Friday, December 30, 2011

From a Diary: I:xvi

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

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

From a Diary: I:xv

Rubato has a fractal dimension.

Monday, December 05, 2011

From a Diary: I:xiv

Harmony is a problem of optimal transportation.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Neither Fish Nor Fowl

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

I have a small difference here with Leedy over whether Javanese pélog actually uses a three-quarter tone interval (it does, but only as a compromise or temperament, in the instruments of fixed pitch, between two tones which voices and the rebab distinguish depending upon the mode or pathet being played). Leedy asks why the midtone, ubiquitous in musics of the southern half of the Mediterranean, is all but missing from music in the European tradition: Would mid intervals be a commonplace of Western music today had Charles Martel failed to defeat the Muslim forces at Tours in 732-33, when European music was still an essentially monophonic art? and I believe that he is right on focusing upon the issue of a melodic versus a contrapuntal, harmonic music. I suspect that eliminating such intervals, a loss in melodic complexity, representing a level of intervallic distinction and corresponding to harmonic structures found in a region of the harmonic series beyond the tenth partial or so, was — for better or worse — a price paid for the vertical complexity found in European music.

[For what it's worth, AFAIC the greatest mystery in the history of musical materials is the apparent disappearance of the Greek enharmonic genus with the semitone-sized pyknon devided into two smaller intervals. The evidence we have of the actual use of the enharmonic is limited; we cannot say for certain, for example, if the successive microtones were used melodically in succession or were used only as alternative values for a single position in an anhemitonic trichord.]

[For what it's also worth: If someone had in mind the project of a system of counterpoint and harmony for voices and conventional instrumental timbres using intervals including midtones AND having consonance/dissonance distinctions like those found in the European traditions, that is to say, a tonal music with a very different interval vocabulary, I strongly suspect that many questions of consonance and dissonance will be register dependent. An 11:9 netral third, for example, may be an acceptable consonance so long as it is voiced high enough in register to support a plausible position in an implied, potentially audible, harmonic series. This is rather Rameau-vian, but why not?]

Saturday, December 03, 2011

From a Diary: I:xiii

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

* much as we all know that time signatures with whole number denominators other than powers-of-two remain rational, despite the terminological practice of many complexists of describing these as irrational.