A displaced Californian composer writes about music made for the long while & the world around that music. ~ The avant-garde is flexibility of mind. — John Cage ~ ...composition is only a very small thing, taken as a part of music as a whole, and it really shouldn't be separated from music making in general. — Douglas Leedy ~ My God, what has sound got to do with music! — Charles Ives
Friday, December 30, 2011
From a Diary: I:xvi
Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Monday, December 05, 2011
From a Diary: I:xiv
Sunday, December 04, 2011
Neither Fish Nor Fowl
I have a small difference here with Leedy over whether Javanese pélog actually uses a three-quarter tone interval (it does, but only as a compromise or temperament, in the instruments of fixed pitch, between two tones which voices and the rebab distinguish depending upon the mode or pathet being played). Leedy asks why the midtone, ubiquitous in musics of the southern half of the Mediterranean, is all but missing from music in the European tradition: Would mid intervals be a commonplace of Western music today had Charles Martel failed to defeat the Muslim forces at Tours in 732-33, when European music was still an essentially monophonic art? and I believe that he is right on focusing upon the issue of a melodic versus a contrapuntal, harmonic music. I suspect that eliminating such intervals, a loss in melodic complexity, representing a level of intervallic distinction and corresponding to harmonic structures found in a region of the harmonic series beyond the tenth partial or so, was — for better or worse — a price paid for the vertical complexity found in European music.
[For what it's worth, AFAIC the greatest mystery in the history of musical materials is the apparent disappearance of the Greek enharmonic genus with the semitone-sized pyknon devided into two smaller intervals. The evidence we have of the actual use of the enharmonic is limited; we cannot say for certain, for example, if the successive microtones were used melodically in succession or were used only as alternative values for a single position in an anhemitonic trichord.]
[For what it's also worth: If someone had in mind the project of a system of counterpoint and harmony for voices and conventional instrumental timbres using intervals including midtones AND having consonance/dissonance distinctions like those found in the European traditions, that is to say, a tonal music with a very different interval vocabulary, I strongly suspect that many questions of consonance and dissonance will be register dependent. An 11:9 netral third, for example, may be an acceptable consonance so long as it is voiced high enough in register to support a plausible position in an implied, potentially audible, harmonic series. This is rather Rameau-vian, but why not?]
Saturday, December 03, 2011
From a Diary: I:xiii
* much as we all know that time signatures with whole number denominators other than powers-of-two remain rational, despite the terminological practice of many complexists of describing these as irrational.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
From a Diary: I:xii
* Off the top of my head, I suspect that one could feed two initial rows into the process with properties that guarantee a cyclical return to initial rows, probably after a very large number of iterations, but Barraque — like most Europeans, not informed by the concerns and forms of research going on in American twelve-tone theory — did not select for such a feature, requiring, instead, a practically unlimited variety of series. He certainly got that; any tonal coherence heard in his music is the direct result of the composer's asystematic intervention in the placement of tones in time, instrument, register, dynamic, and articulation.
From a Diary: I:xi
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
From a Diary: I:x
Saturday, November 12, 2011
From a Diary: I:ix
My great, good fortune: to continue to learn from my teachers. I was fortunate not to struggle with my teachers, but rather to learn from their struggles, which were largely against rigid institutional structures and closed networks and their implicitly pessimistic estimates of the possible limits to how and what music gets made. Their practice, creating new, alternative institutions and networks — often modest, provisional, and transient — remains model and sometimes even a musical modus in its own right. But most of all, against this background, these musicians provided — and continue to provide — a profoundly optimistic assertion that the extent and limits of the musical are not yet known, let alone established. I also learned this: technology is resource and an opportunity, but there is a deep difference between a faith in technology — the technological fix (from the RCA synthesizer to the Synclavier or the 4X) — and the creative ((mis)appropriate) use of what one has available, whether it be sticks and rocks, fine old Cremona fiddles, industrial electronic surplus and hand-soldiered circuits, off-the-shelf consumer products, or just our clapping hands and singing voices. Means not ends, music not institutions.
Sunday, October 30, 2011
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
From a Diary: I:viii
Sunday, October 16, 2011
From a Diary I:vii
From a Diary I:vi
Saturday, October 15, 2011
From a Diary I:v
Friday, October 07, 2011
When Free Speech Is Not Available, Try Singing Instead
The City-State of Singapore is notorious for its restrictions on expression, especially political speech critical of the state itself. A solution has been proposed to have complaints sung chorally. (Some examples of the mix of political and social complaints: "We get fined for almost everything."; "People put on fake accents to sound posh/And queue up 3 hours for donuts."; "People blow their nose into the swimming pool/And fall asleep on my shoulder in the train"; "My oh my Singapore/ What exactly are we voting for? / What’s not expressly permitted is prohibited.") But the authorities are not allowing foreigners to participate in the performance of complaint songs.
Thursday, October 06, 2011
From a Diary I:iv
Friday, September 30, 2011
From a Diary I:iii
Monday, September 26, 2011
From a Diary I:ii
Sunday, September 25, 2011
From a Diary I:i
Friday, September 09, 2011
Bauermeister/Stockhausen, Public/Private, Modern/Amodern
I was just given a copy of artist Mary Bauermeister's new memoir of her life with Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ich hänge in Triolengitter. I was somewhat awkward in accepting the gift. I'm usually on the shy side about sharing intimate matters and, consequently, have always had some serious misgivings about musicians' biographies, particularly when they focus more on the personal than on the public and musical aspects of a life. As Bauermeister's book had been promoted more for the private elements — Stockhausen's polyamory in particularly — and as a slice of the swinging '60s,* I was more than a bit hesitant about reading the book. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the book was a compelling witness's narrative of an important era and scenes in late 20th century music, particularly in Cologne and lower Manhattan, indeed a useful corrective or contrast to existing narratives (i.e. Stockhausen's own) as well as the degree to which Bauermeister's use of personal detail illuminates the musical work.
(Is it just a function of my age that I happen to find details about a composer's financial affairs more reliably interesting than those about their love affairs? I do find it interesting that, during his two marriages, Stockhausen lived with women who were financially much more secure than he and, in light of this, I do find Bauermeister's claim convincing that she was decisive in Stockhausen's move from his unsatisfactory relationship with Universal Edition to self-publishing: competent financial advice.)
In Stockhausen's music, for all the abstract structure (and all those famous chalkboard presentations at Darmstadt), there are indeed numerous elements of substance that have direct biographical references, a strong contrast to many of his contemporaries — i.e. Boulez, Cage, Babbitt — for whom a distancing or erasure of the personal was a marked aesthetic element; Bauermeister illuminates many of these in Stockhausen's works between Kontakte and Licht with special attention to Originale and Momente.
