Sunday, May 29, 2011

One Shocking Trombone

The first good visualization of shock waves — faster than the speed of sound — produced by a trombone, here. The visual is subtle (use the fullscreen view), but rest assured that the effect is great enough to explain at least part of the discomfort woodwind players may feel when seated directly before the low brass.

Why orchestras come and go but music itself keeps growing

A video chat, with physicist Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute, Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life Gets Faster.

West's observed connections between growth rates and the mortality or open-ended growth of an entity, is fascinating and I strongly suspect that it might also apply to music and musical institutions. If we begin to see orchestras, opera houses, and conservatories as corporate in their growth and innovation patterns, then their inherent mortality as individual organisms ought to be better recognized and, indeed, seized upon as a structural opportunity for innovative alternatives to replace them, for the problem is not that the community around an institution can no longer sustain musical institutions or that music itself lacks in attractive, compelling and novel content, but that the institutions themselves are, through lack of innovation (i.e. programming, performance and presentation style) and unsustainable growth (particularly in bricks and mortar and administrative ballast) failing to sustain themselves.

The present classical music landscape is, in many localities, dominated by old institutions which consume resources, and, because we have a tendency to lock in long-term public and private suuport to the older and bigger institutions (i.e. in Europe where opera employees have all the protections of civil service jobs) artificially slowing down paths towards bankruptcy, they may often temporarily crowd out of opportunities for innovative start-up firms.

West: "...most companies start out probably with some of that buzz. But the data indicates that at about 50 employees to a hundred that buzz starts to stop. A company that was more multi dimensional, more evolved, becomes uni dimensional. It closes down. "

That 50-100 number looks an awful lot like an orchestra which, coupled with the archaic nature of 19th century labor relations in an orchestra, says a lot about the ability of those free-lance early music and contemporary music groups to survive without comparable institutional support. Suppose we adopted a model in which the normative orchestras were organized around core memberships of ca. 25 players with core repertoires in 18th or late 20th/21st century repertoires, with 19th and early 20th century repertoire covered by combined groups at strategically opportune moments. Would that be a model sustainable until the next alternative emerges?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

How Virgil Thomson Decided Music Made No Sense

It was also at Thones-les-Bains that Virgil Thomson, in a hotel room, lying on a down quilt he had placed on the floor for sun bath purposes, received the revelation that "Music makes no sense." He had, of course, been preparing himself for such a revelation in all his previous work. For, if one can break the rules given by a strict teacher and receive, nevertheless, the teacher's congratulations, obviously music makes no sense.

Passage deleted by Virgil Thomson from John Cage's manuscript, eventually published in the Cage/Hoover Virgil Thomson: His Life and Music. (Source: Tommasini: Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Notes & Rests, Nuts & Bolts

Most readers of books and articles about music are probably more interested in context and biography and in an impressionistic rather than deeply technical approach to describing the music itself, perhaps focused on the "meaning" of a work in extra-musical terms. (Interestingly, it's writing about popular musics that shies away most from technical description.) But — and perhaps it's the bias of a practicing musician, and a composer at that — I honestly prefer more technical descriptions and am eager to have some better ideas about how a piece was put together. I'm not embarrassed at all about discussions of materials and systems and processes and plans. I like lists and counts and charts and diagrams and lots of notated examples. And however provisional the relevance of a particular method may be to the madness of the music which ensues, I'm all in for the ride, because my intention is to learn, copy (which is composers' polite-talk for steal) and adapt, whenever something, even the tiniest trick, appears promising.

In connection with some recent deep study of music by Berlioz, a figure I consider as important and as radical as Ives and Cage, Julian Rushton's The Musical Language of Berlioz has been a constant companion. While Berlioz's life and times provides (and has often provided) ample material for biographers and cultural historians, the real interest is ultimately in the music itself and getting a handle on that achievement simply requires talking about technique, which Rushton does beautifully and concretely. More importantly, for me as a composer, Rushton lays out the material elements of Berlioz's practice in such a way that they are constantly suggestive of paths for making music that mainstream music history more or less abandoned, cul de sacs well worth re-exploring.

