Monday, June 18, 2012

Downloading: Big Business, Just Not For Musicians

The business of downloading music made plain by David Lowery (him of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker fame). Bottom line: money is being made, just not by the people who made the music, and you're paying for it on all sorts of ways, just not to the people who made the music.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Shere Songs & Such

I've quickly become very fond of these two sets of songs by Charles Shere, to texts by Carl Rakosi (here) and Lou Harrison (here).  The Rakosi-text'd pair are for mezzo accompanied by violin and percussion, the Harrison set of four for tenor and accordion.  (It's always useful to have some art song repertoire accompanied by instruments other than the piano!)  Both sets are recognizably within that uncanny valley in which Mr Shere's music seems to reside, composed intuitively in that space where the modern and anti-modern as well as the plain and the artful are superimposed.  Playing through Shere's music, as I am like to do (his Sonata ii: Compositio ut explicatio is another long-term tenant of my piano top), I've often had both (a)  the sensation of being unsure whether it belongs more to the 'teens and twenties of Stein and Duchamp and both the musical ultramodernists and Virgil Thomson (at his naughtiest) or to a somewhat more recent — and distinctively Californian — vintage, and (b) the certainty that any such distinction is, in the end, unimportant.  This is deceptively simple music, the materials edging on the commonplace, but I'd reckon that the algorithm required to re-write them would almost certainly be at least as long than the pieces themselves; this is a complexity of an uncanny and irretrievable compositional context.

Mr Shere was, for many years, also a critic, and an important one, and I am a constant reader of his two blogs, The Eastside View, which is mostly travel and cultural writing, an natural extension of his critical activities, and Eating Every Day, a faithful journal by perhaps the best-fed composer around (and one with an enviable personal and professional connection to that center of Californian cuisine, Chez Panisse), with some of his best writing around some deep aesthetic issues — quality, locality, tradition and innovation among them.  These two sets of small songs are definitely of a piece with that writing.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Loose Ends

Are you composing?  What are you up to?  In principal, yes, but there are all these loose ends... There are always several projects on my desk, in various stages of progress.  Some are compositional projects, others pre-compositional or even theoretical.  One compositional project is, in principle, finished, a piece with a very large number of possible realizations through combinatorial excess, but I've decided not to let it go until I've played through a number of those realizations to my own satisfaction, which has meant picking up the clarinet for the first time in decades and seeing if the music lies under the fingers well.  One "theoretical" project was a fictional reconstruction of tonality in which, depending upon the number of active voices, everything depended upon minimal voice leadings from the three perfectly even divisions of the octave.  My constraints turned out not to be limiting enough and the whole system fell apart under the sheer number of possible voice leadings.  Another theoretical adventure treated moves across tonal manifolds (or lattices) as optimal transportation problems, which still seems to me to be a good idea, but the math required to be comfortable with the optimal transportation literature is still beyond me.*  Such projects, even if they ultimately fall apart on you, at least keep the mind nimble and very often help, if only in details, in getting work done. (Learning about Gray Codes (and Beckett Grays in particular), for example, even though I can't really follow the mathematical literature, has provided me with a really useful formal resource which I've used in at least a dozen pieces to date, sometimes overtly, for instance to control the scoring patterns in a piece, more often hidden (you hide, they seek.)) One larger project of the past three or four years has been a search for a libretto; texts have been read and re-read, considered and re-considered as musical material, and even some sketches have been made: divisions into scenes and acts and songs and not-quite-songs, and voice types and instrumental resources. But most ideas eventually get tossed for one reason or another. I've wanted to work with an existing text in the public domain, to avoid the complications of securing rights (the librettist for my puppet opera passed away before the music was finished and working with his estate has not been particularly easy.) But existing texts have their own problems, not least because setting something dramatic to music usually requires a massive reduction in the volume of a text, to a fraction, say a third or less, of the original. Maybe one reason why literary masterpieces seldom recommend themselves to setting to music is that they are just damn hard to slim down — you want to save all your favorite lines, even when they get in the way of wherever the music needs to go.  I've made the problem harder in that I'm determined to do something comic rather than historical or tragic, and comic dialog has to move along and that I have some fairly experimental musical ambitions that I'd like to try as well.  I'm now fairly certain about the source text I'll use and have already edited the text for the first act and started sketching a pair of scenes to use as a trial balloon. Following loose ends keeps you busy and also keeps you looking forward: composing is always about the next piece.

* I came across optimal transportion problems through the work of mathematician Cédric Villani and then again, when Francis Spufford's remarkably odd novel Red Plenty, pointed in the direction of the mathematician and economist Leonid Kantorovich.  

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Future, Getting Old Fast

The future just ain't what it used to be, and when older visions of the future are more attractive then the present reality, our choice is either disappointed resignation or to do the hard labor of imagining an alternative. (Personally, I'm always disappointed when I go to an orchestral concert because the orchestra, in many ways, stopped developing technologically just before the suggestive bits of preposterous steam age technology could flourish as instrumental designs...  in my heart of hearts, with my own future of music being somewhat more retro and steampunkish than, say Stockhausen's or Varese's, I really want orchestral instruments to look like Ophicleides and Marxophones and Dr. Seuss's most preposterous horns and fiddles and harps.