Bauermeister's book is also the memoir of a young woman artist establishing herself in the pre-feminist era and I find that it complements the autobiographies we've had by Judith Malina, Yvonne Rainer, and Carolyn Brown. I'm not altogether certain if Bauermeister would identify herself, then or now as a feminist, but it's a document treating some issues — the career of a woman in the visual arts, the integration of family and working lives, a troubled relationship to a violent man (her partner before Stockhausen), and not least the unequal relationship to a prominent male artist — which speak seriously to feminist themes. If I could have had any single element corrected in this book, I would have like to have read more about the author's own development as an artist. I don't really understand her work, but would honestly like to try.
Finally, I think that this book goes some distance towards explaining the amodern quality of Stockhausen's music and for me, how he failed to live up to his earlier promises as a composer. Sure, there are the Formschemes, the beepsnort electronics, the emphasis on scales and lists and a Varese-like appeal to science, but there are also appeals to mysticism, spirituality and all of these personal references that make Stockhausen something rather more of a late romantic than a high modernist. It's the romance of science and Urantia Book-inspired space opera rather than hard science and I have the impression that the way in which Stockhausen remained in a decisively pre-Feminist era is a substantial component of this amodernity. (One of the reasons I treasure my partner, Christina, is that she insisted we walk out of a performance of Montag aus Licht, the episode of Stockhausen's Licht cycle dedicated to the maternal figure "Eva"; neither of us could handle the cliche-filled treatment of women in the piece. And neither of us could handle the insipid synthesizer sounds; I suppose if I heard them now, it would be rather nostalgic experience, to the early portable electronic keyboard era, but jeez, they just had the least engaging envelopes, didn't they?)
* Not to mention the creepy pink cover with the Elke Heidenreich blurb on the back...
Wednesday, September 07, 2011
A Title & Unexpected Consequences
An example of an obsequious music administrator mixing awkwardly with politics:
Kodálys The Peacock Variations was removed from a program opening a new center dedicated to the composer by Pannon Philharmonic manager Zsolt Horváth "because the piece could insult the Mayor of Pécs (Hungary)", whose last name is Páva, Hungarian for peacock.
The Chief Conductor of the Pannon Philharmonic Zoltán Peskó has now resigned because he cannot have his artistic freedom restricted in this way. Mayor Páva himself is reported to have said that he "had absolutely no objection" to the piece and that he didn't know what Horváth was thinking with banning the piece from the program. (Source: here; hat tip: Pusztaranger.)
Thursday, September 01, 2011
Across the river, they also sing by the campfire light
Tim Rutherford-Johnson reviews two concerts — by complexity specialists ELISION and by the experimentalists at Music We'd Like To Hear — and observes:
On paper, they were two very contrasting concerts from opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum. In actual fact, not so much, both marked by seriousness of intent, skill in execution, and musical intelligence from performers, programmers and composers alike. I’m calling time on new complexity, new simplicity, new complicity; it’s old-fashioned doing it right.
I believe that this complexity/simplicity opposition was always something of a distraction, and in terms of musical politics, an unfortunate one, with parties on either side not always behaving well.
(From an old post here: Tragic but true: when the smoke had cleared, the new music wars had been won not by towners up or down or coasters east or left, but by a rear guard of trained symphonic band composers from big state universities in the middle of the country. The surviving rebels were exiled, retrained, or forced into dayjobs in data processing and direct telephone sales.)
There are real and productive (or at least potentially productive) commonalities between the complexists and experimentalists, with differences of degree and style, not of technique or ambition. This was made most vivid for me when, during a lecture by Brian Ferneyhough at Darmstadt — to which I had gone ready to be an opponent — I had a sudden déjà vu moment, transported in memory to a lesson I had had with Lou Harrison. Harrison had described how he worked with formal phrase systems, a sequence of measures with shifting metres and numbers of icti, for example, that was permutated systematically, and on each permutation received some kind of transformation — interpolated beats, ornaments, diminutions, etc.. Although Mr. Harrison's model composition was sweetly pentatonic and clear in content, Ferneyhough, with his own favored set of materials and characteristic density of activity was executing precisely the same kind of transformations in terms of rhythm and form.
I don't want to diminish the differences here. These can be very great, particularly with regard to expressive intent and what might be called a virtuosity of surface, and I will not hide my own preference for a kind of clarity (or even honesty) and pragmatism in notational practice as well as acoustical and psychoacoustical qualities. But these differences ought to be the beginnings of discussions rather than ends and our musical lives are definitely more lively for the variety.
There has always been music which has flourished in the stylistic and technical space between these extremes, even if their work hangs between some hardened conventional programming categories like a tightrope between tall buildings perilously swinging in a strong wind. I am thinking now of Clarence Barlow, Christopher Fox and Gordon Mumma as technically distinguished and provocative yet always musical composers whose work might be so characterized.
Monday, August 29, 2011
Christopher Shultis, Walking, Thinking, Musicking
Saturday, August 27, 2011
Nocturnal: Risks & Benefits
Here's a new thesis about Mozart's death: that he died of too little sunlight, and thus, too little vitamin D. Here's a 2007 post meditating on the nocturnal life of composers:
The working habits of the wild composer are as diverse as the music. Some, especially those pedagogically engaged, are early risers and writers, often finding their muse well before a proper breakfast has been hunted and/or gathered. Others keep strict bankers' hours and, when fortunate, their muses are equally punctual. But concerts and theatrical events in the western tradition are generally evening events (any doubt? is there anything worse than a concert in Darmstadt on a Summer's afternoon?) and many composers, like their concertizing colleagues, shift their timeclocks appropriately, four or more hours forward. After a concert, often the first item of discussion among the empty stomached participants is locating a local restaurant with late hours. (The comedian Don Novello once did a TV promo for the San Francisco Art Institute, identifying the artist's late waking hour as an advantage over other professions, like medicine or the law). None other than J.S. Bach, during his mature years, would adjourn each evening to compose, alone but for the bottle of Weinbrand which he emptied each night. My evidence is only personal and anecdotal, but I am convinced that the ratio of the truly nocturnal to the more-or-less diurnal among composers is higher than that among the population at large. I count myself in that number.
Whatever the immediate causes -- refuge from a necessary day job, or the business of family life, insomnia, or plain choice, working at night has its advantages. You are composing at an edge of consciousness, between waking and dreaming, often the ideal state of mind for imagining a new music. It is the more quiet half of the day, and the less social, less interrupted by the rhythms and counter-rhythms of the modern day. It is a time of day in which natural sounds tend to dominate the mechanical. Growing up in the overgrown desert of Southern California, the night was charged by the increase in moisture in the air and sounds traveled differently at night, with choruses of crickets joined by the doppler-shifted moans of passing AT&SF trains or speeding cars on Route 66 with all the green lights lit. But I digress.
