Monday, April 30, 2012

The Detail That Makes The Whole

Sometimes a piece should be finished, all done, but something — and it's usually something very small — still irritates, calling attention to itself as not quite, or not yet, right.  My recent set of Compositions 2012 #s 1 - 7 on this blog provides a good example.  These are prose scores, written in text rather than a conventional staff and note graphic notation, and they are a parody (in the musical sense) of some famous pieces by one of my teachers, La Monte Young, which use the text "Draw a straight line and follow it."  I admire La Monte's straight line, which is a consistent element in his very consistent music, but I've never quite been able to stick to straight lines myself. For better or worse, I tend to meander, and my first Composition 2012 was simply a one-off, lightly affirming this. And then — for better or worse — I realized that I had to make a set of these, and in the Youngian spirit it had to be a set of seven, which I completed over the next week or so, gradually realizing that however lightly, even whimsically, the exercise began, it did have a useful, even serious function for me, making an attitude toward working, my own, a bit more clear.  So useful, but still whimsical.  When La Monte works, he tends to the thorough-going, even complete, examining all the possibilities of a set of conditions, and like his straight-line-edness, I treasure but have considerable personal distance from that approach.  And my set of seven  is a minor exploration of wandering, crooked or broken lines, composerly but by no means complete, like a 12-tone aggregate. When I was done with seven, I stopped, for the task was complete.*  But one of the seven continued to irritate. Something was not quite right. I had written, in Composition 2012 #6: "Plant a straight row of black tulip bulbs. Wait."  La Monte's structure was clearly echoed there: instructions for a performance with two tasks, and the suggestion of these tasks taking some amount of time with the adjective "straight" preserved. The black tulips were entirely my own responsibility because this was written right in the middle of an excellent tulip season and I happen to like "black" ones, those deep maroon beauties which always suggest — to me at least — that there's something wrong with the color on your mental TV set and does so in the sexiest possible way.  But "black tulips", in this context, this set of prose scores, irritated because they didn't fit at all. There was no straight line connecting them to this context.  It irritated, until a few days later, an improvement suggested suddenly itself in the middle of a morning walk with terrier mutt Lucky, the composer's best friend.  What I was after were not black but broken tulips, tulips which carry the tulip breaking virus, which makes the flowers multi-colored rather than locked onto a single color.  These are often startling plants and that word "broken" created a resonance with other texts in this set, a straight-but-broken line, patiently attended to among other kinds of not-straight and straightforwardly followed lines.  Now this may sound, for some of you, as something more like writing poetry than composing music, indeed you may not recognize any music at all in my doggerel, and that's okay, but trust me, my impulse here is entirely musical and this text articulates something I happen to find important about the way music proceeds from one moment to the next.  In any case, be assured that resolving this little irritation, moving from black to broken, or black broken, was a musical line I found worth following.
* If there were an eighth piece, it would have gone like this: "Composition 2012 #8: Don't draw a straight line, draw a bunny and follow that."  But there are only seven pieces, so this composition does not exist.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Landmarks (47)

Hector Berlioz: Les Troyens (1856-58)

Opera is not really a presence in this list of landmarks, although I readily recognize that opera, as conservative as it has become, was, for most of its history, the central field for musical innovation.  If something new happened with regard to tonal practice, orchestration, texture, or form and continuity, chances are that it happened first in a theatrical context while concert music, with its repertoire of fixed ensembles and forms, was traditionally the more conservative field.  It's no wonder that Stravinsky was, first and foremost, a composer for the theatre (although dance was his genre more than opera) and many more contemporary innovators, among them John Cage, La Monte Young, Robert Ashley or Philip Glass have been at their essence as theatre composers, particularly when they test the extent and limits of the theatre as well as music.  But even with such innovation in music theatre taken broadly most opera has become rather conservative and rigid, due perhaps to the inevitable costs of institutionalizing a late 19th century form of production within modern state or "charitable" contexts, focused on a core historical repertoire with attempts to get around that conservatism via ahistorical staging more itches on the wound than actual recovery from the malaise and most attempts at commissioning new opera doomed from the start by institutional demands unwilling, in a too big to fail atmosphere, to risk big money on actually new ideas.

