Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A wish list for neuroscientists from a musician

From the safe distance of a composer with an armchair appreciation for science, I'm something of a fan of the neuroscience of music. It's really exciting stuff and my impression is that we're only beginning to learn about it. Here are some aspects of music that I'd like — as a composer — neuroscience to tell us more about; as music if the temporal art par excellence, it's not surprising that they have everything to do with how we process events in time:

1. The two irreversible arrows of music: in pitch and in time. Inverting a sequence of pitches creates only a weak equivalence, indeed an equivalence which deteriorates as one moves towards extremes. And in time, a reversal of a sequence, last-on-first-out, is also only weakly equivalent.

2. The perceptual "borderlands" between parameters: between pitch and timbre or between form and rhythm or rhythm and pitch, including such phenomena as interference beating*.

3. The "chunking" of musical memory: apparently we take in music in pieces which are then reassembled, mentally, into a continuity. (Which is closely related to:)

4. The gaps in timing between mental anticipation of a physical music-producing action, the execution of that action, the perception and analysis of the resulting sound, as well as any motor feedback processing related to the action. (When, exactly, does the music take place? What does "now" mean in music when all of these events occur, in objective external time, at different points? How the hell do musicians ever reach a unison attack?)

5. What other sensory mechanisms contribute or might potentially contribute to an enhanced perception of acoustic events? Research so far has pointed to some limits in the perceptual apparatus and this has led to some practical applications — from transmission of speech over a narrow band to noise reduction to compression and sampling rates. But I'm far more interested, as a musician, in expansion than limitations. For example, I know that a considerable part of "hearing" music, for me, comes from the sense of touch as a complement to the stuff that goes through the ears. AFAIC, fine tuning, in a live ensemble, is often easier by feel than audition, through the reduction of beats more felt than heard. Musicians with hearing losses also know this well, but could this also explain things like La Monte Young's massive sine wave complexes (which don't resolve to simple 5-limit harmonies but share a common, if sub-audio, difference tone)? Also, the physical placement of sounds in space is a fascinating topic. How about echolocation? Some humans — particularly the visually impaired — have become virtuoso echolocaters, but I think I've detected the same in babies crying. What a wonderful extra resource for musicians?


* One of the most interesting results with regard to beating that I've heard about lately is this, a paper on Waves, Beats and Expectancy in speech by Eric Keller. The ways in which speech and music piggy-back on an overlapping set of neural organs is another fascinating topic. While beating in musical contexts is well familiar, that the phenomena was shared with speech was a surprise to me. And while this is wildly prematured and underinformed speculation on my part, wouldn't it be so cool to find a neurological basis, in beating, for poetic and musical metre?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

They call it multi-tasking, I call it counterpoint

A nice column by Kevin Drum on the dangers of multi-tasking, here. It's no surprise to learn that most people, when attempting to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, don't perform those tasks very well. This can be an annoyance — I don't enjoy conversing with someone in person who is social-media-ing away at the same time via one or more electronic devices —, or unfortunate — for the student who is expected to know the stuff on the lecture he missed because he was busy checking his email —, or downright dangerous (cell phone, autobahn.) It's too bad that more people haven't picked up on something that musicians have known for a long while: mastery of counterpoint is wonderful, but rare, and most of us spend our entire lives as musicians working at hearing more. The great contrapuntal virtuosi (say Bach, Berlioz, and Ives, to mention three of the best, but stylistically and formally very different composers) form a preciously small company, and as wild as each could get, each clearly understood the potential — and utility — of highly differentiated counterpoint to either cohere or fall apart. [Maybe we need warning labels: EXCESS COUNTERPOINT: HANDLE WITH CARE.] I understand well the impulse to take in as much as possible — as a teenager, I used to spend evenings listening to the radio with headphones, reading, and usually eating, simultaneously, in the same room in our house where the rest of the family watched TV, and I took in a lot of that, too — but I think that time has taught me the value of eliminating distractions, with the quality of perception gaining considerable value over raw quantity.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Creative mistakes stimulate the brain

This study of Shakespeare's linguistic innovations — neologisms, unorthodox syntax, etc. — and the brain is exciting stuff and has, AFAIC, everything to do with compositional innovation and experiment in music. As with Shakespeare, I strongly suspect that every major innovator in music has done things with sounds or their context that make the brain work more than usual and it is precisely that stimulation that keeps this music worth returning to again and again.