Whether rising early or late, the composers I've known tend to be nappers. Some have mastered the art of napping during the works of unfavored colleagues. Most are deep sleepers, indeed dreamers. Me, I'm far too evil to rest. Should you encounter a wild composer, he or she may very well want to follow you home. This is not always advised, but if you do choose the companionship of a composer, feed them well (or let him or her feed you well, as we are often good in the kitchen), find them a comfortable place to nap, and never introduce her or him to a loan officer. In return, your composer, when correctly domesticated, will provide you with hours of entertainment and perhaps even a bit of affection in return.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Anonymous Takes Down GEMA for a Day & Why I Don't Like Spotify
Although I'm a GEMA member, and in general appreciate the fact that GEMA does about as good a job as any organization in collecting licenses fees for performances, broadcasts, and recordings, I have to admit to taking some pleasure in Anonymous's take-down of the GEMA website today, if just as a reminder of GEMA's inability to deal — technically, legally, economically — with the internet and as yet another marker of the screwed-up state of musical rights (protection, longevity & orphaning, compensaton).
I was recently astonished to learn that someone had written a blog item identifying pieces from this blog's Landmarks list available in recorded form on Spotify. While I appreciate the research effort here, the compensation model for anyone involved in the production of recorded music at Spotify is just not a good one and if you respect musicians, please don't use Spotify. I realize that more and more people simply expect to get recorded music for free (& I'm personally indebted to countless recordings borrowed from libraries or heard on radio, back when there was interesting music on radio in SoCal, so I know the feeling, but those recordings were purchased by the libraries and those radio stations reported and paid license fees for those broadcasts), and I recognize that the wind is blowing in a direction in which, ultimately, only live performances will generate real income streams for most musicians, BUT, the Spotify model in which a composer gets paid only fractions of a cent (dollar or euro) for a streamed listening is — above and beyond the insult — simply not a sustainable one. Brian Brandt's (of Mode Records) article on this topic is well worth reading.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Need a Venue? Learn the secret handshake...
Monday, August 15, 2011
Closed <—> Variable<—> Open
As a follow-up to my last post, which touched on open forms, let me mention two interesting items well worth reading. Among many other things, these items made it clear that my casual appeal for open forms was really an appeal for a field of possibilities, including flexible forms situated between the poles of the closed and finite and the open and potentially infinite, as well as the fact that these qualities need not apply to all parameters in the same way. First, Renewable Music commenter Scott pointed to a fascinating article on "game mechanics" and the relationship of players to those mechanics, a nice parallel to musical questions of the relationship of the player or listener to musical structures and perhaps of special interest to composers concerned with sustaining interest over large-scale forms. Second, the new issue of MusikTexte just arrived and, among many good things, there is a German translation of an article, originally published in Perspectives of New Music (Vol. 46/1 (Winter 2008): 152-93), by the English composer James Saunders on Modular Music. Saunders covers a lot of ground, from the usual musical suspects (Stockhausen, Cage, Brown*) to IKEA furniture and the sculpture of Carl Andre or Dan Flavin, as well as his own music. It is fascinating how Saunders frames his discussion in the very modern terms of production and productivity: greater flexibility, reduced product development time, parallel development of products and product systems, reduction of production time. As a formal theory, Saunders concentrates on formal networks — how the various component parts (may) fit together — and this is truly exciting stuff and, to a large extent, independent of medium, genre or aesthetic. (For a great example of a networked narrative (and a real page-turner, so to speak), I recommend my former librettist, Edward Gorey's, masterpiece, The Raging Tide: or, The Black Doll's Imbroglio. Best page: "27. Figbash, Naeelah, and Skrump fell upon each other with loofahs. If you would love a romantic ending, turn to 30. If you would prefer an ironic one, turn to 29.") IN ANY CASE, let me append to this discussion the thought that an aspect of these forms in addition to their networked or network-able character — which is a topographical quality — regards the material, and particularly spatial or temporal, character of the parts and their relative, indeed proportional, similitude. What happens when an actual metric is assigned to an abstract network?** I suspect that the architect Le Cobusier, in his roundabout attempt to harmonize English and metric measurement systems via a projection onto the proportions of an idealized male (initally a 175 cm tall Frenchman, later a 6-foot tall Englishman) body (echoing, of course, Leonardo and, in turn, Vitruvius) into his Modulor system, came to address similar concerns. Le Corbusier was here, of course, working at his most inspired nuttiness (as were Leonardo, and, in turn, Vitruvius), but the notion of quantities and proportions directly derived from the human body does have some honest dignity to it and perhaps there's something useful to be recovered from it, in musical proportions.
[Please also see this earlier item on The Modular, among other things a paean to a childhood well spent among Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, Togl and Lego.]
* If I were writing a larger article on a similar theme, I might have begin with Satie (especially Parade and its cinematic Entr'acte) and generic silent movie music, then moved on to Henry Cowell's Mosaic Quartet and Lou Harrison's "Theatre Kits" as early examples of modular musics. I might have also included Morton Feldman's prescient Intermission 6 instead of Stockhausen's similarly variable piano piece and would have pulled out a number of modular examples from the 1960's radical west coast repertoire. Heck, I might have even started with Javanese gendhing lampah, flexible-length forms, based on a common underlying tonal pattern but elaborated with contrasting tempi and moods, and flexibly connectable as accompaniment to theatre and dance or attachable to or bridging fixed-length and -form compositions. But then again, that would have been an altogether different article, wouldn't it have?
** This question is also relevant to the theory of melodic contours.
Saturday, August 13, 2011
Out of the Open
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Here are three of my recent scores, downloadable for your perusal or playing pleasure:
— Field & Stream, for five computers.
— Among the Wires, an Illusion Space, piano solo for Alvin Lucier on his 80th.
— A Map Drawn from Memory, portrait of Nanne Meyer in two parts, a small piano piece.
These are small pieces, two of them occasional, so I won't say much about them, but that Field & Stream came out of work with some young people, writing for an increasingly common ensemble (i.e. laptops) but not to be in the business of writing software or patches or collecting samples, but rather to compose a structure (another Beckett-Gray code piece BTW) for musicians who do all of those things well and not to get in the way of their individual approaches. And it's about sounds of water: rain, river, ocean, drippage & drainage. Among the Wires, an Illusion Space, is a study in acoustical beating and microtones for an unprepared piano, featuring near-unison harmonics, and is a direct homage to the music of its dedicee. I think of it as a kind of electronic music without electronics. And A Map Drawn from Memory was simply through-composed, after seeing a gallery exhibition by Nanne Meyer.
Tuesday, August 09, 2011
Return to (the) SOURCE
The new anthology SOURCE: Music of the Avant-garde, 1966-1973, edited by Larry Austin and Douglas Kahn has arrived (UC Press, 2011*) and a revisit to that eponymous journal is well worth it, if only for a bit of time travel into that lively era**. The anthology has a good smattering of the content of the eleven published issues, including scores, articles, questionnaires, photo-documentation, and transcribed interviews/conversations. It is not as visually striking as the orginal multi-colored, multi-textured spiral bound original volumes, but I suppose that's just another example of how all the advantages of current technology and publishing don't necessarily add up to affordable production at the quality and variety of times past. But, all-in-all, the book is delightful and it is constantly striking how prescient Austin and his editorial brethren were in identifying music to which attention ought be paid, from Cage and Feldman to Steve Reich and Daniel Lentz to Harry Partch, Robert Ashley, and Pauline Oliveros, to new instrument builders acoustic and electric, indeterminate scores, theatre pieces, environmental musics, political musics, etc..
