Tuesday, September 28, 2010


I have been seriously remiss in not including a link to the very nice website dedicated to the work of the remarkable Guatemalan composer Joaquin Orellana.  This is it, and it's well worth a long visit.   While studying in Buenos Aires in the late 1960s, Orellana became familiar with a state-of-the-art electronic music studio, but on his return to Guatemala City, the then-conventional resources available to him for making electronic music were seriously limited, so Orellana devised acoustical instruments — utiles sonoros (sound utensils) — fashioned out of available local materials, including bamboo, hardwoods, and scrap metal, which he used in place of the banks of oscillators and filters and other modules that were then featured, elsewhere, in analog synthesis studios, as sound sources.  These utensils proved to be much more than simple tools for subsequent tape manipulation, and would frequently be featured as accompaniment instruments to increasingly lyrical melodic material.   

Friday, September 24, 2010

About those landmarks

To date, over the past almost-six years, I've written about 46 personal musical "landmarks" on this blog.  These are not exactly items in the usual "best of" list, but pieces that stand out, for one reason or another, as landmarks in a musical autobiography.  Most of the pieces I've lived with for a longer time, but some — the most recent of which is an orchestral work by Richard Ayres — are new discoveries, Eurekas! from first hearing.  With one exception (the Buckinx 1001 Sonates, of which I've only heard a fraction, as the whole lasts about 24 hours!), I've heard all the concert works live. Some I've performed myself, in most cases I've spent time with the scores, and with the electronic pieces, I've spent hours with the recordings.  Charles Shere recently reminded us on his blog of the traditional sense of the term "Discrimination has to do with specific choices, not categorical ones." And discriminatory the list is, indeed, made of specific choices, allowing complete works only in the case of Machaut and sets of works in the case of the Purcell viol music.   The only meaningful categories under which these landmarks fall is my own biography and taste, so it is a bit of an indulgence, but it seems the process of list-making has a life of its own and inevitably starts to assert its own set of rules.  One of the rules has been that I have avoiding, to date, naming a single composer twice.  This has been very hard in some cases (among them Monteverdi, Debussy, Ives, Cage, Lucier, and Young) and in one case, Berlioz, indecision over which piece, exactly, to include, has long kept me from adding a work even though it is insanely obvious that a half-dozen pieces by Berlioz ought to be long overdue for inclusion.  In a couple of cases, the personality of the composer gets in the way of a piece I treasure — is Ruggles's racism a roadblock for Sun Treader or Angels, for example? (I did put Hyperprism on the list, knowing about the anti-semitic streak in some of Varese's letters, so I'm not altogether consistent on this score.)  Finally, for all of the diversity on this list, it's definitely a western-classical-tradition-based assemblage and there certainly aren't enough women.  I can only defend myself here in that in the cases of non-western repertoire that I value highly, even with years of exposure, I don't believe that I am always able to really discriminate wisely among the repertoire. Etenraku is a gorgeous piece, one that I've known since High School, but it's the one piece people know of Gagaku when they know only one piece of Gagaku and including it would be more a marker of my ignorance of a repertoire I don't know well enough.  In the case of Javanese music, which I know much better, the more I know about fantastic pieces like Gadhung Mlathi or Gendhing Bonang Tukung, the more obvious it is how little I really know.  And then, in many other cases, for example South Indian classical music or Diné (Navajo) ceremonial music, using a term like "composition" or "work" or "piece" seems so clumsily inaccurate.   Finally, the list is getting close to the number 50; while it would be easy to name 100 or many 100s of landmark pieces, I think that an honest number — of pieces that I know well enough to stand behind them as a musician — has got to stop around 50 or 60, otherwise it's the equivalent of teenage boys bragging about the size of their record collections.  Anything more than that would be presumptuous.  Or maybe, once I reach 50 or so, the better idea would be to keep that total as a limit and then, if I decide to add anything, I have to strike something else off the list to make room...  

Why is climbing a flight of stairs like listening to Bruckner?

