Thursday, October 28, 2010

On and Off the Grid

I've been digging into the work of the anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott.  His Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed is particularly interesting*,  showing how authoritarian modernism can disastrously simplify and fail to "read" traditional cultures and the body of knowledge and techniques that these bring to working in complex environments.  His examples come both from state regimes both right and left and both villainous and rather more benign (i.e. Soviet collectivization and Tanzanian Ujaama villagification)  and include intriguing oppositional voices, for example Rosa Luxemburg contrasted with Lenin and Jane Jacobs with Le Corbusier, oppositional voices from the left making the case for the complexity, sophistication, and value of traditional cultural practices.

A startling juxtaposition here for me is that that between modernism and simplification, from the need to make things clear (Scott's term of art is "legible") — roads straightened, cities drawn to grids, fixed units of measurement, a fixed system of personal and family names, monocultural agriculture, etc. —  in order for a modern authoritarian state to assert greater degrees of management and control.  A more startling quality is that the impulse for much of this is more aesthetic (or even "faith-based") in nature than rational.  Yet,  as it often enough happens, these become objects of real, if often subtle, revolt and subversion from forces at the base and margins of societies and beyond state control, taking the opportunity of the failures of planning, through their ability to deal with real material conditions more effectively, indeed rationally, than the statist or corporate planners.  (I suspect that the most successful modern societies succeed from a carefully, if tacitly, negotiated compromise between these forces.  If I have a criticism of Scott, it is perhaps that he does not give enough consideration to the notion that these responses to the state are themselves, as tied to tradition as they may be, a form of modernism.  Yes, we want the universal high quality drinking supply the modern state provides (or promises to provide), but no, we don't want forests with third generations of dying, monocultural Standardbäume.   Yes we want modern highways, no we don't want them next to our homes and schools or straight through the middle of our communities.  Yes, we want modern utilities, but if we are able to provide our own utilities more cheaply and cleanly by going off the grid, then we want to be able to do that.)     

In recent art music we have, of course, our own dynamic between simplification and complexity, as well as between tradition and modernism.  This dynamic is full of interesting and productive contradictions and even paradoxes.  Minimalism in music, for example, can be a means toward recovering and projecting complexity, while notationally complex music may be such a reification of the note as a musical atom, ripped out of either larger tonal contexts or sealing off attentions from any inner activity within the span of that note, that much complexity is lost.  

While there is a relationship of the modernist projects of both states and corporations (and these both authoritarian and consensual), the existence of experimental art music has been either highly controlled or completely deprecated (in authoritarian political regimes) or ignored (under multinational capitalism or consensual republican states).  (Interesting how all of these regimes tend to treat culture as non-essential superstructur; for me at least, a complete reversal of hpw things ought be valued.)  The relationship of music to the authority can then either be collaborationist, creating propaganda or commodities for the state or the market; oppositional; or autonomous, operating in parallel to but unengaged with the authority.

One of the most interesting ways in which modern art music has been engaged as an oppositional force has been in the project of playing with and around and circumventing rigid lines of demarcation and identity.  As I mentioned in a post last week, in the musical use of time,  syncopation and rubato are means of going against the grid.  A constant in the work of Morton Feldman, for example, was the investigation of ways to compose directly within a graphical rigid score (early on, on graph paper; then in works with an imprecisely defined single graphic note value, later on score paper with pre-drawn measure lines) that blurred, disrupted or even defeated pulse, metre or barlines.  (Contrast this with the School of Babbitt's "time point system", which was ostensibly ametrical but in practice a rigid reinforcement of both a fixed pulse and metric accent.) 


* Doesn't that title recall John Cage's Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), another text with decidedly anarchist sympathies?   

From the Dept. of Film Music Clichés

An old friend, pointing to the soundtrack to The Day the Earth Stood Still, remarked that Nothing says, "Little green men approaching" quite like a this case, TWO theremins!,  to which I had to reply that  "Nothing says 'here comes an ass in a perm and a leisure suit' better than a vibraslap and a heavy brass section."  So between the two of us, we've just got the 1950s sci-fi and 1970's action film music genres down.  

[We're still working on a pithy formulation of the early 21st century aspiring-to-hipness genre, with the obligatory faux-Philip Glass enharmonic common tone arpeggiated turn-around chord sequences.]  

