Friday, December 30, 2011

From a Diary: I:xvi

One of the most important elements of the Occupy movement has been the effort to reclaim public spaces, to insist that the entire map is not completely parceled out to private and state-owned-but-exclusive interests, so that every citizen has common space in which to move, to meet, to speak, and yes, even to make music. ~~~~~ Sure, Europe is crowded, but in most of Western Europe, the option of finding a route to travel on foot or by bike from point a to point b on any given continuous piece of land is usually secure. On my most most recent trips to the 'States, I was struck hard by how limited the options have become for any sort of land travel, other than by private auto. (Famously car-oriented California, surprisingly, was much more amenable to foot travel than either Mississippi or New Hampshire, due to more universal sidewalking, but still, I believe a walk along the entire coastline, for example, is all but impossible.) Yes, the network of roads is extensive and largely in good condition, but very few are set up so that you could walk alongside them and certainly not enough to make it attractive to even walk between most neighboring towns. So the price of admission to the right to travel has become equal to that of owning a car and being able to insure it and fill its tank with gas. (Add this to the steady rise in the share of ones income that goes to even the most minimal housing: there is a real rise in the price of admission that most measures of inflation seem to miss.) ~~~~~ Public spaces — free, in both access and cost to use — are essential for music-making, but I think we tend to mis-characterize many, if not most of the places in which live music gets made as truly public. Occupying Lincoln Center is probably even harder than Wall Street (perhaps not least because so many Wall Streeters have memorialized themselves on the plaques that are scattered thoughout the lobbies and foyers?) In the US, large institutions like orchestras and opera houses and many colleges or universities have, as providers of "tax-free" services for "public benefit", certain privileges but are, in fact, privately owned and operated, and the state-owned venues — from school auditoriums to sport stadiums used in down-time as concert halls — are often difficult to access and under political, bureaucratic, or — most outrageously so in the case of heavily-subsidized football stadiums — commercial control. In Europe, it's not much better with the large institutional music producers (add radio stations to concert halls and opera houses) tightly integrated into the state ownership and bureaucracy. To stage a small concert in Germany, it might cost several thousand above and beyond the cost of the performers and license fees just to open the concert hall door, with regulations requiring the presence of a doctor or a fireman and a certain number of stagehands etc.. ~~~~~ The city where I live, Frankfurt, can be a particularly good city for buskers. Whenever I walk through the inner city, the joy of discovering someone making a well-intended noise in a corner I hadn't noticed before is a real joy, a reminder — perhaps especially when the noises made offend — that public spaces can be kept active, taken back, or discovered new.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

From a Diary: I:xv

Rubato has a fractal dimension.

Monday, December 05, 2011

From a Diary: I:xiv

Harmony is a problem of optimal transportation.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Neither Fish Nor Fowl

Charles Shere has placed a very good article by Douglas Leedy on the midtone (or three-quarter or neutral second) interval online (go here for Charles's comment and link to the article.) My enthusiasm for Leedy's work should be well-known to readers of this page. He is a fascinating scholar and a composer of some of the best music I know.

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

THERE may well be other, parallel universes, but our access to them is certainly limited & their possible existence by no means reduces our obligations towards our own universe. Back at Darmstadt, in the year when Cage & Xenakis were the senior guests, Brian Ferneyhough gave a lecture in which he spoke of their work, of compositional aesthetics & practices other than his own, in terms of alternative universes, explicitly borrowing the device from Science Fiction. Although I'm always in favor of clarifications & making distinctions & I do find metaphors useful, I thought (& still think) that this was an unfortunate rhetorical move, because we all knew (& know) that we were (& are) in the same universe (hell, at that moment, we were sharing the same stuffy, swampy air in the same goddamn room. (Darmstadt. Summer.)) This should not have been such an important matter, it being just a metaphor, after all,* & for the fact that we shut information out all of the time, if only as a way of staying sane, maybe just even surviving, in a universe with too much to take in, so shuffling some body of music off into a metaphorical parallel universe ought not be so objectionable. Except there, in the context of Darmstadt, it came packaged with an inescapable value judgement: there are some musical universes more worth paying attention to than others. Now, this may well be the case — the function of the composers' chalk talks at Darmstadt is very much one of making the case for one's work — but you can't simply shuffle the inconvenient alternatives into their inaccessible space-time regions while at the same time claiming to have some command them, whether intellectually or musically. AND that's just what was going on in Darmstadt that summer as a series of performances of works by Cage were given: under-rehearsed, error-filled, & just plain badly. (Cage himself was furious at a cavalier performance of his Ryoanji). The great irony here, of course, was that all of this revealed about the world's leading institution dedicated to an aesthetic predicated on complexity was a substantial inability to manage diversity, which is, of course, a form of musical complexity.