In the study, published Friday in Science, they showed how they measured the effect on a scale of about one foot (33 centimeters) to demonstrate how people age faster when standing a couple of steps higher on the staircase. (Hat tip: here.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Too much, too little

For many composers, for centuries apparently, part of the primal ritual of establishing a composerly identity has been an obligatory period of conflict with one's teacher(s).  I was lucky in that I was spared that period of conflict.  I got along with my teachers and they (mostly) got along with me and we even continue to get along pretty well.  Now, some of my teachers — Lucier and Young, in particular — came out of their own obligatory periods of conflict with composerly identities employing an absolute minimum of means to achieve a particular maximum of musical quality.  For their perspective, it is probably the case that my music tends to do too much or have too much, but thankfully they have been consistently gracious about it.  

On the other hand, there are certainly a large number of musicians for whom my music appears pretty minimal.  I just emailed a copy of a wind quintet to a friend in the Netherlands who got rather cross with me because the score, with plenty of notes, has no dynamics. There happens to be a reason for the absence — the piece is about something other than dynamics, so as long as the loudness or softness of the players doesn't get in the way of all the things that the piece actually is about, or better yet, brings out some of those things, it's really all the same to me — but for my friend, I was was being irresponsibly minimal.  No matter that I had explained that I had really worked on the issue of the dynamics, that not including them was a serious, not a casual, decision, and that while I could have come up with some system or just written in some dynamics extemporaneously, that would have been, to my ear and mind and taste and temperament, essentially an arbitrary act.  Never mind,  I had violated his notions about the minimum contents of a respectable score.  

People really get angry about these issues and while never quite getting angry, I have worried about them as well.  (See this post about fat crayons and musical pidgins  from 2005.)  I suspect not a few experimentalists and complexists have had some envy for the ability of mainstream composers to sort of skip the issue entirely, riding along on the autopilot of conventional practice.  If I have acquired any wisdom on the topic it's this: The problem is never too many or too few notes, it's having the right ones. My own druthers are for a lower limit, but the choice of a minimum of ways or means requires a certain amount of confidence in your choices.  On the other hand, being more inclusive, more expansive, and/or more complicated can be a good way of covering up a lack of confidence, with a surfeit of apparent labor providing a tempting measure of cover for that lack.  Neither approach is automatically going to be more likely to produce the right notes, so if someone starts to knock you for having too many or too few notes, just knock 'em right back with notice that quantity alone is an inadequate substitute for actually having some criteria. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Landmarks (46)

Karel Goeyvaerts: Nummer 1 (1950) (Sonata for two pianos).

The name of the Belgian composer Karel Goeyvaerts is probably encountered most in discussions over who did or didn't compose the earliest completely serialized work (a pissing contest that won't be entered here.) The handful of serial pieces Goeyvaerts composed in between 1950 and 1957, for instruments or magnetic tape, are each remarkable, on their own immediate musical terms, above and beyond their technical features. Nummer 2, for thirteen instruments, for example, is a work that finds company well next to pieces like Babbitt's Composition for Twelve Instruments or Wolff's Nine, which are a pair of pieces you wouldn't ordinarily expect to encounter in the same neighborhood.  

Nummer 1, originally given the title Sonata for two pianos and also known as Opus 1, is something of a strict process piece, and to some extent, this process-character makes the piece more like some experimental repertoire than other "classic" serial pieces.*  It is frequently mentioned for a controversial public reading, by the composer and Karlheinz Stockhausen, at Darmstadt, a performance that definitely troubled some critical listeners (Adorno among them) for the piece's stubborn refusal to appeal to traditional musical rhetoric.  Goeyvaerts's ideal was not a music in which tonal relationships unfolded in and articulated time dynamically but rather tonal events were placed in time as elements of a larger, static tone structure.  There is a closeness here, both to Cage's filling-in of a predetermined time structure from charts of possible materials and the static harmony of the radical music with reduced means that would later emerge on the west coast of the US with La Monte Young and his cohort. At the time of composition, Goeyvaerts's closest professional friend was Stockhausen, and it is impossible not to recognize shared elements of both technique and aesthetic in the subsequent work of the two composers (Kreuzspiel, for starters), but one is equally aware of the substantial aesthetic difference between the two, and that, I think, can be located in Goeyvaerts's dark, gentle, and slightly grotesque choice of tones, which would later allow the composer to fashion a more-generalized notion of a static harmony underlying materials more conventionally tonal in character (indeed, sometimes close to later minimal musics) as well.   