I also think that many of the methods, often game-like, of the Oulipo in literature, the surrealists in literature and the visual arts, and many composers, particularly experimentalists, are designed as efficient means for getting right into that more-stimulated zone, often enstranging the familiar through even the slightest shifts in the selection or character of materials or their order in time or space.

Dept. of Stolen, then Recovered Instruments

Tutankhamun's trumpet was lifted from the Cairo Museum and recovered days later in the Cairo Metro. Be sure to listen to the sound sample of the old BBC broadcast.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Exit the CD, Gone a Reliable Gift Option

As the last hardware form of commodified recorded music, that optical medium known as the audio compact disk (forward: "cd"), makes its slow exit from the marketplace, it's probably appropriate to take a moment to consider the fact that this creates a serious hole in the list of reliable gift object. Even a notorious recording skeptic like myself has been known to give and receive — and gladly, always gladly — too many of those little plastic discs in their plastic boxes (or, later, cardboard covers). And said cd does have some real advantages over the traditional alternatives: not everyone wears ties, drinks scotch, appreciates a good wine, cigars are out of style, none of my acquaintances is yet old enough to golf, let alone have a tangible use for golf balls, and let's face it, when uncertain about the recipient's tastes, choosing a piece of music seems less risk-prone than a book. While I have never become particularly adept at rescuing a suffocating cd from its shrink rap and I'm equally clumsy at opening the so-called-"crystal case", if I may admit here to a minor perversity: I do take some genuine tactile pleasure in ejecting the cd from its clutches of the circular hub of teeth which grip the disc by its unique and thus topologically-defining central hole by pressing just gently enough on the springy central button of the back media tray. Which is a digression from my main point, which is that, when given the gift of an audio cd, I feel obliged to open and listen to the cd.* I do not regift cds. Nor do I prematurely liberate, examine and/or listen to cds which I have purchased with the intention of giving to others. I do recall, however (TRUE STORY WARNING), that one of the first cds I was given as a gift, a recording of Robert Ashley's Atalanta (which Ben.Harper happens to mention in a very sweet post, here) was given to me both unwrapped (that is, the shrink wrap had been removed; the gift wrapping was, in fact, intact) and already listened to. Which was dismaying at the time, but now, one supposes with some generosity granted by the passage of considerable time, shall we say twenty-five years and four months plus or minus five days?, was just a premature form of file sharing. An unapologetic act of what I then considered to be bad form was simply a vanguard form of a new etiquette. My failure to register, then, an appropriate amount of gratitude to the gift-giver for the gift given, given my misunderstanding of the evolving ethic of music-sharing, viewed through my antiquated and perhaps provincial view that a gift given, save for some object of antiquarian or intimate personal interest and/or worth, should be unused prior to its formal receipt by its intended recipient. (WARNING: LONG CLOSING SENTENCE, ENDING WITH PREPOSITION INDICATING AN IMITATION OF ACTUAL SPEECH RATHER THAN POLISHED PROSE: My regrets at my lack of foresight, and thus my not-bad-but-definitely awkward expression of reduced gratitude are deep but wane, now, in the knowledge that the custom of sharing music via a tangible medium which might bear some concrete signs of its prior use has gone the way of the dodo, and that we have definitely entered the age in which recordings are exchanged, often anonymously, secret Santas all of us, entirely without any indications as to whether a recording has been previously heard or otherwise interacted with.


* As the costs of producing ones own cd went lower and lower, the exchange of cds by composers and musicians who made them has become ubiquitous. (Indeed, I probably received more cds than business cards from musicians throughout the '90s and oughts; hell, cds had become business cards.) It then became very important to remove the shrink rap from gifted cds received, as the risk of the gift-giver finding the cd still enclosed in plastic, lonely and unplayed on some shelf, when revisting the recipient was one which carried the potential of serious social awkwardness. No, no one would actually have know if the cd had actually been listened to, but left in its wrapping, it would have been absolutely clear that it had not been listened to.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Usefully Informal

Composers, as craftspeople, tend to overemphasize the professional, the formal, the finished, and the perfected. However, a lot of useful and valuable music-making is not professional and not yet formal or finished, let alone perfected, and this emphasis can often be a distraction from opportunities for music-making — indeed most music-making — in situations, environments and on occasions which may well be informal, provisional, and yes, (cheerfully) far-from-perfect.