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Musicians using Science

A note on the recent passing of the mathematician Benoît B. Mandelbrot.   Whether directly, via close study, or indirectly, even impressionistically, from a condensed version in the popular science press or from the illustrations in his coffeetable book The Beauty of Fractals, Mandelbrot had an impact on contemporary music.  While the heyday of enthusiasm for compositional applications of fractals and other related self-similar and non-linear phenomena was probably back in the 1980's, the resonance has been long and lively.  As each piece of information about this stuff came out in the press or from battered photocopies of off-prints, many composers would immediately start to ponder how to turn these things into sounds.  How about a Nancarrowish canon with tempos based around the Feigenbaum number?  One of the first pieces directly citing Mandelbrot which I can recall was Larry Austin's Canadian Coastlines (1981) and another composer with a lasting relationship to Mandelbrot's ideas was György Ligeti.  I believe that Ligeti's approach to these ideas was not formal, down to the details, but many younger composers, particularly those working in computer music, found stricter applications.  (The coincidence of the emergent chaos theory and more accessible computing power was not unimportant for scientists and mathematicians, nor was it for musicians.)  

Fractals were only one of the ideas that composers in the last generation or so have eagerly grabbed at, if only from readingf over the shoulder's of our friends in the natural sciences.  That Scientific American article about generating music from pink and white noise sent many composers productively back to their manuscript paper and their computers.  Many of us were enthusiastic for Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature, others for the ideas of Buckminister Fuller still more for cybernetics, information theory and algorithmic composition. Linguistic theory has had a long resonance with composers.  I never found a compositional interest in chaos theory myself, but one of my youthful yet enduring enthusiasms was for another area of dynamical systems, catastrophe theory; René Thom's Structural Stability and Morphogenesis (1972) was an eye opener, and perhaps more importantly, it sent me to the pages of D'arcy Wentworth Thompson's classic On Growth and Form (1917)  which had a tremendous effect on my sensibility for the overall shape and continuity of a piece and its relationship to particular events or details in the music. Inasmuch as no calculation I ever use in a piece of music is larger than can fit on an index card,  I fall more into the impressionistic than calculating category of science-indebted composers, but however modest my own scientific insights may be, this stuff has registered in my music in an honest, useful, and productive way.     

Follow the money, again

E.L. Cory Doctorow (hat tip: Paul Bailey): "If you think about it, this is a rather curious circumstance, because it means that once a technology company puts a lock on a copyrighted work, the proprietor of that copyright loses the right to authorize his audience to use it in new ways, including the right to authorize a reader to move a book from one platform to another. At that point, DRM and the laws that protect it stop protecting the wishes of creators and copyright owners, and instead protect the business interests of companies whose sole creative input may be limited to assembling a skinny piece of electronics in a Chinese sweatshop." 

Tools of unknown power

Here's an item by Daniel Silliman about writers and their preferred working tools.  Some like pencils, others pens; some like 3x5 cards, others notebooks, still others quad-ruled paper; some still like typewriters (whether acoustic or electric),  others embrace whatever technology is latest.  Composers are particular about their implements as well.  I've written here about favorite pens (in the past a handful of Rapidographs and a calligraphy pen, now exclusively (and exclusively for sketching) a uni-ball micro.)   Some composers insist on pencil and eraser (Schoenberg used to insist on the importance of the eraser end of a pencil), some field armies of colored pencils (Elliot Carter, is such a General; I happen to follow Cage and write only in ink.)  "Onion skin" ozalid prints were once the masonic handshake of a certain class of composers; I've always been a xerographic composer, but do insist on off-white, creme, or pale lime paper, heavy stock.  There are composition teachers who insist on archaic paper sizes and only portrait orientation as a "professional" standard; I call BS and will wager my "professional" status on A-sized paper in any damn orientation I want.   Back when, some composers did their own engraving, hammering and scratching plates of metal while others stockpiled sets of stencils and rub-on letters, numbers, and signs.  Now the passionate concern is for notation/engraving programs, and not just the market-leading Sins and Fibs.  (At last count, i had 12 notation programs on my desktop computers and have used each of them at least once for a feature not possible — or not readily possible — in another.) And let's not get started on the question of the right table, desk, chair (see Morton Feldman on chairs), lighting, etc., or whether one should compose sitting, standing, or as horizontally as possible.  (Let alone accounting for the right amp and loudspeakers, right keyboard, right coffee machine or ersatz-Mini Bar, exercise bike or rowing machine, and don't ask me about the gamelan or the terrier which usually co-inhabit my  studio.)   Daniel Silliman's article concludes that these tools are fetishes, and thinking about them is "another way not to think about writing."  And while there's a great deal of truth to that characterization, it's avoiding the fact that we fuss and worry about these things because the act of writing or composing inevitably has a component that is mysterious or even magical: we don't know exactly what it is that allows us to get our work done when all of the forces of the universe and our own natural inertia conspire to keep us from going forward.  As productive as one may be, we are always on the edge of the dreaded block, and so we cling on to all elements just in case the absence of even the apparently least significant will affect the magic.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Richard Buhlig