At the time of their most active exchanges, both Goeyvaerts and Stockhausen were reading Sein und Zeit and Doktor Faustus and Das Glasperlenspiel, continental philosophical and literary sources with a mixture of ratio and mysticism which were perhaps even more urgent influences than in the music of Messiaen, Schoenberg, or Webern.  The handful of works Goeyvaerts made under this influence, however, hovered around a existential minimum that Stockhausen did not seriously approach in any completed work, and this was perhaps the immediate cause of a halt in compositional output for several years until his re-emergence as a para-minimalist in the late 1960s.    

*A technical footnote, for those inclined: Let me describe some of the procedures in the second (of four) movements, whose retrograde makes up the third movement.  It involves the simultaneous rotation of two ordered seven-tone sets, each sharing two common pitches which are fixed in register, the eb below middle c and the second a above middle c.  The remaining pitches contract in register through the movement, a process that is perfectly audible, especially when you have the two fixed-register pitches in the back of your ears.  Goeyvaerts serializes additional parameters in a way that ingeniously associates pitches with durations, dynamics, and types of articulation through assigning numerical values to a pitch's intervallic distance from the two fixed pitches; a value to each available duration based on distance above or below a median durational value; a value to each of four dynamic levels; and a value to each of two forms of articulation.  Each individual tone then, through the combination of interval, duration, dynamic, and articulation, has a sum numerical value that Goeyvaerts does not allow to exceed seven. The effect is a net, if subtle, reinforcement of the attraction of the two tonal poles of attraction.  The ways in which the two sets are distributed between the pianos and then between each pianist's hands are fascinating as well, partitioning organized as broad gestures in pitch space, yet not parse-able as thematic material.  


Saturday, September 18, 2010


I was out about town today doing some field recordings.  I was focusing on public transportation, conversing passers-by, skateboarding, and water, especially public fountains.  (There are vague plans to make a piece incorporating such bits of acoustical realia.)  One of the most fascinating things about many continuous or repetitious sounds is that when listening, even idly, we all start grouping events into rhythmic, indeed metric, patterns, finding stress accents in stimulus that is essentially undifferentiated, vague, or random.  This phenomenon, usefully, has a name, pareidolia, and is familiar with visual as with auditory sensations, whether finding poodles in cloud formations or rhythmic grooves in streetcar clatter.  Pareidolia definitely has a downside, in that it can provide the stuff to feed some serious misapprehensions about the world (it may well be the root of half the conspiracy theories floating around), but the upside, as a composer, is obvious, as we're actually in the business of turning misapprehensions about the sounding world into musical surprises.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Deep Style

The opera season here in Frankfurt has begun again, and I find myself once again chaperoning an eight-year-old supernumerary to rehearsals and performances of Don Carlo.  While waiting around, I've heard a lot of Don Carlo, and heard it now with several changes of cast.  Verdi is not the turf that experimental composers usually tread, but I've been honestly impressed, and especially by those elements of the music which are simply not to be found in the score.  These, mostly of micro-timing, of tempo, rhythm, and rubato, are constantly in flux at the smallest level, and the practice here is one that comes honestly out of a real aural tradition. It helps, here in Frankfurt, that the orchestra and the conductor have a long relationship of playing Verdi together — more than thirty years — but the key here, I think, is the conductor, Carlo Franci (83 years old, if Wikipedia has it right), who has every note of the score in solid memory and it seems that every nuance of timing and pitch between those notes, each nudge of rubato, or grace of portamento, comes from a strange and wonderful place poised between an absolute identification with the performance tradition and an ability to spring at the possibilities of the moment.  To work with such confidence and security as well as continued discovery is a sign of a performing tradition at its best, style that is anything but surface, anything but facile.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Pak Cokro