I expect David Graeber new article in The Baffler, "Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit", is going to get a lot of attention and it should, not as a finished argument but rather as the beginning of an urgent discussion, around the currently twisted knot of economics, states and institutions, and the limits of imagination. His point of departure is the broad sense of stagnation we currently find ourselves in, particularly with regard to technologies and infrastructure other than information technology.  I believe (and have written about it here before) that this sense is shared in the musical world as well and is perhaps more acute due to the direct and sometimes vital connections between music transmission and information technology.  (Also see this post, from 2006, A Look Back at The Future.)

When Graeber writes that, for example:

"The growth of administrative work [in universities] has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of students’ jobs and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors; institutes; conference workshops; universities themselves (which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors); and so on.

As marketing overwhelms university life, it generates documents about fostering imagination and creativity that might just as well have been designed to strangle imagination and creativity in the cradle. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years."

Simply substitute the name of your favorite musical institution " for "university" in the above text, and you'll get a pretty good synopsis of my own diagnosis of music's ongoing difficulties.  Music (name your genre: classical, modern, contemporary, experimental, film, pop, rock, punk, folk, country...) is not dying, it will continue always, to change over time and survive in interesting ways, but its institutional support structure is under stress and, too often for the good of music, threatens to more often silence musical creation and performance than support it.  It is particularly painful to watch the musicians take the brunt of restructuring and even dismantling of opera houses and orchestras while the managers can command ever higher salaries and bonuses.

Graeber's conclusion should be particularly vivid to musicians:

To begin setting up domes on Mars, let alone to develop the means to figure out if there are alien civilizations to contact, we’re going to have to figure out a different economic system. Must the new system take the form of some massive new bureaucracy? Why do we assume it must? Only by breaking up existing bureaucratic structures can we begin. And if we’re going to invent robots that will do our laundry and tidy up the kitchen, then we’re going to have to make sure that whatever replaces capitalism is based on a far more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power—one that no longer contains either the super-rich or the desperately poor willing to do their housework. Only then will technology begin to be marshaled toward human needs. And this is the best reason to break free of the dead hand of the hedge fund managers and the CEOs—to free our fantasies from the screens in which such men have imprisoned them, to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Locating That Yankee Sound

THE ESTIMABLE Tim Rutherford-Johnson (aka The Rambler) reviews a performance by the Jack Quartet and writes of John Cage's String Quartet in Four Parts: "The JACKs’ version has a more sing-song, almost folky quality that highlights the Appalachian pastoral thread that runs through Cage’s music..." While that "Appalachian pastoral" phrase will probably be grocked without much of a second thought by readers familiar with the Cage quartet and some of the more famous items in the American mid-20th century repertoire as referring to a certain style of writing, mostly diatonic, sometimes pentatonic, and occasionally jerked about by some tactical chromaticism,  friendly to open fifths and milder clusters (those vertical structures just on either side of a simpler triadic harmony), with some emphasis on writing for strings (and for those strings some preferences for open strings, natural harmonics, and reduced or no vibrato), and featuring a lot of shared attacks in which one or more instrument quickly drops off allowing others to sustain. This style is exemplified by Copland's score to the Martha Graham ballet Appalachian Spring.  The funny thing about this label is, of course, that Copland's music isn't particularly Appalachian (he himself said that he thought neither of Appalachia nor of Spring while writing the score which had the working title of only Music for Martha) and the musical source material Copland actually quotes in the piece (most famously the tune "Simple Gifts"*) is Shaker, and though the Shakers had short-lived settlements in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, they were basically an upstate New York and New England sect. (The Cage Quartet does earn some additional affinity to the Copland in that each movement is associated with a season and a place, in this case the fourth movement, a Quodlibet in which the melodic materials shared throughout the quartet are most conjunct and lively, is  associated with Spring; unfortunately I can't remember where it's supposed to be Spring in Paris or America...)  BUT WHEREVER THE ORIGINS THERE IS INDEED this particular Americana style, with plenty of precedents (from the generation of Billings onward), which became a concert music staple with two pieces of music: Charles Ives's cowboy song Charlie Rutledge, which was premiered at a Copland-Sessions concert with Copland — then very much a francophile modernist — himself as pianist and Virgil Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune (1927-28) which was first known in its piano four-hands arrangement by John Kirkpatrick. (Of course there is that other Americana style, that initiated with Roy Harris who, like Copland and at Copland's enouragement, came through the Boulangerie, but whose music is characterized by a more lushly sustained melodic style, more in debt to Sibelius than to Stravinsky, for whose music Harris had little attraction, but that is another story.)
* The use of this particular tune has been much maligned, especially by those in the pro-complexity camp.  However, I'm not entirely convinced that the Shaker notion of "simple" here, in the context of a sublimating sacred dancing tune, can be readily mapped to our everyday contemporary use of the term.