My major quarrel with the publication is the low ratio of whole scores to everything else; in the end, the music itself, as represented by the scores, was the main attraction and many of the most extraordinary of them really did get played with some frequency and had a real lasting impact, thus not emphasizing them risks giving undue weight to the persistent myth that the avant-garde music of the time didn't have any traction in the concert hall or effect on music today. The scores that were included reflect the editors' own tastes (and, one imagines, some complicated practical questions about space and publishing rights), and I can't argue with that, but a few personal favorites were among the missing: Daniel Lentz's gorgeous music-theatre scores, Slonimsky's Minitudes, Leedy's usable music I for very small instruments with holes, and the photo spread of Robert Erickson's homemade instruments for Cardenitas.
* For the record, I was not sent a review copy; I bought the book myself.
** Best line-of-the-times in the book: Terry Riley, when asked if his music had been used for political or social ends, replies "You mean the big politics in the sky? No, i don't think so." Second best line, Pauline Oliveros quoting Loren Rush: "the reason for studying counterpoint is that you may have to teach it some day." (I happen to disagree with that, profoundly disagree, in fact, but that takes nothing away from the fact that it's still funny.)
Saturday, August 06, 2011
More from the Lost & Found Dept.
Barney Childs, Keet Seel (1970) for mixed chorus (ACA).
I knew Childs (1926-2000) slightly, as he taught in Redlands, not so far as the crow flies from where I lived in Southern California but a bit out of the way for a teenager limited to bicycle transport, and in retrospect I wish that I could have known him better, as he was the more experimental and interesting of the local composers (who included Gail Kubik and Karl Kohn.)
Childs's academic background — via Deep Springs College, Oxford (as a Rhodes scholar) and Stanford — was in English literature and it seems his initial ambitions were mostly as a poet. He was largely self-taught as a composer, but could count Aaron Copland and Leonard Ratner among his teachers and kept an open ear out from the useful distance of the desert, to whatever was going on at the moment in new music. Childs is probably best known for his solo instrumental works (especially the Sonatas for Trombone and Bass alone and Mr T., His Fancy for bass, and a large number of woodwind pieces, many of them written for clarinetist Philip Rehfeld) and the extravagantly extended-technique and partly indeterminate ensemble work Jack's New Bag, which was published in an issue of Source: Music of the Avant-Garde. Material Press, my own publishing project, carries Childs' Eighth Quartet it its catalog. When last we spoke, at a Bertram Turetsky recital at New Music America in L.A. too many years ago, Childs pointed to his Four Pieces for Six Winds and his setting (for voices, wind ensemble and big band) of Whitman's When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd as his major works, but I've only had the fortune to hear the first (which features a desert-still gamut study as a slow movement) and recordings appear not to be available of either of these.
I happened to pick up a copy of Child's Keet Seel for mixed chorus recently and have spent some time working with the score, in part writing a large section of the piece out in a notation program, so I could figure out how the opening, a passage of some mensural complexity, works. In this opening, a small gamut of pitches are used (entering, in order: soprano only on e', alto moving from e' to g' and then a', tenor on d' and c', and last bass on b and a.) Through non-aligned repeat signs, the simple melodicles get combined and re-combined to create and sustain more of a tonal color than a tonality, a not-yet-functional harmony, as we put it in these parts. But what is most remarkable, compositionally, is how Childs sustains both rhythmic interest and a steady ensemble density gently shifting only in details while sticking to a very clear syllabic text setting when the mensural system would tend to invite more happenstance than continuity. The rest of the piece alternate between more declamatory/soloistic sections and further textural sections, sometimes overlapping ("shingling" is the term of art, I believe) to create clusters, sometimes suggesting a diatonic tonality otherwise clustering chromatically. The text, by Childs himself — though later augmented by snippets of Donne, Shakespeare and George Herbert, seems more about sound and rhythm than semantics, just words to float in and out of the quiet ensemble texture and is eventually — and most mysteriously — interrupted by large spread-out divisi chords loudly singing the name of Keet Seel, that Anasazi cliff dwelling in Arizona's Navajo National Monument. What does this mean? It's music of the desert, but also music which recalls English choral traditions. The non-functional shifts between harmonies and the fragmented and disparate text should make for something less than coherent, but it all comes together with a peculiar, but clearly musical, force.
This is music — challenging music — that is worth renewed attention by a gifted choir.
Tuesday, August 02, 2011
Hearing —> Changing
I just reread Charles Shere's fine book Thinking Sound Music: The Life and Works of Robert Erickson. His final paragraph, on Erickson's final, enigmatic composition, Music for Trumpet, Strings, and Timpani is wonderful writing and absolutely on point:
Music for Trumpet, Strings, and Timpani is cheerful and outgoing. It makes no attempt to investigate new territory; it is unconcerned with introspection or dark contemplations; it makes few demands of its performers (trumpet part aside). It is engaging and straightforward, as if to close a distinguished , inventive , and finally profound catalogue of over seventy compositions on a note of modest triumph. Music can be complex or simple, expressive or neutral, eventful or calm. It can contemplate things dark or transcendental. It can grieve or rejoice. It is profound solitude or communal cooperativeness. It is everything to its composer, at work on it; to the audience, it might mean anything. In the end — in Music for Trumpet, Strings, and Timpani — it is a diversion, notes on paper, then in the air, then gone; six minutes of entertainment at the end of a program. The music is heard; the audience applauds; the performers are content. The music, for the moment, is over. Hearing it changed the way we knew our world.
Saturday, July 23, 2011
Getting Out From Under Cover
To this day, the covers of some records in my father's lp collection remain almost as vivid to me as the music pressed onto the disc. (That Monteux record of the Rite of Spring with the Henri Rousseau "Snake Charmer" on the cover, or that Cal Tjader Latin Jazz concert (pressed onto a deep red disc!) with the cartoon of the band playing in a bullfight arena with a balloon coming out from the crowd shouting "Nixon Go Home!".) Record covers, of course, first got shrunk (into cd covers) and are now becoming nothing more than digital images. For those composers, musicians and listeners who take seriously those ancient commandments against imagery — the iconoclasts —, the emergence of recorded music transmitted without tangible packaging offers an opportunity to deal in music as a commodity without having to cover it with a piece of visual artwork. But the moment appears to be one in which the cover image is having its dues for at least one more round. First, we learn that the major innovator in record cover design, Alex Steinweiss, has just passed away. And second, we learn that the cover image still has potential to create controversy: follow Pliable's links, here.