A video portrait on the occasion of Pak Cokro's 100th birthday. Pak Cokro (also known as KPH Notoprojo, KRT Wasitodiningrat, KRT Wasitodipuro), was one of the most important musicians of the 20th century, born into the royal house of Pakualaman, the minor court in Yogyakarta, Java, Pak Cokro eventually became music director of the Pakualaman and of the Yogyanese radio station. He was central to a movement to combine the classical gamelan styles of the two Central Javanese kingdoms, Surakarta and Yogyakarta, and became known in the west first through the Nonesuch recording produced by Robert E. Brown, and then directly, through many years of teaching in California. In California, his many students included the composer Lou Harrison. A performance of the Pakualaman's traditional royal entry piece, Puspawarna, under Pak Cokro's leadership was included in the recording which accompanied the Voyager spacecraft, a perfect example of human music-making at its very best.  This informal documentary is a valuable record of one of the last musicians to have worked as a functionary in the semi-autonumous court environment in the colonial era under the Dutch and then during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia and finally functioning as a state composer in the independent Republic of Indonesia.  

Friday, September 10, 2010

An American is a complex of occasions...

Charles Olson reads 'Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [withheld]' (Mar 1966)

(Hat tip: Silliman's Blog)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

This is not a guillotine.

A list I subscribe to recently had a small item about Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites (1957), which is not exactly the kind of thing I write about here.  Dialogues may well be the most-performed opera of the second half of the 20th century.  It's a lush piece, requires limited stage resources, has forgiving vocal writing and is not overly long.  But it's not really a work which pushes any boundaries.  

But this item did mention an interesting feature in the work: two players from the percussion section are assigned the responsibility for the sound of the (off-stage) guillotine, "one producing a crescendo-glissando with a metal object on the edge of a tam-tam(laid flat in order to create a dry scraping sound) as a grace-note to a hammer-stroke on a large wooden box produced by the other player."

This happens to be a superb illustration of musical representation:  Poulenc, writing in 1957, could well have used a recording of real guillotine, or even positioned a real guillotine offstage and have it slice through something head-like (a ham, or perhaps a melon?) for each decapitation in the score, that is to say, treated it like a film or stage sound effect (in film, this would probably be assigned to a sound effects artist, possibly a foley artist, although, not being produced by visible hands or feet, it is not, technically, a foley effect).  But Poulenc decided to treat it as a musical representation, timed to the score, produced by percussionists in the pit, and with not only a technical description of the sound production but a precise musical description of the sounds required and their placement in musical time.  

This sound in Dialogues is thus something that the listener will immediate identify within the narrative as a guillotine, but it is also more than that as the noises are tightly integrated into a rhythmic and tonal context.  It is even possible to imagine the same striking sound occurring in different works of music, completely divorced from its representative function. This is, of course, typical of the history of the European orchestral franchise as, for example, horns and trumpets and trombones gradually became members of the ensemble, initially representing functional sounds, associated, respectively, with the hunt, battle, and the church tower, yet eventually becoming integrated into the ensemble for more strictly — and abstractly — musical functions.   Aside from occasional visits by instruments like the saxophone (an instrument carrying its own associations), the last two centuries in the history of orchestration have featured the gradual addition of percussion instruments, often introduced first in the opera, typically first through either such literal representations of diegetic sounds or the invocation of the exotic.      