New music, in order to thrive, has got to go wide and deep into our musical culture, an established if dynamic presence, emphasizing not only the most prestigious occasions and institutions and requiring only the most virtuoso musicians. This means music for amateurs, music for children, music for pedagogy, and music for private use as well as civic and institutional functions.

Fortunately, we have some very good models of composers writing pieces designed to reach wider sets of players and audiences which are nevertheless integrated into their work as a whole. For example — and looking only at piano music (we could as easily look at vocal music or music for guitar or recorder or school instrumental ensembles) — the collections of small-scale piano pieces by Bartók — most famously the six volumes of Mikrokosmos — and, later, Kurtág's Játékok (Games) and transcriptions for piano two- and four-handed, or Virgil Thomson's two collections of piano Etudes and the large series of Portraits. Mikrokosmos was compiled initially as piano lessons for the composer's son, Péter, but grew to be a progressive collection, varying from sketches to substantial pieces, illustrating nearly all of Bartók's technical concerns as a composer and pianist and in many cases serving as a sketchbook for other concert works. The Játékok includes repertoire intended for private and public use by the composer and his wife, occasional pieces for friends and colleagues, and, like Mikrokosmos, preliminary and intermediate steps to major concert works (the various metamorphoses of the enig- and emblematic Virág az ember materials as particularly fascinating.) Many of Thomson's Portraits, likewise, find their way into substantial concert works, often orchestrated, but the origins, as portraits of named persons who sat for Thomson in the manner of a portrait painter, were opportunities for the composer to experiment without the pressures of the formal, finished and professionally polished, often executed in the kind of automatic writing that, despite Thomson's insistence on his professionality, indulges in the advantages of — as Buckminister Fuller put it — daring to be naive, echoes the practices of modernists in other disciplines (i.e. Stein, the surrealists), and reliably delivered Thomson his most interesting music.

Among more recent examples of the usefully informal, I would add the scores of exquisite small-scale piano pieces by Gordon Mumma (some of which are available as scores from Material Press, and the recent double cd of these, played by the great Belgian pianist Daan Vandewalle is highly recommended) and also mention Lloyd Rodger's The Black Book, a project of composing approximately a piece a day for year, in ink without edits. (I haven't seen the scores, but I believe that they are in open score form, again, a very useful idea.) This seems to resonate with Lou Harrison's suggestion, for the "stuck" composer, of composing a whole piece each day, every day: the idea is not to try and write perfect pieces, but to practice writing performable complete pieces, however small the scale or modest the ambition, to concentrate and focus and practice craft, allowing the ambitious, formal, polished, and perfected to emerge on its own terms.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

If it isn't the hybrid semi-Babbitt, bring in the dusky tribal drums

From a review of the new television adaptation of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones:

At points, the soundtrack departs from its strongest mode—cool semi-serialism, a hybrid of Milton Babbitt and Hey, is that my phone?—and the presence of dusky tribal drums signal that people are doing it doggie style.

Ordinary Unhearing

Here's a very good essay by political scientist Henry Farrell on China Miéville's The City & The City. Without giving away the plot, while Miéville is known as writer of fantastic or weird (his preferred term) fiction, Farrell's essay addresses the fact that the most distinctive characteristic of the setting of The City & The City is one which is not fantastic but actually quite real, indeed completely ordinary, the social construction of our environment, what we learn to see and not to see. (One of the great trajectories for the reader involves the gradual realization that the book is not, as a genre, fantasy, but rather more properly police procedural. ) My own personal revelation about seeing and not seeing came first during one of those teenage summer jobs, bussing tables and washing dishes in a restaurant for minimum wage when I discovered, after a week or two, that it had become possible — if not necessary, to both coordinate our ensemble work and to preserve some sanity — to look across a crowded dining room and only see the other employees.