Friday, July 22, 2011
The Quietists, Keeping Quiet
Primrosch Primosch has a review of the 3rd edition of Paul Griffith's Modern Music and After, in whch he complains that a whole laundry list of American composers [Harbison, Corigliano, Martino, Shapey, Davidovsky, Zwilich, Tower, Reynolds, Johnston, Kernis, Rouse, Lieberson, Melinda Wagner, Powell, Schwantner, del Tredici, Currier, Mackey, Hartke, Wernick] are not included as well as details some additional slights, among them to Wuorinen and Crumb. (I don't know the 3rd edition, but I have the 1st edition with the slightly different title right at hand, and it not only includes Wuorinen as a composer, but includes a bit of score sample.)
On principle, I don't think that laundry lists of the un-included are a particularly useful way to critique monographic musical histories; the historian is responsible for fashioning a narrative and the more productive question is whether the composers included support and enhance that narrative or the composers excluded detract from or would serve as critical counter-examples to that narrative. My own narrative for the same post-war period might well include Poulenc, for example, excluded by Griffiths, but it's perfectly clear why Poulenc's conservativism does not fit into Griffith's post-war narrative, which concentrates on more innovative repertoire. (I believe that Poulenc is treated within Griffith's A concise history of avant-garde music: from Debussy to Boulez, a book with an obviously longer timeline.)
In this case, however, I'm prepared to support Griffiths with regard to Primrosch's list, excepting the names of Reynolds and Johnston, two figures who have been pushing some real boundaries of music-making, because his list is otherwise one of establishment East Coast composers — many of them abundantly talented — who simply do not challenge the extent and limits of the musical as given to us by tradition and institutions. Yes, these are composers who do well within contemporary musical-institutional life, their works may even be short-lived local repertoire pieces, but their works do not make, or even bother to make, musical history. And yes, I do believe that their "not bothering" is not only the usual symptom of a conservative musical mentality but a tactical move, not to dirty the nests of the schools and foundations and orchestras and opera houses within which they operate and apparently thrive. To borrow a term from Poe and Ron Silliman, these are musical quietists.
I am certain that there are partisans of these composers who disagree with me fundamentally, but they are simply not making the case. In part, they don't because their institution position is comfortable enough that they have no urgency to make the case* but also, I believe, they don't make the case because it is difficult if not impossible to do so on musical-historical terms. But I'd be happy to be proven wrong! I really prefer to have multiple narratives, because music is rich enough to sustain that diversity. Where is the quietist who disagrees with Griffith's narrative (or mine) AND is willing to make the public case for their own?
* That comfort level has been endangered a few times, for example when Paul Fromm realized how little of the music he had supported financially actually found a place in a living repertoire.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Flotsam, Jetsam, and Lagan
A message recently crossed my screen complaining about experimentalists (English experimentalists in particular, but I cheerfully join their company on this matter) being attached to "third-rate justly neglected composers from the past." This sentiment struck me as both misplaced and uninformed. Misplaced, because (a) we don't know the music we don't know, (b) we should always be vigilant about ratings and those-who-would -rate as opportunities and opportunists for or prone to abusing musical-canonic politics (which is something altogether different from music itself), and (c) we certainly know enough about music history to recognize that useful, indeed wonderful, music can be left neglected and revisiting abandoned repertoire — all the same whether it ultimately rates good, bad or gloriously indifferent — can be useful on its own terms as well as contribute productively to the synthesis of new music.
This message struck me as uniformed because it appeared not to take the relationship of experimental music to musical materials at all seriously. On the one hand, experimental music deals, from first principles, with the acoustical flotsam nature and physics have left us. Radioastronomic signals, whale song, and sine waves are all fair game. But on the other hand we don't have to discriminate against sounds because they fall into the great gray area of the insufficiently "natural" or "artificial", because they have already found particular musical uses, or have been found wanting in previous musical contexts and thus been abandoned, with or without ceremony. Music history is full of cul-de-sacs, wonderful dark and craggy paths (a) tested — like toes in waters of uncertain temperature — but not really taken to their consequences, (b) abandoned (with or without the equivalent of an orphaned babe's basket), or (c) left tied to the buoys associated with the sidekicks and curiosities of musical history in favor of that one-way Autobahn of musical progress through grand hegemonic processes of dialectic and evolution. But much that gets left to wayside has potential musical value. Yes, English (and other) experimentalist may have interests in the Alkans and Saties and Lord Berners, and yes, the Standard & Poors or Moody's of the Official Musical-Institutional Timocracy (OMIT) have rated these as sub-investment grade, but the musical evidence contradicts the judgment of the ratings agencies. These musicians simply do different things with their music, and those things — taking their own good time, for example, rather than pushing it around — they sometimes do very well indeed.
I happen to find much of value in Berlioz or Sibelius, composers to whom both OMIT and the Officious Avantgarde Factions (OAF) have not always been kind or — a recent discovery — Stenhammar (playing through string quartets at the piano from a set of parts (no score) is my latest parlor trick). I find that works of these composers can present heterodox practices in voice leading and alternative approaches to form that are for me, indicators of unexplored potential for new music. If material appears to have new musical potential, then I have no qualms at all about grabbing it from flotsam, jetsam, or lagan.
Not quite a footnote, but definitely lagan-related enough to append here: Since we've recently been treated to the first major Havergal Brian revival in the Age of the Internet, with the Proms performance of the Symphony No. 1 in D minor, "The Gothic", there's been lots of Gothic-related chatter. (Start with Kenneth Woods for the serious low-down.) May I add the rather obvious observation that the scale at which Brian was trying to work is highly problematic for composer, player, and lister alike? It comes down to economics, the distribution and consumption of materials over time. Scale is a serious concern among experimental musicians. La Monte Young, Robert Ashley and Morton Feldman have really thought and worked hard on issues of scale, with interesting — if interestingly uneven — results (i.e. as wonderful as Feldman's lengthy Crippled Symmetry and For Philip Guston are, I honestly don't think that his For Christian Wolff gets the economics of the material-to-time-scale right.) Both Young and Feldman, methinks, were onto something important in recognizing that there was a paradoxical decrease in the optimal ratio of materials to time, but the rich variety in the character of musical materials can add so many variables that I suspect it is not something that lends itself to rational calculation. In this particular case, Brian's Gothic, the all-too regular eventfulness, the succession from one stretch of music to another very different stretch of music is such that I'm never sure if it is fragmentary by design or just incoherent. The immediate succession from one section to another almost always makes some plausible sense, but whether the individual sections succeed in making broader time-scale connections or not, let alone whether those connections create any meaningful musical charge, is uncertain to me. My musical memory is pretty good and I suspected that things that happened early on got picked up again and shook around a bit very much later, but I remain only suspicious. (Another suspicion is that the Gothic, the first of 32 symphonies by Brian, is not the one we ought to be paying much attention to, but that's for another discussion.) Another British composer on the margins of official music-making, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, presents a very different style but a similar problem of scale, coming from the opposite end of material eventfulness, in that his harmonic saturation and imitative counterpoint are so dense that it sounds less horizontally eventful than it ought. (For a very useful, if unorthodox, introduction to Sorabji's music, I recommend this web site, with some painstakingly synthesized versions of Sorabji scores.)