Erring on the Side of the Angels

At the end of his recent blogged series, The Anosognosic’s Dilemma, Errol Morris quotes Noam Chomsky on the limits of human cognition: 

“We are after all biological organisms not angels . . . If humans are part of the natural world, not supernatural beings, then human intelligence has its scope and limits, determined by initial design. We can thus anticipate certain questions will not fall within [our] cognitive reach, just as rats are unable to run mazes with numerical properties, lacking the appropriate concepts. Such questions, we might call ‘mysteries-for-humans’ just as some questions pose ‘mysteries-for-rats.’ Among these mysteries may be questions we raise, and others we do not know how to formulate properly or at all.” 

It strikes me that musical experiment, the radical music, is always going to tease out such questions, such mysteries, sometimes with success but often courting failure (i.e. music which doesn't "work" or makes no "sense").  In doing so, particularly in accepting the possibility of failure, experimental music distinguishes itself from conventional music-making which more safely plans its effects and affects, using known materials and methods.  Yet, more than that, the radical music errs, when it errs, — and err it does — on the side of the optimistic assumption that the extents and limits of our human musical perception and cognition are just a little bit closer to those of the angels.   

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Well, that was short...

It took eight years to go from the Leif Inge's 9 Beet Stretch to the Justin Bieber stretch-out, and from there, I reckon that it's taken about two weeks to officially become a audio production cliché, which is probably a typical rate of idea consumption and exhaustion in the transition from art to commercial music. In the past week, I've received links to about a half-dozen new stretched pieces, all made, one assumes, in the wake of the Bieber.  Now, as an experimentalist, I have nothing against the use of clichés — there still being plenty (to paraphrase Schoenberg) of good music to be made from stretched out bubble gum — but the music can't stand alone on its slow motion.  Stretching is now just additional material, and a work of music using it will have to have other compelling qualities to sustain that material. 

Friday, September 03, 2010

Passacaglia from FIGURE & GROUND (1994-5)


There's a new website documenting the new music duo of Ed Harkins and Philip Larson, otherwise known as [The], here.  (Hat tip from the composer Steed Cowart.)  Based in the Music Department at UC San Diego since the early 1970s, Harkins (a virtuoso trumpeter and a specialist in complex rhythm) & Larson (a fine bass-baritone) are definitely not your typical academics, academic musicians, or just plain musicians (or are they dancers?)  [The] grew out of the now-legendary Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble resident at UCSD from 1973 to 1983 and rapidly became a favorite on the new music circuit, with fans including John Cage and George Carlin.  New music is not necessarily a sombre affair.   (The video above is an excerpt from [The]'s signature piece, "for trumpet and dancer," a piece with perhaps the drollest page turn of all time.)

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Writing as if Composing

Run-on and runaway sentences; hanging sentence fragments; needling repetition; odd punctuation; obscurities and neologisms;  abrupt shifts of register, both up and down; anacoluthons; non-sequitors; too much stuffed away between ellipses, brackets, braces, or parentheses (when not hidden in footnotes below); seemingly arbitrary settings of text in italic or boldface character; metaphors mixed and mashed; knowingly faulty logic; opinions presented as facts; abused rhetoric (all 38 of Schopenhauer's Arts of Being Right on display and then-some)...  Guilty as charged!  All I can ask is that you, dear reader, bear with me even if these aspects of Renewable Music's house style book grate like so many fingernails on blackboards or even more ants in a bento box on a Saturday picnic turned to thunder, lightning, rain, gentle rain, then too much rain... The idea — and there really is one, here — is that the webblog is still a new medium, and one which has not yet found its extents and limits as a form of prose (or not-prose), and one which is not yet immune to the methods of an experimental composer, thus the breathless and short-of-breath and stuttered lines, the sudden interjections, jarring accents, and ragged articulations, and all those sounds, those troubled, troubling, consoling, caring, sweet, everyday, exotic, exhalted sounds...  What could be better than to aspire to a condition of music?  My fault, my failure then, may not be the experimenting but rather the stubborn fact of not having experimented enough. 

[Except, of course, for careless errors in spelling, grammar, or typos.  The fault, there, belongs to the damn computer.]