Monday, February 28, 2011

February Pieces

The 28th of February — last day, shortest month — is a good day to remember that we tend to take absolute duration far too seriously, particularly when absolute duration is ultimately arbitrary. Competitions, job searches, concert planners continue to be obsessed with defining minimum and maximum durations. While a traditional broadcast (or those performances in downtown LA, finely coordinated to assure audiences optimal on- and off-ramp times for the freeways) will benefit from some precisely-planned durations, the restrictions of an LP or CD side are no longer relevant and we should instead welcome the opportunity to explore new solutions to the compositional problems of putting material into a stretch of time. (Yes, the judges of a competition or member of a job search have a finite amount of time, but they always have the possibility of shutting the score or fast-forwarding a recording and don't suggest that they don't do that already!) In any case, the problem is rarely too much or too many sounds and too long or too brief a piece; the problem is more often the wrong sounds at the wrong points in time. (I recently watched some fifth-graders agonizing over an assignment which included the instruction to "write no more than one page"; the focus of their attentions inevitably became the length, not the quality of their answers: how much better it would have been had they been agonizing over whether they had answered the question in a satisfactory way rather than how many lines of paper they had filled!) The calendar makers were wise enough to recognize that the length of a month could be flexible, in order to compensate for discrepancies between the sum of whole days and the length of a single trip around the sun; likewise, music benefit when composers are wise enough to recognize that one size will not always fit. So, whenever you have doubt that material and the time assigned are not quite in synch, remember you always have the option to write a February piece.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

True Stories (3)

The program announced a work for prepared piano, but no one in the audience had ever before heard a prepared piano produce the variety of sounds heard that evening: muted tones to be sure, but others tones sounded more plucked then struck, and lots of bangs and bumps and crashes and scratchs and even cries and sighs emerged and emerged with a growing and puzzling disconnect between cause and effect as the motions of the pianist at the keyboard oft seemed only randomly attached to the sounds coming out from beneath the lid. A very elaborate preparation, apparently; obviously something more than the run-of-the-mill preparations of screws and bolts and erasers and coins and weather stripping; a veritable Rube Goldberg design of a preparation, it must have been. The pianist eventually came to an end, took his applause with the composer at his side and both made their satisfied exit. A few moments later, when the enthusiastic applause had subsided, a stagehand came to the side of the piano, opened the lid, and then helped a boy of five or six years to climb out from inside the piano before scrambling as quickly as possibly offstage.

Friday, February 25, 2011

True Stories (2)

A no-longer-so-young but all-too-complex composer, realizing that there wasn't much traction left in his career decided to try another line of work. Between a small inheritance and some left-over prize money, he invested everything in a line of inflatable chess boards he had designed for use in water — swimming pools, hot- and bathtubs, wading ponds etc.. Unfortunately, he had made a mistake in his production specifications and the first shipment — an over-optimistically-large shipment —came back from the manufacturer with a serious flaw. Instead of the standard eight-by-eight chess and checkers layout, all 12000 inflatable, buoyant, waterproof soft plastic chess board came back with an eleven-by-ten array of squares. After an initial panic and some heated words with the manufacturer in Hanoi which soon enough convinced him that the error lay on his side, he did exactly what might be expected of a trained complexist composer: he researched chess variations played on an eleven-by-ten board. He quickly settled on a game attributed to Tamerlane, the fourteenth-century conqueror of Western, South and Central Asia and became possibly the greatest living expert on Tamerlane Chess. Having ended up — after a long series of moves between temporary academic posts — in the outskirts of Las Vegas, he came up with the marketing idea to reconfigure the Central Asian figures of the original Tamerlane game to his new home town. Thus the kings became casino owners, the war machines were replaced by bouncers, the vizirs by pit bosses, the knights by detectives, the picket became a croupier, the rooks were either solicitors bell hops and the pawns were "escorts" (as "prostitution" is illegal in Las Vegas) ; the elephants, camels and giraffes were, of course, replaced by tigers. The composer thought he had a real winner, but it soon turned out that everyone to whom he had explained the game ended up hopelessly confused by the layout and moves. His most honest friends explained that it was impossibile to imagine this ever becoming a hit with tourists; the idea of hotel guests spending their time between evenings of reckless drinking and gambling by sobering up in the pool with floating games of fairy chess was plain silly. But he was determined not to have a total loss of his investment, and with the advice of a friend who worked for the casinos as a debt collector* and a group of college friends, a few of whom continue to be active in the composing scene, he conspired to recover his investment. Using some discount tickets, they all booked rooms in the same hotel and executed the following move: scattered through the casino at different tables, they would each gamble for a while, using up all their free chips, and then loudly announce that they were going to the pool to play some Vegas Chess. And later, while floating and playing Vegas Chess, they would get very loud with their enthusiasm for the game. This naturally attracted the interest of others poolside, and soon the composer started out handing free sets to people, on the condition that they would play their first game, then-and-there. Pretty soon the management got wind of people skipping out of the casino to play chess in the pool and anything that keeps gamblers from emptying their wallets inside the casino does not make casino management happy. To nip a possible problem in the bud, the casino manager approached the composer and asked him, more or less politely, to leave the premises and take his floating Vegas Chess boards with him. Well — as the composer suspected — the management took the precaution of following the him to the storage unit where he happened to keep the stock of unsold chess sets. The casino — through intermediaries, no doubt — "arranged" for that remaining stock of 11000-some polyvinyl Vegas Chess boards to "disappear". The composer had, of course, insured the contents of the storage unit and was able to recover enough of his investment to move to Provo, Utah, where he still lives, running a multi-level direct marketing company and composing, on the side, for show choir, the genre he has found to be closest to his own deepest musical sympathies.