The name of the pianist and composer Richard Buhlig (1880-1952)  is now probably best known as having been a teacher of John Cage (and for having given Cage a strict lecture on the value of time.)  I had never before seen a picture of Buhlig, so was pleased to find an image from 1930, photographed by Johan Hagemeyer, courtesy of the Online Archive of California. (Another archive has a home movie with Arnold Schoenberg and Buhlig together, the latter in "pith helmut"; that I would like to see.)   American-born of German parents, Buhlig studied in Vienna with Teodor Leszetycki, concertized widely in Europe and the US with a repertoire balanced between classical and modern works (among them, Buhlig gave the US premiere of Schoenberg's Opus 11, and Busoni's Fantasia Contrappuntistica was dedicated to Buhlig), taught for a time at The Institute for Musical Art (now Juilliard), and eventually settled in Los Angeles, where he primarily taught.  His students, in addition to Cage, included Grete Sultan, Henry Cowell, Wesley Kuhnle, Leonard Stein and Peter Hewitt.  Buhlig apparently sponsored Sultan's immigration to the US.  As far as I can tell,  Buhlig and Kuhnle's performance of Buhlig's two piano transcription of The Art of the Fugue and a solo recording of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue are the only available recordings of his playing.  (Buhlig, Kuhnle, and Cowell gave a concert tour of the Soviet Union together in 1928.)  I have been unable to locate any examples of Buhlig's own compositions.  

Taking Time

This article, by Bunita Marcus, on Morton Feldman, notation, and rubato, is well worth a look. I've gone out on a speculative limb before in these pages in placing Feldman within the Skryabiniste* tradition with regard to rubato and to its equivalent in the pitch domain, and perhaps also to timbral issues — a certain delicacy of tone without any sacrifice of drive and the use of the pedal to create an ensemble blur or an indistinct, often edgeless, but internally lively tone.  (This is a perfect example of the utility of recordings: I highly recommend the recordings made of piano rolls punched to Skryabin's own performances.)  

Feldman did have a legitimate connection to Skryabin, through his piano teacher Madame Press, but I'm not sure exactly what of Skryabin's music Feldman knew; he certainly did not talk about Skryabin as a model as he did about Schubert or Debussy. To some degree this is unimportant as enough of Skryabin's style is certainly as well represented as a style of performance practice as it is by the compositions themselves.  Skryabinism did have a fairly wide reach, within Russia, in France through Lourie, Obouchov and Wyschnegradsky (and through the latter to Messiaen and Boulez) as well as in the US, with Dane Rudhyar and the great Nicholas Slonimsky (particularly in his Minitudes).  Much of this reach was more about mysticism than musical technique (though certainly not for either Boulez or Slonimsky), but shared influences on technique can clearly be decerned — a supple rhythm, fine-grained ensemble textures, and a harmonic language that tends more towards static samplings of collections of tones than to functional harmony. 

Let me briefly identify a few salient features in Skryabin's rhythmic practice. The first is a flexible subdivision of the beat, whether moving with a great sense of direction from two to three to four to five to six or more subdivisions (which connects Skryabin both back to Chopin and forward to the Henry Cowell of Fabric or the Quartets Euphometric and Romantic**), or in static ensemble textures of multiple divisions (ultimately an extension of Monteverdi's concitato style), with extended five-against-three passages, for example, as a favorite texture.  

This is the first phrase from the first of Skryabin's Seven Preludes, Op. 17. In three-quarters time, against the steady eighth notes in the right hand, the left hand moves from three quarters, to four quarters in the space of three, to five in the space of three, and then to the eighth notes (i.e. 6 in the space of three), coming back in sync with the right hand. Through this written-out accelerando in the left hand, there is an increase in rhythmic dissonance that resolves as the hands return to rhythmic synchronization as well as to the d minor tonic harmony.  

This accelerando is straightforward, in that the tuplets in the left hand should be played as subdivisions of the dotted half pulse uniting measure and harmonic rhythm.  But other examples are not so clear, suggesting that an acellerando should be phrased as a continuous movement over several measures, rather than precisely "chunked" into complete measure-length equal-division tuplets.

Another feature is that Skryabin is often breaking phrases over bars, and not always as a metric  anacrusis, leading into a phrase, but often as a sustained syncopation throughout whole phrases or sections.  This play with the rigidity of the barline is clearly continued  in Feldman's music, and not only at the level of the measure, but at larger scales, frequently coinciding with whole systems and pages (which Feldman usually barred prior to composition).  