Books like Rushton's might be described as constructive, and indeed they read a bit like do-it-yourself books for building this or that (as a kid I had a small collection of stage magic and puppetry and outdoorsy arts-and-crafts books, so it's long been one of my favored genres.) Lou Harrison's Music Primer and Messiaen's The Technique of My Musical Language are good examples of a composers letting us in on how they work in a direct and constructive way and I've been lucky to have learned from both since High School. There are also useful bits by Boulez and Reich and Stockhausen writing as concretely about their own music (Stockhausen's little book on In Freundschaft is practically a recipe for making the piece.) Ives' Memos have some wonderful hints about technique as well. While much maligned elsewhere, I have long been enthusiastic about John Cage's analytic half to the the Cage/Hoover Virgil Thomson; Cage has a refreshingly direct way about discussing a piece of music, unafraid of counting notes and often salvaging useful technique from a piece that has otherwise sunk. (One of the greatest hours in my life was spent in a hotel in Houston when Cage discussed his understanding of Mozart's materials and methods; I would gladly loose a limb for a time machine and a tape recorder to recover that lesson!) Charles Shere's elegant book on Robert Erickson, Thinking Sound Music, remarkably conveys a lot of usefully concrete information almost exclusively without the use of notation. Finally, I find three examples from ethnomusicology richly suggestive to composers: Paul Berliner on the Mbira, Michael Tenzer on the Balinese Kebyar orchestral style, and Simha Arom on African polyphony.

(Here's an older item with my list of favorite books on composition.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Making Splashes

Some composer colleagues are nicely represented online of late:

  • A nice article about Larry Polansky, here. (Nice line: "Like most countries with sufficient access to leisure, America has its classical music, but we're so confused about whether we ought to resent or admire the broader world (esp. Europe) regarding matters of class and taste that we often have trouble perceiving it with anything like confidence.")
  • Christopher Fox, in a quartet of soloists caught performing Kurt Schwitters' Ursonate, here. Has anyone else had the feeling that the Ursonate still refuses to resolve itself as music? And that that fact would be a sign of its continuing success? Statistically seen, Schwitter's peculiar economy of vocal sounds is definitely not linguistic in its character, but — attempts at conventional musical-formal analysis all defeated — neither is it musical in any familiar way. (In contrast, the works of Varese long ago asserted their musicality, in terms of economics of materials and their dynamic use.) Indeed, Schwitter's is a kind of pre- or post-music, certainly more clearly supplied and organized than, say, the Voynich manuscript appears to be, but definitely requiring that notorious "Ur" before the "sonata". This video performance, with the performers each somewhat birdlike in posture, makes, for me, a pretty good argument for Wolfgang Mueller's thesis of a connection between the Ursonate and bird song heard at Schwitters's exhile hut in Norway. Yep, just another imitation of nature in its form of operation...
  • Innova has released a multi-media DVD documenting a large scale graphic score by Mark Applebaum. The video component is viewable online, here, and is a nice signal of the recent rapprochement between factions in newmusicland, with card-carrying complexists, improvisors, and experimentalists as well as those who decline to be pigeon-holed having shots at interpreting and commenting on Applebaum's score. (Yep, Brian Ferneyhough and Paul Dresher on the same video, the whole Bay gang is there.) With some exceptions — and David Weinstein's monumental Illuminated Man and some works of Daniel Lentz are my leading exceptions — I'm somewhat allergic to the graphic notation scene, but the performances are done in a good spirit, the score itself is quite beautiful to look at, and it seems to illustrate a point I have observed to be common to works — or better, projects — of a certain discipline, scale, complexity, and ambition, like Weinstein's or the cued works of Christian Wolff or Cornelius's Cardew's Treatise, that with serious interpretation they have the capacity to assert systematic coherence, within which consistently applied rules usefully define, if through limits, the unique character and dimensions of the work. (I would really have liked to have heard one additional interpretation of Applebaum's piece, in which a performer prepared a meticulously picayune performing score based on very clear encoding of the pictographs, precise measurements of the score etc., a la David Tudor's earliest approach to graphic scores. )

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Alvin Lucier is 80

Clarity, focus, classicism. Alvin began as a neo-classical composer. "I like my music clean, like gin." A reduction to essences, distractions eliminated, the original minimal impulse.

