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.