But then Les Troyens...   Berlioz is one of the three or four composers I can reliably turn to when I want to hear something extraordinary.  Listening as a composer out to plunder, his techniques — rhythmic, tonal, contrapuntal, textural, and of course orchestrational — are marked everywhere for me by his heterodoxy, his alternatives to business as usual, his breaking the rules every music school kid is supposed to obey.  (To be honest, part of this heterodoxy comes simply from the fact that Berlioz's texts are in French, requiring very different metrics, stresses, and cadences than those found in the Italian and German repertoire that so much theory is based in.) The mileage he can get out of the inversions of a chord or by an aptly inelegant voice leading are wonderful, his wildest adjacencies and polytextural conterpoints are more than wonderful. Small details, like using bIII as the functional dominant in the March of the Trojans, make large differences by coloring the tonal fabric just a bit less familiar, just strange enough to evoke difference.  His scores, and Les Troyens being the grandest, most comprehensive of them all, are compendia of techniques with still-to-be-explored consequences.  The score to this opera is much more useful to a young (or not-so-young, like myself) composer than Mr. B's famous Treatise on Orchestration.

But then Les Troyens...  is on my landmarks not only as a useful compendium of musical stage magic, but as grand opera at its most promising, preposterous, thrilling, and, yep, beautiful.  While Berlioz is justly famous for his capacity to manage and consume musical resources on the largest scale, I find his real compositional talent is most in evidence in his restraint (I've used the Requiem in teaching orchestration, and the contrast and balance between the grandest and the most intimate moments always comes at a positive shock to students, a real lesson in musical economics); the duet "Nuit D'Ivresse" and the suicide of Cassandra and the Trojan women are strong examples of such restraint.  

But then Les Troyens...  is an opera that the composer never heard in its entirety and has only recently begun to take a place in the repertoire.  It's the great grand opera we don't know yet (and Guillaume Tell is the great grand opera we've completely forgotten!)  At the time of its composition, opera was moving in the direction of more conventional narrative continuity while Les Troyens, like most of Berlioz's musical-threatical works, remained episodic, even fragmentary, an assembly of scenes from the epic rather than attempting to account for and contain the entire story. (I suspect that part of my affinity for the opera comes from my familiary with Asian theatre forms which are presented in similar pieces and scenes rather than the impossible wholes.)  So it's an example of a historically significant opera which has never had the chance to establish itself in institutional musical life and we have the strange and wonderful phenomena of the piece receiving roughly contemporary performances in both high establishment form (at the Met under Levine) and in an historically informed style (under Gardner)(although there was never really a historical premier to refer back to). In either case, it is music that, at its best, stays new.

Monday, April 23, 2012

From a Diary: I:xxiii

We know, more or less, what music is and we know, more or less, how to make more of it.   We recognize music as music when we choose or happen to hear it, and we can judge — to some reliable level of agreement — if music is well played or well sung.  There are established and known repertoires, some of which steadily add new elements, without much disturbing the identity of the repertoire as a whole. Most music works that way, certainly the kinds of music that sells well in recorded forms, gets radio play, wins prizes and gets commissioned by big institutions. (Yes, our School of Musical Quietude.)  But if this is the case, then maybe I'm not actually interested in most music so much as in the musical, or more exactly, in the extent and limits of the musical. And, I'm optimistic enough to insist that the extent and limits of the musical are an unknown, that we're not altogether sure how to make more of it, and the only way to find out is to compose, accepting the risk that one has pushed the boundary of the musical well beyond, well, music.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Nice work, found

Works & Days is a very promising new online journal, collecting a diversity of good things under that great Hesiodic title. I especially liked Luke Cissell's essay Against Specialization and Arturas Bumšteinas's piece My Own Private Bayreuth.

Composition 2012 #7

Draw pictures, curtains, blinds, baths, distinctions, conclusions. Draw down ambitions, weapons, expeditions, adventures. Draw up schemes, plans, and plots. Draw in lovers, auditors, spectators, investors, insects. Draw through errors. Draw out features, hidden desires, blood, tears. Continue drawing through until the action is exhausted and/or complete.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Composition 2012 #6

Plant a straight row of black broken tulip bulbs. Wait.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Composition 2012 #5

Draw lines in the sky and follow them with buskers, marching bands, minstrels, bicycle bells and horns, hunting horns, and pipers in fields, etc.. Cattle and bells optional.