* 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

I'm not close to the work of Brian Eno, but the title of his essay Generating and Organizing Variety in the Arts did register strongly with me as a student. Programmaticaly alligned with British experimental music in the 70s, the essay's title zeroed in on what seemed (and still seems) to me to be a central contradiction — indeed a paradoxical relationship — around which music is necessarily made. We want a certain level of organization (order, coherence, "sense") but we also want enough variety (which necessarily breaks order, coherence, "sense") to sustain interest over the course of a piece. Now, we can radically break in the direction of either extreme, but human beings have a persistent capacity to find order in the face of disorder and surprise and variety in the ostensibly predictable and uneventful. The music of some composers (Cage and Young, for example) thrives in these boundaries, but in the wide middle territory between these extremes, the going gets more subtle, methinks. Jean Barraque's "proliferating series" for example, in which the order of pitch classes in one twelve-tone series is projected onto the succession of tones in a second series to generate a third will, in most cases*, generate a practically endless sequence of rows bearing no audible or intellectual resemblance in either intervallic profile or pitch sequence to the previously heard series. Working in such an environment of built-in, automatically-generated variety, the composer has to impose organization directly, drawing connections between the tones and intervals at the surface of the music that are not inherent in the material.

* 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

[This diary is an obvious and modest homage to Cage's Diary: How to Improve the World (You'll Only Make Matters Worse. Like that model, it is to be organized into an imagined month of thirty days, with the length of each daily entry determined by chance operations. Cage completed a decimal "year" of ten months over a period lasting from 1965 to 1982 of interrupted writing and these were published, serially in a number of his Wesleyan University Press volumes, beginning with A Year From Monday. I intend to complete a single month and then dismount from my high horse. As with Cage, chance operations — I use poker decks — here determine the length of each entry. (This entry was assigned a length of zero, so I have inserted this explanation between brackets, rendering it sort-of invisible.) Topics for each entry here are derived from reader suggestions, at least two of which are required to initiate an entry. The topics were suggested by others but I take full responsibility for the direction of discussion here. Cage used a variety of typefaces in his Diary, contributing to the greater fragmentation of his entries. Considering this text to be somewhat urgent, if quixotically so, I decided on a greater, but far from absolute, degree of continuity in both prose style and layout.]

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

From a Diary: I:x

I couldn't resist: bought a music box which plays the opening strain of The Internationale. Sweet, nostalgic, smartly (if archaically) mechanized and commodified. Sounds great when played against a Coca Cola (TM) can resonator. Sign on the lawn in New Hampshire, next to a lunch wagon, now in competition with a major chain: BUY LOCAL DONUTS. The modernity and internationalism once dreamed of was not what we got. There is something fundamentally wrong when (a) the most striking features on most of the landscape one passes through in the US (and increasingly elsewhere) are commercial and (b) the major distinction between New Hampshire, for example, and, say, Mississippi, is that the latter has Waffle Houses. A recent campaign in Vermont encouraged listening to locally-made music. BUY FROM LOCAL COMPOSERS. Maybe, in the long term and from a very narrow definition of costs, the Waffle Houses and the Dunkins (or, if you will, the Brittens and the Boulezi) will win out over the local vendors, but (a) all innovators started out local, somewhere, and (b) the locals still have the powerful argument that local content can be fresher, a better fit to local tastes, and sustain forms of variety and innovation that the universal and generic cannot.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

From a Diary: I:ix

(Photo: Pauline Oliveros, David Behrman, Gordon Mumma, Alvin Lucier, Robert Ashley, Wesleyan University, November 2011, click to enlarge.)