* I use the spelling "Skryabin" here (instead of the more common "Scriabin" or any of the alternatives) not out of any orthographic insight but exclusively out of personal aesthetics: I  happen to like the shape that particular combination and sequence of letters makes together on the page; perhaps appropriate for this blog item, inasmuch as it is about notation and performance.

** I assume that Cowell's rhythmic experiments began well prior to any familiarity with Skryabin.  Fabric is dated to 1920 and, although he may have become familiar via Slonimsky or Rudhyar with Skryabin in the 1920s, there is probably no certainty here until the time of Cowell's concert tour of Russia, co-billed with Richard Buhlig (later, a teacher of John Cage) and Buhlig's partner Wesley Kuhnle (who would become well known on the West Coast as a pioneering harpsichordist and authority on historical tunings and temperaments).     

Saturday, October 16, 2010

What Samuel Says

Composer and poet Samuel Vriezen  writes about the struggle of art and its relationship to the public space.  (Scroll down for the English version.) The immediate cause is the new Dutch minority government's plans to radically cut cultural spending,  but the principles are universal and timely, indeed urgent.  

I've long insisted here that the function of [culture, art, music] is to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable, and that insuring quality, diversity, and liveliness in our lives — our musical lives in particular — is a serious business demanding that we call out any petty abuses of musical-partisan micro-politics as a distraction from our common cause.   In any case, Samuel puts it far better than I can. 

Turning Thumbscrews

It's always useful for a composer to try to work through her or his dislikes. John Cage disliked the vibraphone, recordings, and improvisation, yet managed to come to some productive terms, late in life, with the latter two.  (At least we have Morton Feldman's use of the vibraphone as some compensation.)

One of my greater dislikes is the music of Benjamin Britten.  Since High School, I seem to perpetually find myself in the company of people I treasure but who find themselves massively disappointed in this particular dislike of mine. These advocates have constantly pushed scores, recordings and concert tickets in my direction.  Way back when, I dutifully studied much of the music closely, was a rehearsal pianist for some works for a high school choir and even once played the recorder solo in Noye's Fludde.  But my opinion hasn't much budged. There are aspects I do admire — the conductorless, often only loosely coordinated ensemble music in the Church parables, for example, but the vocal music is really the center of Britten's work and I can't get around my dislike for the edgeless envelope that seems to be the official, Peter-Pearsish production style, just puffs and swells of air with minimal intervention by the consonants which ought be in-between.  

I recently saw The Turn of the Screw, which from its constructive aspects — its formal architecture and tonal discipline — ought to be my favorite of the Britten operas, which it is, but also because of the musical dramaturgy which gradually — even gently — tells its deeply disturbing story, almost without ever making matters explicit or having anything actually eventful happen, a style deeply faithful to the source text. But the work is flawed, to my ears, by three things which could have easily been fixed, (1)  by eliminating the prologue — narration works only in operas for puppets (Lou Harrison made the same mistake in trying to turn Young Ceasar into an opera for real boys*), and anything in the text of the prologue which was necessary to the opera should have been saved for dialogue in the first scene, thus very usefully reserving the only adult male voice for a strategic later appearance —, (2) by cutting the scene with the ghosts — which unfortunately removes any ambiguity about the central question of their existence independent from the Governess's imagination —; and (3) finally by thinning out the scoring of the celesta and the tubular bells, which play continuously through one scene — some instruments just demand discretion, thinned out either in number of appearances or in dynamic level (providing another reminder that Morton Feldman really understood how to write for celesta and tubular bells).**

Okay, I haven't moved much in my opinion about Britten, but working with the material nevertheless can still provide some useful composition lessons.***  [Also this note to self: should I ever have to write a James opera, let it be William rather than Henry; The Varieties of Religious Experience or Essays in Radical Empiricism, perhaps?] 


* Manuel de Falla's El retablo de maese Pedro smartly uses Master Pedro's narration and comments to mediate between levels in a puppet-play-within-a-puppet-opera structure.

** My daughter also pointed out that it was unfair that the male child, Miles, actually got to be sung by a boy, but the role of the sister, Flora, was — and is, conventionally — sung by an adult. We had a long discussion about such conventions, the abundance and prestige of boys' choirs compared to girls' and mixed childrens' choirs, and similar topics, concluding that it probably should be possible, nowadays, to cast the role with a girl of approximately the same age as the character. 

*** Much of the critical literature on The Turn of the Screw focuses on the 12-tonish aspects of the work and the question of their greater or lesser importance to the piece as well as the question of the composer's relationship to 12-tone and serial musics in general.  I think that the 12-tone "theme" usefully provides for both an immediate and a general circulation of tones and it sets up some useful reference pitches and intervals. As to a relationship to other musics, Britten's practice may make a nod to Berg, but it is really a species of the hybrid informal 12-tone-cum-tonal music that was more widespread in postwar music than any strictly classical 12-tone or serial practice.        