Friday, July 15, 2011
English 101 and the Musical-Industrial Complex*
Why can't composers' prose be more imaginative, more lively? Why do articles, program notes, blog items, and websites tend to read like grant and job applications or Rotary club laudatios? Time was, when composers — Ives, Cage, Jerry Hunt, Robert Ashley come straight to mind; hell even Babbitt at his most thorny — could shine in words as well as sounds, experimenting in form, syntax, style and vocabulary, unafraid to push the conventional limits of making sense, making language more like music. Is our present moment so conservative, so institutionalized that composers who can throw caution to the wind with their music rush to cover of safe but dull sentences in well-formed paragraphs in well-formed essays, formed, well, to the model set forth by your 7th grade English teacher? We can do better and if we value our music we should do better by showing through our words that our sounds are indeed special, out-of-the-ordinary.
*The title for this item plays on the famous section of Richard Ohmann's English in America, in which, among other things, the uniform style, rhetoric and form of bureaucratic documents (like the The Pentagon Papers) are sourced to their origins in mass collegiate English composition instruction.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Tim Rutherford-Johnson has a couple (here and here) of good items on the state of new music publishing with some lively comment threads.
Traditionally, music publishers had effective monopolies over music engraving and printing as well as distribution to local music shops. They had more-or-less efficient systems for dealing with rental catalogs and they had promotional capacity, both through schmoozing with prospective musicians and managers and through direct advertising for sheet music. Having made investments in their sheet music that could only amortize over long periods, they kept close control over their catalogs and inventory and they were often staffed with musically knowledgeable employees who could watch for errata and make sure that the materials sent out were the ones required to make a piece work. Moreover, getting published by a name house carried a professional caché, with which the road to tenure, for example, could be paved, and without which, one could be considered professionally deprecated.
None of this is true any more. Engraving and printing, although getting them done right remains an art, are no longer tightly-held secrets of the "industry". Every composer can, in principle, engrave and print her or his own work to a high level of quality. The local music shop with a large inventory of sheet music has basically gone the way of the dodo and was never that good, anyways, in ordering anything even slightly obscure. Publishers, always reluctant and sometimes even loathe to dealing directly with the end consumer of sheet music, have, for the most part, not warmed or gotten more efficient at the job and, again with a few exceptions, though they tend to be staffed with highly educated and truly music-loving musicians, they have downsized to the point where they only rarely can deal with errata or that second violin part with the impossible page turns. Advertising budgets do remain for a few houses, but it tends to be reinforcing the dwindling existing markets (i.e. to the handful of specialist journals and in festival programs) rather than reaching any significant mass (i.e. in the days when a Schirmer ad could be found in the Christian Science Monitor, right next to Nicolas Slonimsky's column on the kid's page.) Finally, the prestige of big name sheet music publication has diminished even in the most ivy-covered of tenure cases.
Instead, composers can pretty much go it alone (the great models here are Tom Johnson and Karlheinz Stockhausen) or in cooperation with colleagues (like Frog Peak or Material Press or Wandelweiser), with their own web sites serving as catalogs and ordering platforms for score delivery by post or email. The most immediate advantages for the composer are that he or she gets to keep all the license fees (instead of ceding the usual 50% to the publisher), has control over the quality of the materials produced, and has oversight over score sales and to some extent performances, recordings, and broadcasts. Scores in your own catalog will not get neglected or orphaned as they might in a publishing house that loses interest or get merged with or acquired by larger concerns. On the other hand, investment in score production and part extraction is all your own, you are on your own for promotion and you have to be available to answer inquiries and to send your materials out at any time (and yes, many score orders will come your way Sunday morning at 4:00 am, with a request that it be sent ASAP and preferably earlier than that.) The disadvantages also include not being able to use sales and license fees from the back catalog to subsidize new catalog items as well as having to organize promotional contacts and networks from scratch.
Clearly, each composer has to work out the balance of advantages and disadvantages between going with a traditional publisher and going it alone for herself or himself. Personally, the greater advantage for me is not to got to a traditional publisher, but if my catalog had more choral and school band or orchestra music, the distribution logistics for handling the volume might throw the balance in the other direction. (That said, it appears that a number of composers are now able to use direct sales of school ensemble music to earn a fair income, so if you can deal with a large volume, go for it.) In any case, if you do decide to go with a traditional publisher, it seems wise to insist on these terms as a minimum: (1) the composer should not have to pay in any cash up front for publication, especially when print-ready scores or parts are delivered by the composer, (b) the amount and form of promotion to be made by the publisher should be defined in detail in the contract and may be reflected in the publisher's share of license fees or sheet music sales/rentals, and (c) should promotion not be carried out by the terms of the contract or should the materials be orphaned by the publisher, all publication rights should revert to the composer.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Filling the Big Empty
New music, all-too-often at the bottom of the musical resource food chain, doesn't often get made with much choice about the environment (room, hall, studio, gallery, theatre, church, club, pub, arena, field, etc.) in which it gets presented. And — all-too-often, again — this can have serious effects on the music itself. If a main attraction of the music is a certain level of detail or subtlety, for example, all that attraction can be effectively wiped out in a room with too much ambient noise or with too much resonance. On the other hand, a music with a considerable amount of blank space — "silence" — may not work out in concert halls otherwise considered to have fantastic acoustical properties for music making, but conventional music-making with the conventional continuity of concertante composition. Earlier on, I made a lot of music that was more rests than notes, but concerts and recordings were too frequently frustrated by the space in which they were made. Paradoxically perhaps, I discovered that out-of-doors spaces — with a prevailing constant and predictable ambient sound level were much more forgiving for music with Sierpinski-like ratios of silence to sound, in that expectations of noises external to the music event proper can lead to a useful amount of unhearing, while the contrary expectation, in a church or concert hall or morgue etc. can lead, in the event of a sudden crackle in a fresnel lamp or a settling bit of architecture or furniture or some embarrassing body noise can distract, with some finality, from the continuity of the work. (As Heinz-Klaus Metzger put it: "Webern was the last composer before the advent of air conditioning.) For all my apostacy in other matters minima musicalia, the one part of the original minimal faith I've always tried to keep is the stricture that minimalism is the elimination of distractions. For this reason, among others, I made something of a serious turn in my own music away from big empty spaces in the direction of filling-up the available time. I hear this mostly a pragmatic way of dealing with the real potential of unanticipated sounds in real concert spaces to distract, and am generally more lenient with pieces intended for performance outside or in unconventional spaces. I have considerable reservations about accepting this move as a general, let alone permanent, aesthetic principle, but since there is actually quite a large body of silence-dominated music around these days (much of Wandelweiser repertoire, for example) my retreat shouldn't be much of a loss.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Exploding Program Notes!