There is definitely an auditory equivalent to unseeing. Obviously, anytime we want to pay attention to a particular subset of the sounds within an acoustically crowded or noisy environment, we try to filter out what we don't want to hear. But there is a more subtle filtering, acquired over long exposure, which is associated with hearing music. I can still recall the shock I experienced when I first listened seriously to live orchestral music (the summer before my 14th birthday, sitting in the front corner of the left balcony in Little Bridges Hall of Music at Pomona College during the last Claremont Music Festival.) I was shocked because I had not yet learned to unhear the thick band of noises and scratches which comes with every bowed string instrument, nor had I learned to unhear key clicking and spit valves, and rustling sheet music and squeeky chairs or crackling parquet floors. And those coughs, those coughs. Sometimes so much distraction, so little music.* Gradually, after years of concert-going, I have learned to unhear much of that sound which we define as not music. I still have problems with the crackling parquet and stage lighting in some of the halls here (the Sendesaal at Hessischer Rundfunk, otherwise acoustically glorious, is my particular bete noire for these particular noises) and I seem to be completely unable to unhear key-clicking or mouthpiece squawks on the saxophone. I love the idea of the saxophone, and have heard some extraordinary musicians wrestle with it, but I just can't hear it as completely musical yet. But, rest assured, I'm working on it and maybe one day will be able to hear much less of the saxophone.


* The classic art history definition of minimalism as "the elimination of distraction" usefully illustrates the degree to which the minimal impulse in the radical music tradition was an impulse with tremendous sensitivity towards the material conditions of music and the environment in which it is made.

I Wayan Sadra

The remarkable Indonesian composer I Wayan Sadra has died at 57. The balance between experiment — and his experiments were often radical, combining voices, gamelan, western instruments and new resources (once even throwing eggs at a large vertical hotplate) — and tradition — he was also a virtuoso "classical" Balinese musician, specializing gender in wayang — was at the center of his work: “Regardless of the form, I always base my work on local music, especially gamelan. This can’t change.”

Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Unpredictable Elasticity of Composing Time

How is it that I can make ten minutes of orchestral music in an afternoon, but spend a week worrying over a single cross relation in a tiny piano piece? As far as I can tell, when it comes to getting a musical idea right, the compositional labor involved bears no reliable economic relationship to the scale and density of the music produced.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Great Expectations

I'm quite fond of the series of novels (four, to date) by the (pseudonymous) James Church featuring the Pyongyang-based Inspector O. On the surface, they are detective novels with an exotic setting, but just below that surface they're something rather more, with proper resolution of the police procedural seldom on offer (the North Korean system inevitably makes that impossible) yet carried by the real mystery in the motivation and character of the central figure, O, and actually quite a lot of beautiful prose, much of it so tangential to the plot that the books sometimes seem like experimental literature.

Indeed, in the third of the novels, Bamboo and Blood, there is one of strangest formal moves I've encountered in a work of fiction. At the end of a chapter, just about in the middle of the novel, O is sent to New York City. Naturally, from the perspective of a western reader, this very unusual trip for a North Korean police inspector ought to be something very important, something truly momentous, and all expectations are for a detailed account of the unlikeliest adventures in the Big Apple. However, the next chapter instead begins with O already back in Pyongyang, as if nothing momentous at all had happened and, indeed, the fragments of information we receive in the rest of the book about the New York visit add up to very little. Church not only makes a surprising formal move, disappointing our expectations for significant, plot-driving action, he plays with expectations based upon our deepest biases. It's our conceit that we simply expect a North Korean police inspector to be impressed, if not overwhelmed by the city that never sleeps. Instead, from what we can gather, the inspector was so much more annoyed by the interference in his quiet and careful life at home and in the office — not to mention the possible personal risks associated with the opportunities of foreign travel — that O simply refuses (a) to let much happen in New York and (b) to register much about the city that he might take home in memory subject to interrogation.

In the play of expectations in a musical work, an example like Inspector O's laconic trip to NYC is a very useful one. A satisfying piece of music is not necessarily about satisfying musical expectations. It's also not necessarily about holding back material or an event (a lot of 12-toners made a big deal about "saving notes", often confusing a useful tactic with an all-too-obvious strategy; let me be clear: saving a note is a musically useful notion, but it's inadequate to sustain an individual career, let alone a repertoire*). But it can be about seriously disappointing expectations and offering something totally outside of the framework we had assumed the piece was operating within. And that moment in which we suddenly become aware that our assumptions weren't even wrong is a wonderful one.