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

Lucier Celebration

I'll be making a rare appearance as a panelist in the 'States for Alvin Lucier: A Celebration at Wesleyan University next weekend. Good times among the leading codgers of new music (incl. Ashley, Oliveros, Wolff, Mumma, Behrman, Braxton) anticipated. Some superb performers (incl. Roland Dahinden, Hildegard Kleeb, Charles Curtis, Anthony Burr.) Nice rooms (other than the one you're in now) available. Sine waves aplenty, alpha waves guaranteed, interference beating more frequent. What more do you want?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

From a Diary: I:viii

It might be useful if we followed the Oulipo and presented our work as potentially music rather than definitively (good, bad, or indifferent) music. If we were more relaxed about the issue, it would eliminate a serious distraction and help to make surprises — particularly those drawn from our preconceptions about the extent and limits of the musical — even more so. Listening to a new piece and recognizing — for yourself, as a listener — that it's not quite music doesn't depreciate the experience altogether and, in the best cases, recognizing that it expands your understanding of the musical demonstrates best the benefit of experiment in music. A life without experiment has been lived to the least.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

From a Diary I:vii

Anarchists don't do theory well, but they do practice superbly. Every time people manage to work, create, cultivate, or collaborate in ways not foreseen by the prevailing system or state, it's anarchy and it's ubiquitous, not exceptional. (See, of course, Feyerabend on method.) What is an anarchic music theory? Provisional, pragmatic, open but not not ambitious (hegemonic). An anarchic music theory might usefully jettison the "theory" word altogether, as it's just practice; doesn't this usefully create an opportunity to question the degree to which or in what sense conventionally ambitious "music theories" are, in fact, theories as well?

From a Diary I:vi

Fuller famously said "Dare to be naive." But I think that's not quite right. Whether an idea is naive or not is a function of perspective, experience, available information. More precisely, then: "Dare to reconsider your assumptions." If the radical music had (or has) a common denominator, it's probably that: explore the extent and limits of the musical. The minimal impulse comes directly out of this: the elimination of distractions. Of course the laundry list of the Occupy protesters is unrealistic and if many demand were to be realized immediately, the result would be immediate and deep human tragedies. But by keeping attention on fundamental issues, even if our utopias are always indefinitely postponed for the immediate needs, it does strengthen the case of the reformers who might do some real good in the meantime. While there was always a conservative tonal music being produced and played in the heyday of the avant-garde — indeed, conservative tonal music in functional repertoire (= for media, education, church & state) has always predominated quantitatively — the radical music, particularly through its minimalist strain with its reconsiderations of the basic elements of the musical, was decisive in the reemergence of the tonal and straight-forwardly metrical in "serious" concert repertoire. The radical music's challenge of assumptions made a repertoire of neo-conservative and, yes Virginia, naive, music possible. We have much more work to do.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