Pulses, stutters, beats, swarms. Alvin was once a drummer, playing trap set in dance bands or drumming for the Yale Marching Band. Music for Solo Performer is the piece Ionisation ought to have been, composing directly for percussion ensemble without the mediation of fixed notation, specialized players, rehearsal. The composer listens: Bird and Person Dyning.

Breaking down parameters: Pitches becoming rhythms becoming timbres becoming pitches again. Navigations for Strings, Septet. Subverting cause and effect: Music for Pure Waves, Bass Drums, and Acoustic Pendulums or — through a massive increase in physical scale, going far beyond simple classical effects to the non-linear, the chaotic and catastrophic — Music on a Long Thin Wire.

Sounds articulating spaces: "I'm not interested in expression, but I am interested in expressivity." Music as a means of finding ones way in the dark (Vespers). Music made from sounds made visible (The Queen of the South) or the outline of a landscape translated into tones (Panorama.) A voice articulates a space (I am sitting in a room) with all its expressive and individual physical and autobiographical attachments erased in the process, so that the expressivity of the room itself is revealed; or, in The Re-Orchestration of the Opera "Benvenuto Cellini" by Hector Berlioz audaciously using the space in which the voice is produced to transform the timbres of a work by the greatest orchestrator.

Object lessons: Chambers. W.C. Williams: No ideas but in things. Realizations of Chambers tend to one of two extremes: either the most perfect acoustic match between object and sound source or the most perfect, if frequently surreal poetic match, i.e. the sound of the Cologne Hauptbahnhof coming from a thimble (the ideal, one supposes, would be: tempest, teapot).

Risk everything: A fundamental commitment to the experimental music project. Risk failure, risk nothing happening, and try again'n'again to find the optimal means for a phenomena to happen, to express itself, as music. Allow the phenomena to determine the form. Robert Irwin: "Ever Present, Never Twice the Same. Ever Changing, Never Less than Whole." Composing is often a letting-go of the composer's monopoly over composition.

And too: choral conductor, actor of underground legend (Dr Chicago), rider of bicycles, patient fly fisherman, reliable and generous cook of pasta for tired dancers (and impoverished young scholars). I am honored to have been — and still be — Alvin Lucier's student, for his challenges, his clarifications, his purposefulness, his directness and humor. Some teachers of composition try to give you everything, you belong to their "school"; Alvin instead gave polish, to help you be better at what you do, not be second best at what he does, and he gave posture, to help stand up for your work.

A true story: In Berlin, many years ago, with an evening off in-between concerts and Alvin's wife and daughter, Wendy and Amanda, already flown back to Connecticut, Alvin and I ended up in the opera. Arabella, of all things. Not exactly what you'd expect the composer of I am sitting in a room to be watching. A traditional production, with plenty of old-fashioned stage magic, with Lucia Popp and Julie Kaufman as the two sisters. The curtain came up on the second act and it starts snowing on stage — I told you, it was old-fashioned stage magic — and Alvin jabs me with his elbow and says, just loud enough for everyone within a three or four meter radius to hear: "Look at that snow... have you ever seen anything like that? Isn't that terrific?" No, I hadn't, and yes, it really was terrific.

(Photo: Amanda Lucier.)

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Brief Orchestration Note After a Night at the Opera

Aren't the obbligati for bassett clarinet (in Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio) and bassett horn (Non più di fiori) in La Clemenza di Tito just about the greatest things in the world?

Friday, May 06, 2011

Perfect Careers

"If I were only in it for the money, I think I'd hook myself up with one of those gigs on the fast-growing and lucrative death-of-classical-music circuit, jaunting off to foundations and conservatories and sunny island conventions and well-catered, bubbly-lubricated board meetings, lecturing and consulting and prognosticating and doing the shake-down rounds in hotel bars, just me and my expense account doing our very best to help drain those rapidly-depleting coffers that otherwise be spent on, well, music."