* The collector, who was named Leroy, was six-feet five inches tall and well over 250 lbs., an imposing figure and not a handsome man. His collecting technique was to knock on the door of the debtor, dressed in in the most elegant pin stripe suit, and then toss a Dixie cup of water in the debtor's face, promising that the next time they met, should the debt not be fulfilled, the cup would be full of acid. I actually met Leroy once (not as a debtor, thank you for asking) and he assured me that his technique was so effective that he had never once had to toss a Dixie cup full of anything other than water.

Monday, February 21, 2011

How not to do it.

I suppose that it's full disclosure when a critic begins an item with a line like:

The City of Angels will be naming a square next month in honour of my late mate Ernest Fleischmann.

But full-disclosure or not, having a music (and music biz) critic confess to having a "mate" in management gives one pause about some of that critic's previous reporting. Moreover, it is no excuse for getting the history wrong:

He broke the mould of US European orchestras hiring elderly Eurpoeans (sic), importing Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen while they were still learning to shave.

Well, no. The L.A. Philharmonic had already broken the mould, seven years before Fleischmann's arrival, by hiring the then-26-year-old Zubin Mehta as Music Director. (Lest anyone counter that Mehta is not comparable to either Rattle or Salonen, I will insist that in those early years, the orchestra and Mehta really shined in his core repertoire (Bruckner, Mahler, and Strauss) and talk of Mehta's Phil breaking the old Big Five ranking system was common; he was not terribly committed to new music, but his Varese was vivid and his was perhaps the best of the bicentennial-year performances of Cage's Renga with Apartment House 1776.)

Fleischmann was no doubt a formidable manager of the Philharmonic but, writing as an Angeleno who grew up in his era (and who spent too many noon hours while working at student jobs listening to him schmooze as a guest on KFAC's Luncheon at the Music Center, the most unintentionally hilarious and camp program on the most unintentionally hilarious and camp radio station in the US), his advocacy for the orchestra was often a terrible roadblock to other musical activities in Southern California. Combined with the tenure of LATimes critic Martin Bernheimer — who was perpetually ticked off for the indignity of having to work in a town without an opera house and whose lack of perspective was often the death blow for attempts to establish new or alternative classical programming — Fleischmann's balance in the City of the Angels was not necessarily a net positive.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Is once enough?

When a piece of new/experimental/avant-garde/contemporary (etc.) music gets its first performance, chances are high that it will also be the last performance. In itself, this is neither a good or bad thing; while in some cases, the lack of repeat performances is definitely regrettable, in other — perhaps most — cases, it is no great loss, and in still others, the ephemeral nature of the event is actually a design feature.

Accepting the single performance can be a practical and economic decision. The supply of new musical works is large and the time and resources for proper audition are severely limited. But there can be an aesthetic, even metaphysical dimension to a decision to consciously limit the realization of a musical idea to a one-off occasion. The legendary ONCE Festival (in at least one version of the legend) perhaps put this idea in the air first. I think Philip Corner's score ONE NOTE ONCE found the condensed, koanic, essence of the idea. (Jean Tinguely's self-destructing sculptures are extreme examples of the idea in another medium.)

I think, however, a decision to affirm the transitory in a piece is a natural extension of the ephemeral character of the materials of music, the sounds themselves, dissipating, or as Marx and Engels had it, melting into air.