From a Diary I:v

Notes inégales: a convention of performance practice in which notes of equal written duration are played with unequal duration. Our local edition of the Occupy movement established itself today with a march from (the profoundly appropriate) Rathenau Platz to the European Central Bank, on Willy Brandt Platz, facing the Frankfurt Opera. I walked alongside (not marching; I gave up marching with marching band in the 9th grade) enjoying the optimism and commitment of the participants (who had an astonishing age range; interestingly, it was the old '68s, many of whom are now securely in their pensions, who did the angry-voiced street theatre, with drums and bullhorns and ratchets, while the youngsters, who may never see a pension of similar value, were the mellow ones, practicing consensus rather than confrontation and using silent gestures rather than noise makers), glad that political parties generally stuck to encouragement rather than trying to assert themselves, and was even amused and nostalgic at a few encounters on the fringes with the usual sorts one finds at the fringes (yes, count on the LaRouchies and Young Sparts to show up, here, cheerfully, to no effect.) If the program of the protests here is, as yet, unfocused, that's okay, because the problems are complex and time were surely allow for some coalescence around a group of core issues (e.g. financial transaction tax, limits on political participation by corporate persons, unequal compensation, progressive taxation etc..) The organizations or informal movements closest to the protest in program, or at least those with the most dovetailing interests, like Attac or Anonymous, participated without appearing to dominate. It was a beautiful day for a walk through the city, with the clouding discrete enough to make their reflections in the mirrored surfaces of so many skyscrapers something approaching the poetic. At one point, an impromptu amphitheatre formed on the steps of Commerzbank Tower, and as the marchers passed in the little canyon between Commerzbank and the branch office of Deutsche Bank, a single older and hippy-ish handdrummer in the middle of those steps, with several dozen camera'ed folks forming a chorus line to his left and right, caught just the right tempo to play in time with his own echo. A big planned demonstration of this sort — especially when institutions like the European Central Bank is are on the route — is always going to face surveillance from authorities and Frankfurt's police seemed both practiced and restrained. However, with the ubiquity of digital cameras and mobile communications possibilities among the participants, it was striking to consider how an old basic inequality of official surveillance has been evened out. This was an event with thorough and independent documentation. As it happens, this evening I returned to the Opera house with my wife and daughter for an entertainment, Chabrier's opéra bouffe L'étoile. Looking down from the opera foyer at the now-tented protesters, now in for the long haul in the park with a camp fire set before the ECB, I was surprised by the lack of dissonance. Chabrier's operetta-like fantasy was silly, but the protesters were having their own fun alongside the serious business of getting the financial world to save itself from destroying its own ecosystem. Moreover, L'étoile is itself something of a political parody, of a kingdom in which the literal exercise of the law is not always optimum, indeed can be very cruel. Actually, quite a nice bit of political theatre complementing some of the street performances earlier in the day.

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

Life in the archipelago. There have always been differences, controversies, feuds, even, among musicians, composers in particular. These differences can have a productive effect, especially when it concerns aesthetics, styles, or technique (e.g. Artusi and Galilei), but too often they are counterproductive turf wars over the modest resources, rewards, and spoils our micro-economy has on offer. My sense is that, over the last forty years or so, disputes of the former sort — over musical issues — have become less heated and less salient except as fronts or proxies for the musically unproductive material disputes (our mad battles for crumbs) of the latter sort. (Thus a label like experimentalist or complexist or traditionalist or technologist or whatever can become, when dolling out prizes or positions, a cover for nepotistic or tactical awarding.) In general, while The New Music could once be divided into a manageably small number of factions, and composers, musicians, and audiences could keep aware of the major genres, styles and ideas floating around, the situation now is more like an archipelago — computer people here, circuit bender and hardware hackers there, analog synthies over there, noisy folk right here, pen and paper holders to the east, software engravers ot the west, bands, choirs, big bands, school orchestra composers in that direction, grown-up orchestra people to the left, opera people to the right, "new opera" people somewhere in the middle, composers with your own ensembles go find an island or get a raft!... — with lines of communication not always as clear as one would expect, sometimes due to chance or habit, sometimes to protective territorial instincts. My sense is that things are much more amiable between factions since we've moved to the islands, but this has come at the cost of some decline in the productive exchange of musical goods and ideas.

Friday, September 30, 2011

From a Diary I:iii

Statement from GEMA, awarding me five cents for two performances of a piece in the US. Can't figure out why one performance was worth two cents, the other three. But at least those are Euro cents! Norman O. Brown: The dynamics of capitalism is postponement of enjoyment to the constantly postponed future. Tonality is likewise about postponement via diminution, prolongation; sustained dissonance, functional cul de sacs, harmonic misdirection: musical capiscum, the pain that makes the suspension of resolution ever more pleasurable. The dynamic of tonality is in large part masochistic, like a good mole or curry, a mixed succession of pains and pleasures. Cadences — see Cage/Thoreau on syntax and armies marching — are a settling of tonal accounts. Graeber emphasizes the role of violence (or implied violence) by the state in reinforcing the payment of debts and, yes, musical sound — pace Girard, Violence and The Sacred — is a violence done to silence. But consider cadential resolution, the final reckoning, whether in a stretch of music, an accountant's ledger, or in an act of state-controlled force: is perpetual suspension actually worse than the alternatives?