Friday, October 15, 2010

Drawing straight lines and following them

Today, one tube of the Gotthard Basis Tunnel broke through, making the longest tunnel on the planet, 57 kilometers long, cutting through two- and three-thousand foot mountains.  The whole purpose of the new railroad tunnel is to get as much of the North/South traffic that jams through Switzerland in and out of the country on rail and as fast and unobtrusively as possible and that seems laudable enough, particularly when the promised increases in rail speed will eliminate unnecessary car, truck and plane travel. But there are still several years left before the project is really finished and the moment now is one to spend in a little bit of awe at the tunnel as an engineering and, yes, aesthetic achievement, for long tunnels of this sort are indeed major earthworks, with the curves of their surfaces remarkably smooth, minimal art made on an unprecedented scale.  It's a healthy thing, Ithinks, to take some awe from time to time at a large scale human achievement other than war or pro sports or consumerism or mass entertainment. (David Foster Wallace's Great Ohio Desert (catch the acronym) in his novel The Broom of the System was designed and built precisely to provide some awe in a state which, by nature's gifts, was rather devoid of same.)   Ives's Fourth Symphony always leaves me in awe, Cage's Rozart Mix certainly did it,  and there are moments in Mozart, Berlioz, even Beethoven's Seventh in the Kleiber recording that do it for me.  Alvin Lucier's I am sitting in a room and La Monte Young's Chronos Kristalla are reliable sources of awe.  Hearing the late great Carnatik musician K.V. Narayanaswamy sing and playing the great Javanese Gendhing Bonang Tukung and Gadhung Mlathi were experiences which still summon awe.  Often it's not the composition per se, but a performance that transcends the limits of the composition.  Last night, I heard an Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann sung by Brenda Rae — music that usually leaves me cold — that was both so precise and gracefully musical that there it was again.  What a piece of work and all that. But now, this is a moment of awe at a very long hole dug right straight through a good part of the Alps, before we take another breath and remember that the Alps themselves are pretty awesome in their own right, with or without the tunnel.         

Performance Practice

A student and I recently worked on a realization of a portion of Stockhausen's Studie II (1954), as a way of getting into the piece in a more concrete way.  Like many pioneering pieces of electronic music, it is best known in its original realization, with the then-state of the art resources of the WDR Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne.  Although I have heard that Stockhausen preferred his realization to other, later versions made by others — a thought I will come back to —, the limits of the equipment available are obvious and, if we are to take the score of the work (Universal Edition 1956) at its word that "it provides the technician with all of the information necessary for the realization of the work", then questions about the faithfulness of that first realization to the requirements of both the score and the composer's stated conceptions of the work provide some incentive for trying, with contemporary resources, to hear what, precisely, a more faithful realization might sound like.

For example, by using multi-layered recording of individual sine waves, Stockhausen was unable to synthesize his tone complexes in a way that fused as one supposes he had intended and the pitch accuracy of his plan was seriously compromised first by rounding off to the next Hertz in the score and then accepting whatever amount of resolution error the oscillators then had. Today, neither fusing of composite wave forms nor the accuracy of pitch resolution are significant issues; the score can readily be realized on a home computer, whether in recorded form, via something like CSound, or as live synthesis.  (We happened to be trying the latter, using PD, a program authored by Miller Puckette, who has admirably used PD in his teaching to re-create a number of works of "classical" electronic music.)    Despite these improvements, in trying to realize the score, issues of authenticity in performance practice were persistent.  

For example, the tuning:  without having an equipment limitation of a one Hertz resolution, should the realization use the notated frequencies, or should they be a better approximation of Stockhausen's intended 25th-root-of-five tuning scheme?  If we chose a one Hertz resolution, with digital accuracy to several decimal places, strictly speaking the piece will then be realized in a kind of expanded just intonation (without getting into an argument about the definition of just intonation, which is something for another time...) and, aside from the interval 5:1, that is not what the composer was after.  Should we realize the score with a more accurate representation of the 25th-root-of-five tuning?  It's certainly worth trying out both options.  

Or this: Stockhausen combined his sine waves by overdubbing and then played back and re-recorded the composite tones in a reverberant room to get a better fused and what might be described as a warmer tone. We can now begin with a better fused composite tone and add reverb electronically or acoustically.   (For that matter, we can realize the score directly with the specified sines and eliminate the middle step of creating a library of composites.) 