* Paradoxically, perhaps, the opposite strategy, of allowing all the marbles to fall from the very beginning, allowing all material to be available — the gamut-based pieces of Cage come to mind — can be powerfully disarming to expectations. You think that you know all of the furniture in your living room, but switch the positions of the sofa and the coffee table and it might feel as if the earth has shifted just a bit on its axis.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

True Stories (4)

It was the end of the 1950's and a promising young composer from Akron had been awarded a traveling scholarship to Europe for the Summer between the two years of his studies for his Master's degree, then the terminal academic degree in the US for composers. He had a grand time, dropping in at music festivals throughout the continent, getting to know some of the famous avant-garde music written by composers who had only been names to him before going across the pond. As his scholarship was in dollars, then a very strong currency, he had the fortune to be able to use very good exchange rates and some arbitrage in order to stretch his stay well beyond the summer. Indeed, he only began to worry about money sometime in March of the following year, when he was able to cash in his return ship ticket, which gave him an extra month, when, considering the possibility of taking a job locally, he was surprised to learn that he had "come into" (as they say) a small inheritance from his grandmother, who had left Ohio the year before, only to die from pneumonia in her retirement place near Miami. As long as he wasn't picky about the size and quality of his apartments or his meals, this sum set him up for a few years to come, and he quickly settled into a very modest career as an ex-patriot composer. He managed to get a few performances and broadcasts of his pieces, nothing earth-shaking in attention or particularly lucrative, but enough to have the feeling that he was really doing the whole European composer thing. About a year after coming into his inheritance, he got a fan letter forwarded to him from a radio station which had broadcast a live performance of one of his pieces from a local woman, about his own age, who had heard the piece on the radio, and loved it so much that she absolutely had to meet the composer. They met, seemed to hit it off, and soon were married, much to the convenience of the composer, whose residency status was perpetually in question. Now fast-forward about six or seven years. The composer and his wife and their two small children are now all living in the same two-room apartment with shared conveniences he had rented while living the lifestyle of the young Bohemian abroad. Now he was living the lifestyle of a husband and father, but it was getting seriously crowded and uncomfortable, leaving the composer without any room and certainly no time to composer, as he had had to take on work translating and teaching in order to pay the bills for four as his inheritance had long since been swallowed by the continuously dropping value of the dollar. Although his wife still professed her love for his music and he loved her for that and they were both devoted to their children, their love for one another seemed to have cooled, fueled most by their unhappiness with their material situation and the fact that he had received an ever-smaller number of performances and practically no commissions and had increasingly been unable to compose at all. He felt that his lack of time and suitable space for composing had contributed to this situation. One day, she overheard some neighbors talking about a one-room flat not far from their own which had recently become vacant. It was a state-subsidized apartment and could be secured as a studio for the composer if he were able to establish that he was poor enough to qualify for the housing. She immediately thought that this could be the ideal solution to their problem: if she borrowed some money from her parents, they would be able to afford the small rent on the single apartment and she could take a half-time job to allow him to have at least one year in which he could spend more time composing in an appropriate studio. To make a complicate series of bureacratic steps brief, the composer was able to get the apartment, but becoming qualified for the apartment had required that the couple divorce, thus demonstrating to the authorities that he required the second domicile although their means had not increased, and so they divorced on what they had agreed was a pro-forma basis. Once he had moved into the apartment, however, the composer found himself somewhat lost. He was out of practice with his composing, unused to working with adequate space and without the background noise of small children. So he spent several months looking for the right chair or the right table or the right pen or the perfect piece of manuscript paper. Nothing. He took to walking out late at night in the city, not going anywhere in particular. He would get on a random streetcar and ride it to its end station and back and then choose another. Nothing. He memorized his table top and counted the trees visible from his window or the stars at night. Nothing. He spent less and less time with the family. One night, returning from one of his walks, in the entryway to the apartment house, he ran into the wife of the concierge, a woman some 20 years his senior. She was not looking well and, asking what was wrong, he was genuinely shocked to learn the news that her husband had died, suddenly, while doing some work around the house. He offered her his condolences, she asked him in for a cup of coffee, and they started talking, in an intense conversation that lasted until the next morning, accompanied by more coffee and some schnapps and so on. That intense conversation proved to be the beginning of a relationship that, in some months time, became physically intimate. The composer eventually gave up his apartment, moving in with the concierge's widow and taking on the concierge's job full-time. He remained a devoted father to his children who went on to have happy and successful live, while his ex-wife, after a very difficult period of hurt and adjustment, fell in love with a successful culinary photographer whom she married, and the concierge and his ex-wife eventually were able, after a period of detente, to develop a genuinely warm friendship. The concierge never returned to composing, having decided that he didn't actually have a gift for it after all, but he discovered that he was, in fact, a pretty good handy person and settled into a long life with his predecessor's widow, retiring a few years ago to a small place they bought on one of those Spanish holiday islands.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Lewis on Improvisation