Composition 2012 #4

Draw (or find) broken lines and connect them.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Composition 2012 #3

With maximum amplification without feedback, draw lines in sand, dust, rice, small stones etc.. Follow them as they drift, erode, blow, wash, or get pushed, kicked, or tossed away.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Meme of Seven Esses

Favorite Song: (at the moment) Douglas Hein: Orlando, He Dead.

Favorite Sonata: Mozart No. 15 in F major, KV 533/494.

Favorite Symphony: Ives Fourth Symphony.

Favorite Sandwich: Monte Christo.

Favorite Story: "Byron the Bulb" (from Gravity's Rainbow.)

Favorite Sound: Snowfall.

Favorite Season: Fall.

Who's next?

Composition 2012 #2

Erase your neighbor's line.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Composition 2012 #1

Draw a meandering line and follow it, or cross it, or run parallel to it, or ignore it altogether.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Composers Helping a Composer in Need

As diverse and dissonant as the community of composers can sometimes be, sometimes we are able to come together, to step up in order to assist when a colleague is in composerly need. Oswaldo Golijov has been having problems of late fulfilling all of his commissions in a timely and original manner, so a number of composers have come to his aid, each composing a few measures of their own, made freely available to orchestras to substitute for the missing Golijov.* The Golijov Bailout Movement now has its own website, here.


* BTW, I am presently preparing an Erased Golijov violin concerto, to replace the Golijov work which has now been twice postponed from its healthily-commissioned premiere.

No Scab Orchestra in Louisville!

The Louisville Orchestra was once one of the most important sponsors of new music in the US, through its commissioning and recording program. That was a long time ago and now the orchestra has been particularly hard hit by the great recession. Negotiations between management and the players have long been at an impasse, despite the players agreeing to significant concessions, and now the management has shut the players out altogether and have announced plans to replace the entire orchestra with non-union players, that's right, scabs. The players have agreed to binding outside arbitration, but one of the management's two stated objections to arbitration is, tellingly, that "it would have given an arbitrator the power to make decisions regarding management."

Unfortunately, there is a plausible scenario in the US in which only a small handful of major cities will have large professional orchestras whose players have reasonable compensation, security of employment, and decent benefits. The rest of the country will then have much less live orchestral music, and what they have will be played by pick-up orchestras or orchestras whose players have no security or benefits and are seriously undercompensated for their skills, training and labor, but will be managed by a class of professional administrators who compete nationally for very comfortable wages on the basis of their abilities to negotiate musicians' job security, wages, and benefits downward as much as their abilities to fundraise and promote concerts. The Louisville Orchestra can be one of the firewalls against such a scenario. I was pleased to be able to sign the online petition in support of the players, here.

Obviously, with their intention to hire an entire new group of players, the orchestra's management believes that there is enough interest in the Louisville region to support the continued existence of such an ensemble, so the questions is why they have not been able to do the real managerial heavy lifting, fund raising and cutting overhead rather than assets, and figure out how to make it happen with their single major asset, the group of players who have committed their careers to the orchestra and wish to continue with the orchestra even on the basis of considerable sacrifices in their own personal financial plans, rather than treat them simply as financial liabilities. And let's hope that when the orchestra comes back, that there will be a renewal of their earlier commitment to new music, to music that keeps the orchestral repertoire alive and lively.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

From a Diary: I:xxii

The battle between Carnival and Lent*, or: between the market and capitalism, or: between live music-making and recordings. The dynamics of the market are information and noise on one hand, supply and demand on the other, always seeking meeting points, moments of stability, agreement. No market is perfect, but the alternatives are less so, and capitalism, hedging markets, is a fundamental modification of, if not an alternative to, not necessarily the same as a market. N.O. Brown: The dynamics of capitalism is postponement of enjoyment to the constantly postponed future. (D.J. Wolf: The dynamics of late tonal music is perpetual postponement of the resolution of dissonance to the constantly postponed cadence.) Capitalism presupposes continuous growth, regardless of its likelihood, sustainability or desirability. Capitalism presupposes an unequal distribution of information, and manufacturing noise is a strategy. The advantage of capitalism is that it makes possible, through debt to be repaid in the future, projects demanding more resources than one has available at present. The question, then, is how often do we really need projects of such scale that our futures will be so tied up? (Writing an orchestral work or an opera requires the composer to invest, speculate and leverage over a significant period of time, requires a committed working relationship with large and less flexible institutions, requires a gamble that the checks will actually come when promised...)