Or, how about dynamics: Stockhausen's score differentiates dynamics over a 31-step scale, in which each step represents a difference of one decibel.  Should we instead take a bit of psychoacoustics in consideration and adjust this scale to compensate for the Fletcher-Munson curve?   I suspect that such a consideration would be taken into account in the equalization of a playback of the recording, but it's nice to have the option to build this into the realization itself.  The original attack envelopes were made by hand, by raising a pot, but we can now do this with precision.  On what basis do we decide how to shape and time these envelopes?

Finally, Studie II is a monophonic piece and, arguably, all of the tones and composites in the work belong, conceptually, to a single scale/spectrum.  Is our realization limited to a single channel of sound, or might it be useful and musicial to project the sound onto multiple channels; if we do use additional channels, on what intutional or analytic basis would such a project be made? 

Stockhausen's preference for the first realization deserves some thought.  While a purely mechanical reading of the score could have been made,  I suspect that the series of musicianly interventions made necessary by the equipment produced a result which while necessarily introducing inaccuracies, ultimately created a more approachable, even endearing sound. Likewise, in the 13th hour of his final compositional project Klang, Cosmic Pulses, a work with 24 layers of looped melodies with tones connected by portamenti, the actual speed of the portamenti was done by hand, perhaps a similar expression of preference for a human intervention in the surface of an otherwise through-calculated process. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Follow the money, once more

Ron Silliman's blog — which has become my reliable one-stop shop for everything in new and experimental American poetics — is approaching three million visitors.  As is to be expected, his celebratory post gets to the point, the state of the art:

Amazon’s offer to pay authors 70% of e-book royalties is, we should note, a deeply defensive gesture. What they are trying to prevent is watching the authors collect 100%.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Follow the money

This thread at The Rambler is well worth reading and ought to be fuel for some long-overdue discussion.*


 * The degree to which "commercial recordings" of new music are actually commercially viable has, for the most part, always been small.  The exceptions are all exceptional — Harry Partch did earn some money from his own Gate Five label (taking advantage of having no middle man and minimal overhead), I assume that Phillip Glass's recordings have generally been income generating, and sometimes there's actually the odd hit that makes a speculative investment in musical obscura pay off: the Nonesuch Subotnick recordings, that Gorecki Symphony or such. 

Even in the days in which only a handful of labels existed with any interest in the vanguard, unless the label had deep enough pockets and an inventory-friendly tax code to risk a long amortization periods it was a common expectation that a composer would front the costs of the recording, either out of his/her own pocket or with grant money or the largess of the few patrons we've had.  There was really no great problem with this — indeed it put music out there in the world in a useful form that the market participants were not otherwise rushing to produce — so long as the simple existence of a recording was not viewed as anything more that it was, for example as C.V. filler for academic hiring and tenure decisions or for the awarding of grants and prizes and residencies. In the big world of commercial music making, the medium may be the message, but in our little niche, any question of substance has got to turn on the music itself, not on the arbitrary fact of whether it got captured as a vinyl, plastic or downloadable commodity.   

Nowadays, actually getting a high quality recording made and pressed, burned or uploaded is cheaper and easier than ever. (A good comparison is to my high school years, in the late '70s, when vinyl was produced by a small cartel of factories owned by multinational firms and in increasingly bad quality, often little more than cardboard sandwiches prone to falling apart.)  It has become clear that a prime function of cd recordings now is that of calling cards for composers and performers, as advertisement for the real action: getting gigs. (AFAIC, not an entirely bad state of affairs.)  (A friend recently told me that it has become a custom in circles of the well-recorded to inspect the shelves of those who have received their calling cards — to see if the plastic wrap has actually been removed from the jewel cases! No, in the privacy of their own living room, even your best friend may not be your most loyal listener...)  Yes, there will always be a small number of "serious" composers for whom a purchasing audience for their recordings exist, sometimes even approaching the conditions of a market, but let's try to be up-front about this, so we fall neither into the trap of over-estimating the prestige value of a recording nor into viewing every recording firm as a vanity press. 

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The advantages of making music under the radar

The current dramatic cuts in cultural funding — whether due to market or political forces, and whether done in slow steps (as in Germany, where the rapidly rising costs of the rights for soccer broadcasts, for example, are gradually eating up state broadcasting budgets whose fee-supported funding would otherwise be stable or growing) or in sudden cuts (as in the Netherlands, where a nationalist/populist political coalition has found common cause in attacking "elitist" arts organizations, even when some of these organizations are best evidence of what that nation can be) — have been well-described and commented upon elsewhere.  All I can usefully add is a firm expression of solidarity with the protests, as these reductions are being made to institutions which are a essential part of lives led together, if those lives together are to be lived with any purpose more than simple survival, entertainment-fed passivity, and assent to a status quo.