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Mozart et les fonctions harmoniques, part III

An animated introduction to French-style functional harmonic notation, here via the Lacrymosa from the Mozart Requiem, K626. (Hat tip: Walter Zimmermann)

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Cheerful Lapses Into Completism

What an incredible season for reading! David Foster Wallace's posthumous "unfinished novel" The Pale King has some of his finest writing, and some of his funniest, but it also makes one of the best case for the novel as moral instance, with his argument for the dignity of ordinary lives right up there with Pynchon's "keep cool but care." And then there's China Miéville's Embassytown, which I read in a non-stop, non-sleep frenzy and immediately — that is, now — started rereading just to get a better conceptual grasp on a book that is both the author's long-awaited space opera and a deep turn into some startling and compelling exolinguistics. But there's more — the last Paul Auster, Sunset Park (almost up there with Leviathan and The Book of Illusions) is not to be missed...

But this perfect storm of wonderful reads is a season spent with all my old favorites — all that is missing for me this season is a new Pynchon or a Harry Mathews — points out a certain abandonment of principles in my reading habit, and one that infects my music consumption as well: The broken record around here has gone: It's the individual work, sometimes even just a movement or moment in an individual work that counts, not the entire catalog of a composer (or author). Composers are perfectly human, which means perfectly fallible, and even the composer who is capable of making the most extraordinary works most reliably is capable of much less, and that wonderfully human inconsistency helps make the music world so reliably variable and interesting. Who know? Maybe there's a cosmic balance sheet, entered into which the price of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is the Battle Symphony...

So, it's the work that counts, not the catalog, but I'll readily admit to my regular lapses into completism, which seems to happen whenever someone's track record has simply been so good that his or her name becomes a track record. So I eagerly wait for each and every new work I can hear by Jo Kondo or Richard Ayres, for two examples of composers with reliably astonishing craft, style, and ideas. Sometimes a composer gets around my completist barrier simply by virtue of having a small catalog: complete sets of sheet music for Machaut and Ockeghem (those three volumes of endlessly variegated lines were one of the best birthday presents I ever gave myself!) and Ruggles, Varese, and Webern take up only modest shelf space, and they've all been resident, complete as I could get them, in my shelves for decades. Some composers' work have become scattered and obscured with time, so a certain collector's mentality takes over, gathering each scrap of Richard Maxfield or Terry Jennings that I can scavenge. A good portion of Harry Partch's music, so important to me earlier on, sits, copied-out in a transcription style of my own, from days when I couldn't afford quarters for the photocopier. Other composers are models or teachers or good friends, and the urge to have their works with me is equal to the urge to spend time in their company: Leedy, Mumma, Lucier, Young. But there are also larger catalogs for which having everything would strike me as an entirely reasonable proposition: Mozart, Berlioz, Ives, Cage, perhaps Feldman or Christian Wolff.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

May Day

While May Day — in any of its forms — has faded as a public holiday, turned more into an extra day of personal or family vacating rather than mass public celebration, marking the day still seems worthy, whether as a pseudo-(or not-so-pseudo)-pagan celebration of the arrival of spring, with garlands and dances around the maypole and other such minor bacchanalia, or as a day honoring labor. I grew up in a place where neither was much celebrated: California had, arguably, too much Springtime and too brief a Winter to make celebration necessary and, although both my parents and 3-out-of-4 grandparents were union members, my lifetime has been one in which organized labor has moved from concentration on blue collar and private industry jobs to white collar and public employees, with all those years we weren't supposed to buy table grapes or iceberg lettuce so as to support Caesar Chavez's Farm Workers Union now just a childhood memory of another noble battle not-quite-won. So I've never learned to set up a Maypole, let alone dance around it, and composers have never unionized themselves in a lasting and useful way (not to mention my Groucho Marxist principles: not wanting to join an organization that would have me as a member), but I'll celebrate May Day all the same, and like every good day, by doing my work, whether at my desk composing or taking a break to go out-of-doors and make sure that the tomatillos and coriander and habaneros and the epazote have begun to sprout, and top it with an evening well-spent with the people I love most.