* I wonder what extra-musical ideas younger composers are getting excited about now — Attali's Noise, first in an excerpt translated in a journal and then in the French original, was something exciting in my undergrad days and cheerfully pointed to Brueghel's wonderful painting.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

From a Diary: I:xxi

In a book review, Freeman Dyson recalls his encounters with Arthur Eddington, an important astronomer who also held some heterodox (read: wrong) ideas in theoretical physics and Immanuel Velikovsky who famously held unorthodox (read: so off as to be not even wrong) views on cosmology, earth science and world history. Dyson nevertheless finds much to value and cherish in the memory of both men. Dyson: "The fringe is the unexplored territory where truth and fantasy are not yet disentangled." ~~~~~ Now, in music we certainly have had our share of heterodox and unorthodox composers and in many cases, it is the music of these that we treasure the most. (For me Berlioz, Ives, and to some extent Skryabin are among the counterforce composers who most reliably produced work of this level.) Music doesn't work according to the kind of criteria with which a physical theory, in contrast, might be falsified or superseded, and I honestly don't have the least idea how one might even begin to distinguish true and false in a musical work, but I am nevertheless certain that we have had and can distinguish examples of bad music, mediocre music, mixed music and musical crackpottery and charlatanry, with which much wool has been pulled before ears and the clink of dull shards of the musically cracked continue to crackle. To be fair, music history is, in large part, a history of the superseded, but older music doesn't exactly go away in the same way that older physical theory goes away (actually, older physical theories don't always go away, they often stick around as valid to some increasingly limited degree of observation) and older musical sometimes actually return after being forgotten, to compete as novelties in their own right. We manage to distinguish between musics through criteria — beauty, logic, elegance, continuity, order, surprise, wit, drama, narrative etc. — that ultimately defeat the rational and the formulaic, but music theory, at its best, is a valiant attempt to sort out these criteria. ~~~~~ I've met my own fair share of fringe figures — and heck, for some of you, I may well be a fringe figure — and while that guy trying to sell stock in his perpetual motion machine out of a two car garage in Pomona was definitely a crackpot and a crook, someone like Ivor Darreg, a composer and writer specializing in microtonal music who managed the most unlikely survival in and around Los Angeles, did have something real to offer, a willingness to go where music didn't go before, even if the surfaces were rougher than rough and even if he didn't have the compositional technique to make music succeed over a significant duration. For all that, I think his larger failing was an obsession with fame; once, I remember him shouting that "at this rate, I'll be 65 soon and will never be famous." At some point, the facts of his poverty and isolation became points of pride and the quest for fame was put before getting the music right. Darreg had real talents and I will always wonder how different his life would have turned out if not for a tragic afternoon at the dentist's, in the days before antibiotics, after which the teen-aged Darreg essentially became an old and infirm man and his John Cage(!)-arranged plan to study with Schoenberg was forever put on hold.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Welcome to the Club, Dear Friends from Academe

David Graeber: I always say one of the great advantages of the academic life, as opposed to working in the creative industries (being a writer, musician, artist, etc) is that universities never, ever pretend they just forgot to pay you.

Yes, the recognition is appreciated, but... I have several friends teaching in the states who have recently been paid in the form of IOUs and several who have had their salaries cut, effectively, through fictional furloughs. Also, in my (tiny) music publishing business, I've watched the payment morale of US university libraries decline so badly, with payments sometimes a year or more behind (in four cases, two years and counting), that I'm close to saying no more to University purchase orders. In those worst cases, they don't even pretend that they forget to pay, they just ignore their post!