A finished score is often only a single instance or realization of a musical idea or process, a one-off performance in the domain of composition. The decision to accept a single result over a plurality might be characterized in music-historical terms as a decision to avoid the creation of repertoire, or maybe it's just a sensible act in an age of mechanical (and electronic) reproduction. (As someone noted, the great lesson of mass reproduction is that we don't want everything to be the same, or you'd never find your own car in a parking lot.)

What interest might there be in taking a process-based piece like Steve Reich's Piano Phase, and using an alternative set of pitches to those Reich himself chose? How dependent on that diatonic-but-not-necessarily-tonal configuration chosen by Reich is the identity of that piece? Idea, instance, identity. Is it interesting or relevant that John Cage used the same methods and materials designed for Music of Changes to compose the miniatures of Seven Haiku, or (in at least one version of the story) the temporal structure of 4'33"? Are these new pieces or just left-overs? (Any composer who cooks knows the value of left-overs.)

A composer I admire very much, Andrew Culver, assisted John Cage for many years and part of his work involved writing small computer programs to answer, through chance operations (or, more precisely, effective simulations of the same) questions which Cage had assigned to such decision-making processes in his pieces. When Cage died, Culver had the tools require to generate an unlimited number of new works using Cage's own algorithms. But Culver did not do this, recognizing that Cage himself had the same possibility but had always accepted a single realization of a score. (This is not to discount the fact that Cage did, indeed, often use a lot of trial and error in adjusting his questions until they yielded the broad kinds of results which interested him. Walter Zimmermann's analysis of Quartets I-VIII in the Anarchic Harmony volume describes an example of this working process.)

Recently, when working with some young people, we spent some time with the score and realization of Cage's Williams Mix. An astonishing piece involving a plethora of source sound recordings and a hugely difficult-to-realize score requiring thousands of tape splices in wildly variable but breathtakingly precise dimensions and orientations. I don't know if there have been subsequent realizations of the piece to that made by Cage and colleagues in 1952/53, but Cage, with the publication of the score, explicitly suggests the possibility of new realizations. And now, it seems eminently realizable, in real time, as live computer music, with the computer randomly (or, more precisely, an approximation of randomly) selecting out and processing slices of sounds extracted from a stored library. An indefinite number of new realization could be made, but in doing so, are we learning or experiencing anything substantially different from that original realization?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Music for Merce (1952- 2009)

I just noticed this: New World Records has just released a 10-disk set documenting music used by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company with Works by JOHN CAGE, DAVID TUDOR, TAKEHISA KOSUGI, MARYANNE AMACHER, DAVID BEHRMAN, EARLE BROWN, STUART DEMPSTER, MORTON FELDMAN, JON GIBSON, TOSHI ICHIYANAGI, JOHN KING, ANNEA LOCKWOOD, GORDON MUMMA, BO NILSSON, PAULINE OLIVEROS, MICHAEL PUGLIESE, YASUNAO TONE, CHRISTIAN WOLFF AND OTHERS. Cunningham was a choreographer who used the music of his time with an acuity for the extraordinary ranking alongside only Diaghilev, Balanchine, and Graham and the great variety of composers represented here is only sample, missing works by composers including Gottschalk, Satie, Harrison, Hovhaness, Chou Wen-Chung, Bowles, Boulez, Nancarrow, Young, Lucier, Ashley, Walter Zimmermann and many others. As a student composer, going to a Cunningham concert or even and seeing the company musicians in the pit was — and is — an exciting model of how two (or more) art forms could most usefully cohabitate.

Against the Normative Order

One of the persistent arguments for the western "classical" musical tradition has been that it has a certain caché or benchmark status, marking a form of cultivation, in which listening and performing discipline, knowledge of the tradition as a larger whole and within a historical/cultural context, and the complexity or sophistication of the music itself have been valued highly. Forms of this argument frequently appear in pedagogical contexts, and often in a popular (and highly questionable) form, from the listening-to-Mozart-makes-smart-babies fad to the recent "Chinese mother" furor. Ultimately, this argument is an argument less for the particular musical tradition than for the broader cultural tradition around the music and it skirts around aspects that have contributed to the prestige which are more social that materially musical in character: the status of the opera visit, the importance of continental European immigration to the spread of the tradition, etc.. While the sophistication of the music and the level of skill required to play and listen to it (at least at a technical level) remain constant, I think this argument has weakened considerably with time and weakened to an extent that the principal argument for the tradition, as well as for its descendants (yes, even experimental music) is a no longer sustainable status as a normative form of musical production and aesthetics, but as the exception which challenges the current normative order. A "death of classical music" will happen everytime classical music ceases to be an experience extraordinary to the music which otherwise dominates our everyday experience of listening. We have to do a better job of communicating how extradinary, how strange, beautiful and, yes, difficult this experience can be, from the uniquity, vitality and risk of live performance, the precise, strange, and archaic labor of a large ensemble performance (isn't the orchestra the only form of labor-intensive 19th century European production still in use?), to the profoundly unusual use of shared-time a concert represents, and certainly to the virtues of novelty and variety, however subtle, that only a new musical work can express, once or (sometimes) on renewed acquaintance.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Some Lumber Drop