My realistic assessment of times to come, however, is that we will probably have to get used to the largest cultural institutions, if they are able to survive the current rounds, functioning only with dramatically reduced resources and forced to cut back their activities to minima.  That usually means very little for the most adventurous programming, even when such programming ought to be seen and heard, at the very least, as an investment in the future vitality of the institutions. It's a vicious downward spiral, but I take some heart in the fact that no institution can or should be viewed as immortal, and this mortality is actually a good thing in the long term. So long as resources and interest remain or are found for the invention and support of new institutions, there is potential for the creative renewal and reinvigoration of institutional art making.

In the meanwhile, it is useful and heartening  to recognize that most of the work done in experimental and innovative forms and idioms takes place well outside of large institutions. Most new and experimental music does not require the resources of orchestras, state radio stations or opera houses, but is made for soloists (often composer-performers), small ensembles (often composed of collaborating composers-performers sharing resources) and can now include a technical sophistication that is no less that formerly monopolized by the large institutions.  Every composer can now carry the equivalent of a Kontakte-era WDR Studio, RCA Synthesizer and the complete apparatus of Repons in their own laptop.  Most new and experimental music can be performed and heard away from the formality and expensive of large concert halls, can be recorded on equipment and media that one owns at home, and no longer requires a licensed radio station for its broadcasting, nor is that broadcasting limited to the reach of a single broadcast antenna. (It can, however, be limited by the censorship of the PRC or North Korea, or perhaps by an end to net neutrality in the US.)

Perhaps more importantly, in these times, the fact that new and experimental music is essentially invisible/inaudible to the state and corporate apparatus can be very useful.  (James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State is a superb introduction to the limits of the legibility of real, existing traditional structures to the modern state and the disasters that the best of wills have led to because of that inflexibility.)  States and corporations alike prefer and tend to respond only to structures which follow radically reduced schemes and orders.  States and corporations draw straight lines and grids and group things according to least common denominators, losing detail, texture, tone, the nature of which is often more essential than crude, uniform measures. Recognition of this may not make states and corporations pay for our rent or lunch (that's what day jobs are for, buckaroos), but it does suggest a considerable artistic advantage of going under the radar.  

In recent protests against funding cuts in the Netherlands, the police were apparently able to control crowds of protesters because the protesters moved together, with a recognizable front line, and the police are said to have used the protester's own concerted music-making as a cue for their own actions.  How much more effective it would have been had the protesters moved, not as a coordinated mass, but as individuals roughly flocking in a general, but not manageable motion?  And however could the police have taken a cue from the music had it been, instead, sung quietly but independently by hundreds of individuals moving at the own time and trajectories through public spaces?  There's an interesting invitation to compose!  

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Getting Started

How to get started is a very nice project, extending a late work of John Cage, a lecture/performance which, among other things, is an example of Cage's attempt to work through a productive relationship between composition and improvisation. (The audio excerpt online includes mention of Walter Zimmermann's beautiful piano piece Abgeschiedenheit, the title of which roughly, very roughly, translates as "seclusion".)


Is it necessary to try to explain, once again, how important Cage was?  The continuing controversies and misunderstandings about his work suggest that it is still necessary. I often have the impression that his reputation as a composer suffers because of a focus on his reputation for almost any other one of his activities — writing, collecting mushrooms, studying zen, Buckminister Fuller, etc. et al — rather than on the actual music that he made. Well, kids, it's the music that's important.  Not all of it (he was as uneven as the best of them and much of it was written for rather specific use, with questions of lasting importance rather beside the point), but there's plenty to pay attention to, and so much above and beyond the oxygen-stealing 4'33": the best of the percussion and prepared piano music, the Concerto for  Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra, The Seasons, Sixteen Dances, all of the string quartet music, the music for magnetic tape (Williams Mix, Rozart Mix, Message to Erik Satie and Roaratorio, in particular), Winter Music, Cheap Imitation, Etcetera, Lecture on the Weather, Inlets, the virtuosic sets of Etudes for piano and violin, The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs and much of the Song Books, some configurations of Music for ___, a very large number of the "number pieces", and the five Europeras. (There is also a small group of pieces — Music of Changes, the various pieces for Carillon, Atlas Eclipticalis, the orchestral version of Cheap Imitation among them— for which I reserve opinion, simply because I haven't yet heard an honest live performance.)

(Not a bad track record for an experimentalist, steadily courting failure.)


There has always been a great deal of dancing about the question of Cage's influence, with some preferring to talk instead about Cage providing an example through his work that became a form of "permission" to do one's own work.  I don't dance well enough, and I've never liked the idea of having to get permission, even if done — as Cage did — from example rather than from a position of music-political power; instead, I admit readily to being under the influence.  