Monday, September 26, 2011

From a Diary I:ii

Taleb and Blyth: Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. They're writing about political economy, but it applies to music as well, for example in the commissioning programs of major American orchestras, which tend never to go below a certain safety net of style, idea, ambition. The problem — the fragility — here is that the repertoire of major institutions, so constrained, becomes increasingly predictable, dull, and less exciting and attractive to the audience, and ends up reinforcing the tendency of the institutions to duck back into their tortoise shell of historical repertoire (most of which was innovative in its own time.) The orchestras and opera houses and festivals and concert series which are bucking the trend and thriving are those which are least concerned with suppressing repertoire volatility.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

From a Diary I:i

The Eleventh Commandment, so goes the joke, is Never introduce a musician to a loan officer. Protesters are occupying Wall Street: it's only fair, as Wall Street has been occupying us for a very long time. See anthropologist David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years. See also Victor Grauer's Music 000001. Could hocketing (singing in complementation) be a model of exchange without monetized debt sustained by threat of violence? The violent response of the police to peaceful protest shows the limits of Mayor Bloomberg's progressivism. What is the collateral value of a piece of music, when everyone wants to have it for free?

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

I don't do review recordings here, but will, as an exception, make a recommendation: Devisadero, music by Christopher Shultis (various artists, 2011, Navona Records). This is music for wind ensemble, large and small, a set of songs, and a sequence of piano pieces. This is music about the New Mexican desert, but especially about walking through that desert, and I take it here that walking is not hiking with its suggestion of sport, but something more like Wandern, in which the environment provides deep accompaniment and encouragement to thinking and here, thinking-through-music. The album (can we use that word again, in the spirit of those 19th century sheet music collections?) is also a beautifully made whole, with the texts (not just prose) and images closely connected to the music.

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...

The factoid that Haydn and Mozart were members of Masonic Lodges suggests something about their liberal/enlightenment/secular associations in Josephine Vienna but probably doesn't influence the social lives of many composers nowadays. However, it might, in fact, suggest an interesting solution to the problem of finding a venue for performing your work. Many of the traditional "fraternal" societies, like the Masons, Foresters, Odd Fellows, Moose, Elks, Raccoons, Haymakers, Sons & Daughters of Lichtenstein etc., have been in continuous decline in membership for many years (here's a table for US Masonic lodges). Indeed, in many localities, they verge on extinction for lack of membership. But some of these groups have substantial lodge buildings, often with theatre-like facilities, and often in very convenient locations. And, as a bonus, they usually have their tax-exempt status all worked out, sometimes offer decent insurance policies, and may even have some endowment funds. So here's the opportunity: if there's a moribund Lodge in your neighborhood, gather your musical friends together and for the price of membership (and, yes, all the — knock three times, don't forget your apron — ceremonial and charitable duties that entails), you may gain access to an useful space for presenting your music.

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

Since I've spent a good part of the summer working with pieces from the 1960s in "open" forms — modular, with multiple and/or flexible orderings of the component parts — I've been puzzling over how little current music takes advantage of such features. I also find it particularly surprising in that similarly open forms are abundant in contemporary game playing, whether narrative, competitive or constructive in character. But then again, I know next to nothing about games not played with a poker deck, a croquet mallet, a pocket knife, or a pony. I do, however, have contemporary role-play gaming to thank for the widespread availability of non-cubical dice: although my favored instrument for chance operations remains a deck of card, these dice are very useful for chance operations on the fly.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Of late...

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

James 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

Publication today.

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!

One of the legends of my college years was of a composition student before me* who had printed the programs for his senior recital on conjuror's flash paper so that when the programs were first opened, each would literally go up in a flash of smoke. For another recital, given by the composer Steed Cowart, the host was kind enough to fill the program with interesting reading material, including (IIRC) a nice passage from Ulysses, some fascinating information about arthropods, and a tasty Moroccan recipe. Steed provided this material as a complement to the musical program, not an explanation, just good stuff to read.

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

Rescuing Orphans

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

Goodbye, Columbus.

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.