This has been a week of trial balloons, testing ideas for pieces, some of which have clear premises and some promise, while others are pure speculation. For example: a topical libretto about a pair of spinster sisters, living together but unable to live together, each of whom decides to off the other in slow motion, one feeding the other cans of light chunk tuna, the other overdosing the other on celery sticks, intending a steady accumulation of enough mercury or pesticide, respectively, to do the trick. [Idea discarded for resembling but not improving on Dashiell Hammett's short story Flypaper as well as for the difficulty of sustaining a joke in comic opera.] Or: a perspective piece for live electronics. [Idea discarded for never seeming to gel into anything other than just another guy with a laptop moving patches and buttons and sliders around.] The one idea floated this week which still seems airborn involves perfect card shuffles, but then again, I'm always a sucker for a good card trick...


I don't spend much time with recordings of music intended for live performance (I prefer playing music myself, then listening to live music, then score reading, and then recordings) but I couldn't help listening to a lot of Berlioz this week. Les Troyens is really the center of the Berlioz experience and I get more enthusiastic each time I hear it, a strange and sometimes unwieldy piece on a strange and unwieldy theme. (But then again, that could be said for Benevenuto Cellini, Beatrice and Benedict, and the non-opera/non-symphony that is Damnation of Faust. ) Berlioz was the major innovator of the mature 19th century, but he doesn't get a lot of respect. I think that this is due to a number of unsustainable prejudices: against his heterodox (= non German, post-Revolutionary) tonal practice, against a diction and phraseology based on French, and against a composer for whom instrumentation and orchestration are as important as any other dimension of the work. This prejudice has, methinks, lead to an astonishing deafness to Berlioz's achievements as a contrapuntalist, particularly in his ability to use orchestration (and in some cases, physical space) to radically differentiate the lines of his counterpoint, and to his uncanny use of what he called "intermittent" sounds (yes, Virginia, I connect Berlioz to Cage.)


I have also listened to some new music online. An old favorite is RadiOM, but two interesting webcasts are David Weinstein's Experimental Composers (here) and Sam Harnett's Sound Off (here.)


Finally, with all of the recent remembrances of Milton Babbitt, hasn't it been interesting how people have danced around terms like "modernist" or "avant garde" and "academic" or "intellectual"? (For the record, I think it's reasonable to associate Babbitt with an edition of modernism and he was certainly an academic — and ultimately a conservatory academic at that — but I don't think that he was much of an avant gardist and any intellectual program he belonged to was more of the first half of the 20th century than the second half, with his principal music-theoretical innovations — arrays with particular properties — more or less complete around 1960-65 and his subsequent composition a kind of tactical improvisation, projecting particular features of the array onto the score's surface.) And while I can appreciate the desire, at this moment to emphasize the warm and cuddly aspects of the Milton Babbitt experience — the wit, the baseball, the beer, the pop songs — I honestly wish that someone from his team had come out and said, yeah, he was a ferocious advocate for his party. I think that not acknowledging that fails to account for a substantial part of his work parallel to his composing, which was his advocacy for professional composers and theorists in the academy. The legacy here is decidedly mixed — for one, the academic recognition of the professional music theorist has taken away many jobs that might have otherwise been given to composers; for another, composers and theorists in the academy have turned out to have a broader set of concerns than the particular theoretical and compositional directions Babbitt advocated; for a third, electronic music has certainly gone somewhere else, even though the technology today would have no problem with realizing Babbitt's particular needs — but, at the very least, this institutional work should be recognized, for better or worse, as a piece with his compositional activities.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Conjuring, Control & Just Plain Staying on Top of Things

There is a moment in every bit of stage magic of suspended certainty in which suspense takes over, the spell has been cast, but neither the magician nor the audience can be certain that something — indeed, anything — will happen. For the audience, it is the moment in which the build-up to the illusion reaches its peak, to be followed either with surprise and admiration, or by disappointment or even dismay, while for the performing magician that peak is one of anxiety, for no amount of practice and discipline can always insure a satisfactory rather than disappointing result. Ta-dah.

