where the real musical action is: if you have a chance to hear The Damnation of Faust, please pay attention to the variety and subtleties of the string writing first and then to the way in which tune and rhythm form Faust's diction: you will be astonished, well even before Berlioz brings Mephistopheles on stage and the magic begins.