A very good lecture, Improvisation as a Way of Life: Reflections on Human Interaction by George Lewis is online here.

While I was a student and as a journeyman composer, improvisation was an urgent topic, with status in the new music world at some loggerheads over whether one was an improviser or (a) not(ator), with no small amount of macho swagger on either side of the argument.

This argument seems to have lost intensity within a musical community that has become at once more comfortable with diversity and more settled into routines of niche activity with far less acute competition for attention and resources between the niches.

Personally, I started out somewhat combative towards the hard-core improvisers. I improvised myself with bliss in the privacy of my own atelier but was unconvinced by much of what I heard when improvisers went public and, honestly, I saw them as direct competitors for presentation turf and fees. I've long since become considerably more relaxed about the issue, first with greater awareness of the ubiquity of improvisation — ultimately, every piece or performance of music — even the most fixed, systematic, written-down-and/or-out works of a Babbitt, Stockhausen, Cage or Johnson — has components that can only be construed as improvised, carrying a degree of either the arbitrary or the most intimately taste-related that no necessity governs their presence in the work. Moreover, my increase in comfort with improvisation comes with an increased sense that the presence or absence of improvisation is not really all-too-important and certainly neither an ethical nor an aesthetic distinction or value.

Improvisation of one sort or another is ubiquitous in all aspects of life, good bad, or indifferent. The Tokyo Electric Power Company has certainly been improvising big time of late in Fukushima, and although many individual performances by their employees have been heroic, I don't think that we've seen much in the corporate (ensemble) performance of ethical or aesthetic praiseworthiness. The current improvisations in the Arabic world present a similar diversity of results. In neither case are we — from contested distances of physical space, languages, history and culture and through the filters of equally-improvised media — in any position to honestly assess these performances, but some form of response is necessary and, even if that response is itself an improvisation, it has to be done on the basis of some concrete criteria: an accident in a nuclear power plant is very bad, the slaughter of citizens peacefully protesting their government is very bad. While musical performances, and performances of new musics in particular, carry very little that can harm mind or body in the way that event in Japan or Libya certainly can, and musical events have the supremely useful quality that they can be turned off or walked out of when they go badly, our response to music, even our most immediate, from-the-gut, yes Virginia, improvised, response has got to be governed by criteria, ethical and aesthetic, no matter how explicit we ever get about it.

The late music critic Heinz-Klaus Metzger described his work as a "struggle against the absence of criteria" without which music was reduced to only entertainment. While I share Metzger's suspicions about industrialized entertainment, I don't want to disregard entertainment as a value in itself; there are times in the lives of many if not most people when musical forms of entertainment can uniquely provide the comfort, consolation, fantasy or pleasure that makes a life of struggle and work whole. But at the same time, I don't want to deny, through disregard for qualitative criteria, the capacity for music to be more than entertainment.

Lewis clearly hears more inherent value in the improvised component of music-making than I do; I believe that we could at least agree on a minimum, in which the act of making music is more reliably valuable — to whatever degree of improvised content — than a great number of alternative human preoccupations. Lewis's presentation comes tantalizing close to raising these aesthetic and ethical questions without getting specific about criteria under which music becomes valuable. Too bad, methinks, because Lewis is such a good musician that I know damn well that his sense of musical quality is not operating in a criteria-free vacuum.

I do have one material question about the structure of the lecture — a rather formal academic occasion — itself: How much of it was improvised?