Musicians and audiences go round and round about program notes. Are they informative or explanatory? Is informative or explanatory necessary? Are they a distraction (from the music, for better or worse)? Is there a minimum or maximum of information a program ought to have, i.e. minimum: personnel and titles of pieces, maximum probably somewhat less than a dissertation. (German program books often approach scholarly quality, but then German opera houses and radio stations usually have musicologists on staff (in the opera as dramaturgs) or on call who are hired to thoroughly research and write their articles.)
Lou Harrison insisted on attaching music stands to his homemade gamelan instruments, in contrast to traditional practice in which notation, if used, was discretely hidden from audience view, quipping that he didn't want to watch a gamelan onstage with all of the players continuously "staring at their crotches." At the opera recently, I noticed a few audience members reading their lap-stationed programs with help of the light from the their mobile phone screens. (To the best of my knowledge, the live-twittered concert or opera has not yet come into practice here**.) This was distracting and not pretty. I guess, if I had my drothers and a bit of stage magical skill, I'd have programs that went up in flames immediately before the performance began and miraculously reconstituted themselves when the lights came up again.
As to the content of program notes, if or how technical they should be, or whether they should be more intellectual and abstract or more personal and concrete (or the other way around), all I can say is go with your own strengths as a writer and don't bother us with dropping names (whether of persons met, institutions occupied or prizes bestowed). If your strength is in depth and expansion, then have courage to write more, if your strength is in concision, then make it less. If your words aspire to poetry, then a dose (keep it modest) of poetry may do us good, while words more technical or theoretical should be rationed in measures appropriate for the audience at hand. And yes, if you cannot or will not summon words to accompany your music, that's okay, too, your job description does not include the provision of anything more than the score and your score may well not want for the company of words.
* One of the facts of being a Santa Cruz student in the late 70s and early 80s was that one was ever among the belated, and not among the originals, the legendary, wild ones of the late 60s and early 70s. Of course, that was only legend, and we did have the one advantage of belatedness, which was the gift of retrospect, under the graces of which we were invited, no, required, to be innovative, even more wild, and indeed, when we succeeded, we could ourselves provide ample stuff for the legends of those of the real belated years, which I reckon run from the late 80s until now.
** A good thing ithinks, because although the live commentary does offer the possibility of interesting enhancements and counterpoints to the musical event (which I've blogged about here before), it seems a natural development that once this comes into play, with live cell phones in hand, many audience members will inevitably take up channel hopping, away from the concert feeds, and eventually be doing anything but paying attention to the concert. As something of a free speech absolutist, I don't see any reasonable argument around this, but recognizing the real potential for disturbing the shared concert, see no alternative to polite and civil encouragement for shutting the things off, or even, gently reminding of that special hell set aside for those who talk in theatres.
Thursday, July 07, 2011
Keeping a Commonplace
The composer Jeff Harrington recently pointed to a page transcribing the contents of H.P. Lovecraft's Commonplace Book, here. Lovecraft left enough interesting ideas as unused material for several careers worth of weird fiction, heck even a few weird operas. (I have to admit to never having read Lovecraft; maybe I should remedy this.)
To some extent, blogs are performing, in public, the function of the Commonplace Book, the place to keep record of one's own education, jotting down gathered notes and quotes, observations, ideas. This page actually began as a more-or-less smooth transitition from the marginalia I habitually scribbled on the edges of sketches and scores. But being public has altered the scope of this project. It tends to be more political and, though something of a record of my current musical obsessions, it's not as iniitmately connected to my compositional projects as my marginalia was, indeed, I find myself rather shy about writing directly about my own compositional concerns. At the same time, my entire cogitating-sketching-composing-editing procedure has changed quite a bit. Whereas I used to be fairly rigorous in the march from sketch to score, leaving a substantial paper trail, I now do more work directly in notation software now and try to keep my sketches to bits of paper (usually A6 size) that I scatter around my desk while working — some bits of notation, formal schemes, reminders of work to be done etc. — and then brush them aside into the waste basket when no longer needed. (I think having a crowded house with kids and dog underfoot has made me much less patient about maintaining an archive of sketches (on the other hand, in my role as publisher, I'm fairly obsessive in maintain any bit of paper from the other composers in my catalog.) On the other hand, I have several hundred uncatalogued pieces in various stages of development in the form of computer files for notation programs; I have no idea how or if I'll maintain these. )
But the idea of keeping an idea book like Lovecraft's, for my music, especially for all the plans and fantasies for work-to-come, is very attractive. I do have a short list with titles and short descriptors of pieces I'd like to write (titles are very important to me), but it's just another piece of paper hanging on the wall before my desk, not a real book. An idea book is something like a diary, but more like a dream diary than a record of daily and mundane accomplishments. Like diaries, however, I think that the very "bookishness" of such a document gives it a degree of seriousness and commitment that is useful for a composer. La Monte Young, for example, has long kept an Idea Book (and some of his ideas, from the peek I've had, are really quite wonderful and surprising, in particular a pair of operas.) Do you keep an idea book?
Wednesday, July 06, 2011
Lou Harrison on Arnold Schoenberg
He was a lovely and delicate man, very nervous when airplanes flew over U.C.L.A.; who once hushed us, too, in order to hear a bird outside.
(...) When I was about to leave for New York, he asked me why I was going there and I replied that I did not really know. "I know why you are going," he said. "You are going for fame and fortune. Good luck! And, do not study anymore — only Mozart!"
(from the preface to Harrison's fine Suite for Piano, C.F. Peters.)
Sunday, July 03, 2011
Double Bill, Durable Goods
We went this evening to a double bill at the Frankfurt Opera: Dido and Aeneas followed by Count Bluebeard's Castle. The production and music in the Purcell was transcendent (particularly Paul Murrihy's Dido), the Bartók was well-sung and well-played but shockingly dull on stage. It was also a nice reminder of (a) how flexible an opera house like Frankfurt's, a substantial institution, can actually be, here using two entirely different but stylistically appropriate orchestras and stage arrangements in one evening, the baroque half with a scaled down orchestra and historically-informed instruments, pitch-level and playing style (albeit with a few creative alterations: the Sorceress and witches were sung by countertenors, making menancing barbate but full-skirted villains) an expanded continuo group, and added recorder, baroque oboe and bassoon, with some discrete percussion to brighten the orchestral texture, apparently all string in the original) played before the proscenium and breaking into the auditorium with the pit somewhat raised, and (b) how curious it is that particular pieces come to be repertoire items, in this case quality of composition overcoming some substantial disadvantages, like language (English and Hungarian (wonderful to hear some Hungarian again, being deprived of it since my Budapest years)) and being short of a full-evening in length.