Cage taught me how to organize my desk as a composer: into materials, methods, structure and form. He asked: "Composing's one thing, performing's another, listening is a third. What can they have to do with one another." which I have taken as a productive rather than rhetorical question.  And more than for his use of any particular materials (percussion, the prepared piano, gamuts, tape splicing...) or methods (chance, indeterminacy, contingency, cheap imitations, erasures...), it is in the area of structure, the musical use of time in a work's division of the whole into parts, that Cage seems to me to be most inventive, radical, and — for us — most potentially influential.  

Indeed, Cage's development as a composer is best traced through his treatment of musical time, from the early works — in which a time structure is used instead of a tonal structure, with pieces carrying their proportions as a form of temporality equivalent to the key signature a work of tonal music carried — to the late works in which metre and measure are replaced by space on a page, clock time and/or time brackets with individual notes freed of their proportional and/or durational values.  If some music can be identified with an "atonality", then this is a species of "ametricality" or even "atemporality." That said, as rich a model for structuring time as Cage's is, it is also an example which opens up productive doubts.  For one, just as atonal music made it possible to hear tonal music in a fundamentally different way, the experience of music without fixed measure practically forces one to appreciate and reconsider the particular qualities of measured musical time, which include — paradoxically, perhaps — the possibility of its own deformations and abnegation in the forms of syncopation, cross-rhythms, rubato and dynamic changes of tempo, none of which are possible in a music without a pulse or metre for reference. (There is also a question to be asked about whether the use of clock time was self-defeating, in that it didn't actually erase a pulse or metre — with their fluid, flexible relationships to "real", mundane, clocktime —  but simply substituted the inflexible units of the second and minute and hour.) Here, the utility of Cage's example is found as much in continuing the particular path he chose as in exploring the apparent cul de sacs he left alone.


And this, too:

I miss Cage's voice,

the fundamental of which

— as he grew older —

would waver in and out of audibility

and often just disappear.


Wednesday, October 06, 2010

That sweet space

...composing is all about finding a particular location in the space of all possibilities, that sweet place where all the forces — those you plan, those that you have chosen to leave beyond your control, and those that come to you like a lightning strike from your own habits, taste, and imagination — are in balance: calculation, chance, choice. It's exactly like poker, that near-perfect game, in which the rules are set, the probabilities are clear, the cards are dealt at random, you know what's in your own hand and the other players are real people, with all the experience, hopes, habits, bluffs and tells that real people unavoidably bring to the table. With as cool a calculation as possible, you consider, weigh, balance all these elements and then let your intuition (itself a mysterious mix of experience, calculation, and raw instinct) lead to that particular place of action, to see, raise, or fold...  

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Composerly Bloggery

"Some people do things before they are fashionable. Ned Rorem blogged before it was electronic." - David Feldman
Given the fact that we're supposed to be witty, wise, and creative people, it's striking how prosaic writing by composers -- and blogging composers in particular -- usually is. The weblog format is a young medium, but it seems to have already settled comfortably into some fairly rigid formal and stylistic boundaries. Too comfortably, methinks.* If I ran the circus, the model would definitely be Cage's Diary: How to improve the world (you'll only make matters worse) rather than The Paris/New York/Later/Final (...) Diaries of Ned Rorem, and invest both content and form with a little more composerly invention and a lot less confession and self-promotion.**

I've tried some modest experiments with form here, and a few readers have even caught on to the fun and games (picnic, lightning), but words have a way of failing me, and my items are a pale fire when you begin to imagine the potential bonfire of words music might ought inspire.

At the moment, perhaps the best we can expect from blogs, is precisely the same we expect from critics: a well-worded and unexpected observation, a provocation from a set of ears and eyes independent from your own. How about this one, from Virgil Thomson who, describing a production of the Ring said: "And there stood Valhalla, looking all the world like the Cornell Medical Center."

A gift certificate for a 5 lb. canned ham will be awarded to the first reader to reconstruct the algorithm and data base from which this item was composed.
*Remember: the function of music is to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.

**There is a notion that the orginal, poetic, form of language descended into prose when it became necessary to communicate more concretely in order to survive. If that's true, then it speaks to a sorry state of affairs for new music. However, all the evidence is to the contrary: new music is not only surviving, but being made in a quantity and diversity previously unknown. Sure, there are naysayers still fighting sorry little turfwars (see this interview for an example from someone directly threatened by that quantity and diversity), and sure, it's often tough going, but when has it ever been any better?

(An encore posting from July 2, 2007)