Musical composition and performance has much in common with the invention and discipline that go into theatrical conjuring, but for my money, music has an unbeatable advantage over stage magic in that the goal of the stage magician is not to be surprised himself, but to command and control the situation so that the audience will reliably be surprised. Music, however, has a way of reliably surprising both author and audience and, indeed, I think that the best composers have a way of eliciting such moments, however risky. (A repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.) Moreover, while stage magic leaves the audience with no illusions (bag full of tricks understood), with music at its best, there is no reasonable expectation that any trickery be explained away.

Musical surprises may be modest. I remember, for example, as an earnest undergraduate, talking with Philip Glass after a solo concert in Santa Cruz. He was excited about the woodwind, organ and string orchestration for then-new score to Satyagraha which turned out to have a lively "buzzy" (his word) quality that surprised him. Of course, as a musician with his training and experience, Glass knew all of the elements that went into that orchestration, and he had his expectations, but the result still surprised, and still does surprise.

Sometimes the surprise is rather more fundamental in character, shaking the composer's own idea of the piece. Alvin Lucier's Septet is a good example. The piece, in which wind and string players play long tones a precise small intervals from a standing sine wave tone in order to create patterns of interference beatings, worked at its first performance, by a group of fine players who had much more experience with standard classical repertoire than with experimental music, but it was more-or-less just another Lucier piece about beats. However, some years later, the piece was taken up by an ensemble in Berlin which had the time to really live with the piece. The players discovered that they could just focus a bit more on shaping dynamics, smoothly curving them in gradual crescendi and diminuendi over the course of each long tone and that, suddenly, certain harmonics of the instrumental tones would just pop out of the texture. The piece was doing something unintended by the composer and it was beautifully so. This phenomenon could have been anticipated — even calculated, with some spectrograms and a critical band chart — as it was always implicit in the set-up of the piece, but it took a particular kind of engagement with the work to actually discover and bring the phenomenon into focus.

Part of Lucier's legerdemain — in this piece and in others — is the move of saying that "this piece is about x" (in which X can equal acoustic interference beating or room resonances or feedback etc.) and — strategically, depending upon the composition — implicitly or explicitly putting other aspects of the piece into the "not about" box. In some cases, this is genuine sleight-of-ear stage magic: in I am sitting in a room (the one opera that will certainly survive from the 1960's) the piece is explicitly about a particular process but the composer's patter directing you in one way cannot but help the listener from also taking in elements of the piece — in particular a certain emotional drama — which he would appear to be excluding.

With surprising frequency, when a composer says up front that "this piece is not about x" or "I'm not interested in x", element x suddenly becomes very, even urgently, interesting. (It's somewhat like telling someone to "relax!"; given such an instruction, relaxing is just about the last thing you can be expected to do. A composer can ignore this likelihood or perhaps usefully work with it. There's a very nice conversation online between the composers Michael Pisaro and Aaron Cassidy (at Tim Rutherford-Johnson's Rambler blog, here) which, among other things, is a useful illustration of some of the rich territory which experimental music and high complexity share. In it, Cassidy describes tablature scores in which the precise pitch produced is explicitly not the material of the composition, not the compositional subject of the piece. Nevertheless, once realized in performance, doesn't pitch inevitably become one of the most interesting aspects? Now, these aren't pitches representing a precise compositional design, but for all the variations in detail there are inevitably global features to the pitchiness that are composed and it's not altogether important whether this is legerdemain or laissez-faire.


One more remark about this common territory between experimentalists and the complexity crew. I've written here recently enough about complexity, so won't bore you further. This territory also has common parts with the big computer people and the small computer people, and folks that build new instruments, whether powered by breath, muscle, 9 volt batteries or the power mains or those who make installations or recordings or online-ables in preference to concert music. This fractiousness doesn't strike me as very useful to anyone, except in the narrow musical-political function of sorting out grants, prizes and positions. It just doesn't have much to do with music and, critically, with the tendency of camps to produce more camp followers than adventurers, it doesn't have much to do with making innovative music in particular. In an era of increasingly limited resources, this is a serious practical mistake, for it will tend to suck in the mediocre but similar while excluding the extraordinary but varietal. Fortunately, there are examples of composers — Christopher Fox is a good example — who have always been comfortably apart from attachment to a particular camp, finding musical goodwill and utility across these demarcations, and there are even some good signs of thaw from the most stalwart figures (e.g. if nothing else, the non-specified instrumentation of Ferneyhough's Bone Alphabet was a friendly gesture in the direction of the experimental tradition.)

Tuesday, February 08, 2011