Dido, especially with a lively continuo, just flows, and Purcell's text setting is continuously startling, uncanny. It has two ground bass laments to die for (literally) and the balance between the chromatic and diatonic is absolutely right. It has taken time, but it has become a core piece of the repertoire, and possibly the single English language item that ought to be until, well (and here I jump on a limb), the original version of Weber's Oberon. It will ever, however, be on the look out for an appropriate and complementary partner to fill out the evening, because the Bartók just doesn't fit as either a complement or an extension. In recent years, Bluebeard has taken — correctly I think — its own place in the repertoire. It is compact, dramatic, tonal enough for anyone who's ever been in a cinema, and has a pair of vocal lines that sit very well and are supported rather than overridden by the orchestration. The clear, tight structure of the piece is right there with Wozzeck or Turn of the Screw and this is a good illustration of how strong musical structural elements can help a work attract and function securely in productions of radically different character. If there is a weakness in the piece it is that the tonal language — thank the movies — has become familiar, less exotic, and that the rhythmic invention and pacing are somewhat disappointing. (But Purcell, with all of the nuances of ornamentation and pacing that period style makes available to musicians, clearly has some advantage here, so perhaps the partnering was unfair.)
Friday, July 01, 2011
A must-read article by Severo Ornstein, son and devoted editor of the composer Leo Ornstein, has some particularly clear illustrations of the how disfunctional traditional music publishing can get. In Ornstein's case, former-global-media-behemoth-now-fragile-subsidiary-of-Citigroup EMI apparently earns license fees for works it has never actually published, and EMI's refusal to communicate and the understood threat of unmatchable legal power keep them from even entering into a dialogue to do what is most reasonable for the music itself. And of course, Ornstein's rights organization, BMI, lacks the human resources to support the Ornstein family in sorting their side of this out. Any reasonable person will recognize that Ornstein's catalog is never going to earn meaning royalties for EMI, but the huge size of their catalog and their massively downsized staff probably make it impossible for EMI to afford the labor required to look into the matter. What is required for cases like this is some legislation freeing up works effectively orphaned by negligent publishers, either returning full rights to the works in cases where there are heirs willing to assert their rights and promote the work as Severo Ornstein has so admirably done in his father's behalf, or automatically releasing orphaned and unclaimed works irrevocably into the public domain. But I suspect that any hopes for such a reasonable treatment of creative work are hopelessly optimistic.
[Let me also note that my small publishing project, Material Press, has recently begun, with pieces by Jerry Hunt and Barney Childs, to publish orphaned landmarks of the avant garde. Any other suggestions for this project are more than welcome.]
Pay Attention to the Netherlands and the UK
Pay attention to the developments in cultural support in the Netherlands and the UK. In both cases, right-wing governing coalitions are making massive cuts (and massive increases in fees, for higher education in the UK in particular.) But in neither case is the motivation primarily economic. In the UK, it is practically class warfare, but this time it's a revolution from above, dishonestly made by a pair of parties who ran in the last election ostensibly to the friendly left of Labour on many issues, while in the Netherlands it seems that the cuts are being made unashamedly not because they have to be made (i.e. for budgetary reasons) but that the coalition partners, no longer even pretending to represent a broad consensus of the population, can and want to make the cuts from cultural grounds, among them the xenophobic (with xenos, in this case, being both strange (foreign) and strange (novel)).
When I returned to Germany in 2005, after half a decade in Hungary, a constellation of three major funding sources for new musical activity — the German Music Council, the public radio stations, and GEMA — had each, for different reasons and in different circumstances, but tragically in near-simultaneity, made massive reductions in their support. (The Music Council went through a period of serious mismanagement and was "reformed" with music less emphasis on new concert music, the radio stations, while having net increases in fee revenues, found themselves in competition with the privates for soccer broadcast rights, encouraging massive waves of reductions in and attempts to monetize other areas of their operations, most painfully those which exist with no attention, let alone competition from the privates (Neue Musik: bingo!), and GEMA, once governed with some parity between "serious" and "entertainment" composers, left the parity model altogether in a grab by E-producers faced with massive reductions in their income in the post-CD era. ) All this happened rather quickly and quietly and with practically no complaint from musicians, who were in any case largely shut out of the policy discussions. My impression is that most musicians still haven't registered what has happened.
If there is any bright light in the events in the UK and Netherlands, it is the fact that musicians and other artists are not passive. They are taking the developments seriously and are engaged with hard questions about the role of artistic production in society and are, in many cases, speaking loudly and unusually articulately about the actions of their governments in a strong contrast to Germany (or the US, for that matter) where measures of similar gravity just happened with a whimper. In parliamentary democracies, a majority-is-a-majority, so I don't think we can expect much change in these plans anytime soon, but I do think that the governments may have seriously underestimated the charge that their reductions have given to the creative community, intellectually and politically, and the conversations now taking place in that community and with the public at larger may have a greater defining role for the future for both the material support of the arts and its content and mode of production than any of the immediate (and, let us hope, temporary) policies of the present (and let us hope, temporary) governments.
Monday, June 27, 2011
So novelist Philip Roth has been interviewed and confesses...
"I've stopped reading fiction. I don't read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don't have the same interest in fiction that I once did."
Well, gee. That really doesn't make me enthusiastic about running out and reading some fiction by, say, Philip Roth. It may very well be true and he may well have earned the right to be bored with fiction after half a century of writing it, but was this really a wise thing to say? It's not exactly an infectious sales pitch for novels as a genre or the specific exemplars (54 and counting) of Mr Roth himself.
Unfortunately, a lot of composers — and composers without the 50 years of hard labor behind them — are prone to making similar statements, emphasizing that they don't listen/play/spend a lot of time thinking about new music. Instead, they offer up their bona fides as teenage garage band rockers or jazz musicians or would-be musical writers (remember Milton Babbitt command of Tin Pan Alley songs?) or anything other than new music maker/listener/devotee. As if it's something strange that one ought to be embarrassed about or at least qualify one's interest by admitting that you like the "real" stuff as well if not better. If the composer him- or herself likes other music better than why should we like the composer's music any better?
Here's a better sales pitch, and AFAIC, it's true:
I will now confess that I listen, play and think about my own music and other new music about 90% of my musicking hours, awake or asleep; it's the carbs, veggies, and protein in my musical diet. I top my musicking off off with trips into music history or ethnography (come September, I'll have been playing gamelan for 33 years!) but that's just dessert, friends. I like new and experimental, (ex/post/prae)modern, contemporary, avantgarde, circuitbent, scare-the-dog music more than any other, I like my own music and I like the music of my contemporaries and find a remarkable reserve of musical depth, integrity, excitement, charm, emotion, and continuous surprise in the music and I'd like to invite you to discover these qualities as well.