Friday, September 28, 2012

Idyll, interrupted.

David Foster Wallace had a technique (see, especially, the short story, Oblivion, in the like-named collection) in which the continuity of a passage is punctuated, no, broken, by a number of asides and would-be clarifications, housed between commas, m-dashes, parentheses, or square brackets which, ostensibly in the name of precision, sometimes do indeed have that effect, but just as often create contradictions (in the case of Oblivion, revealing more about the narrator than the narrator should have intended) which may be revealingly comic or tragic and — through their intervention in the nominally principle (i.e. those not comma-, m-dashed-, parenthese'ed-, or square-bracket-jacked) text — actually do the heavy labor in propelling the narrative forward.

As it happens, the short story of Wallace's in which this technique appeared to most acute (the fore-mentioned Oblivion) includes snoring (in the context of a married couple's dispute over whether or not the narrator (the husband) snores, thus disturbing the narrator's wife's sleep) as a topic.  Snoring is of course a form of disturbance or punctuation in a number of continuities: the smooth passage of air through the upper respiratory system, the steady supply of oxygen to organs requiring it, the unbroken sleep of the person snoring, the unbroken sleep of anyone sharing acoustically connected space with the person snoring, etc.. Now, snoring is not the only noise which can disturb sleep (we have a persistent problem with amorous alley cats on our street and sometimes air traffic gets routed our way) but it does have a unique capacity to disturb domestic bliss, with heavy snoring having the potential to drive otherwise happy couples into extreme solutions, from earplugs and steam-punkish breathing machines to separate beds, rooms, houses, even complete break-ups, giving it an emotional edge — which Wallace uses to devastating effect — that neither the sound of heavy machinery nor those of cats in heat usually have.  

The topic, snoring, reminded me of a musical episode of extreme continuity interrupted by snoring.  Years ago, in Los Angeles, my father took me to a USC football game in the Coliseum and afterwards, we went to the premiere performance of Morton Feldman's Piano and String quartet in the L.A. County Museum of Art, as part of the New Music America Festival. We happened to sit in the same row as the composer, who, with his entourage, was about 10 seats away from us.  As you can imagine, we had had our share of sun and noise during that game, and, if you know the Feldman — or most any other late-ish work by the composer — it had an extreme continuity which my father appeared to enjoy, but in combination also happened to put him to straight to sleep.  Now, sleeping during a concert is not a sin in my book, but should sleeping included snoring, it can become a disturbance for others in the audience, a violation of a basic social contract, as far as I'm concerned. And my father was a known snorer.  So, I would periodically jab him to keep him from falling into a phase of sleep in which snoring might start, signaled by jaw or head or both dropping down and either constricting the passage of air through some passages or encouraging the passage through others such as to force air in or out in a conspicuously noise way.  Despite my periodic jabbing — and how could I be expected to do more? I was, after all, listening to the first performance of one of the most gorgeous pieces in the western chamber music repertoire —  unmistakable snoring started. (This topic ALSO happens to have resonated me personally because I went through a brief period of snoring, which accompanied a freakishly sudden reduction of vision.   I wasn't particularly concerned about the snoring, as it was usually correctable by turning my body sharply port side, which I would do when my all-so-patient and tolerant wife would nudge me out of my snoredom, but I was worried about my eyesight.  A couple of eye doctors and a neurologist and some very expensive scans couldn't really explain the vision problem, but an ear, nose, and throat specialist suggested removing a cyst that had formed in a sinus cavity abutting the eyes or the optic nerve (if you're really interested, I'll get the scan out and check exactly where.) The ENT specialist's intuition proved correct and my vision was basically restored to its normal level of correctable myopia.  As a bonus — to both myself and my wife — the snoring stopped and  I became able to sleep, for the first time in memory, on my back, as well as port and starboard sides.  And, as another bonus, I guess, when I woke up from anaesthesia, the specialist reported that all had gone well with the cyst and that, while he was at it, he had repaired my broken nose.  I replied that I had never broken my nose, and he answered that yes, in fact, I had broken my nose, not a great break but a break all the same, but many people who had had physically rambunctious childhoods and youths had broken bones without ever knowing it.  Think of it: maybe 40 years obliviously spent in the mistaken conviction that my nose had never been injured, suddenly shattered.)  But to my relief, the snoring that interrupted that marvelous continuity of delicately semi-consonant chords played by Aki Takahasi and the Kronos Quartet did not come from my father, seated to my jab-able left, but — some 10 seats to our right — from the dozing composer himself.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

From a Diary: I:xxx

Tonality is a normative order.

The musical utility of schizophrenia

I was recently roped into playing trombone for small local music-making and, out of practice, grabbed the nearest sheet music which happened to be Telemann's set of 12 Fantasies for transverse flute without bass accompaniment. Not really trombone music, but they're great fun all the same, just add the right clefs and key signatures to get a working transposition, and you're ready to go.  While I was at it, I found that couple of them made even better recorder pieces, and I've enjoyed playing them with tenor, voice flute, and altos in f and g, each with optimal transpositions of their own. One of the interesting features about the set is that it includes movements which are polyphonic, including fugues and a passacaglia.  Now, putting multiple voices (in this case, two) together in a composition for a monophonic instrument requires a minor amount of technical legerdemain, involving some omissions in one or another voice, careful use of registers, and some arpeggiation of vertical sonorities.  In playing such a piece, I find it very useful to sort out, roughly, the separate voices and sometimes this reveals interesting ambiguities — for example, is a set of running eighths alternating between registers arpeggiation of an implied series of quarters or is it syncopation?  (The illustration at right, click to enlarge, is Telemann's single line score above two lines with my provisional division of the voices in the Fugue in the 5th Fantasie, with details — elided notes, for example — just beginning to emerge in my analysis.) Issues like this are hard to resolve, and personally, I like to err on the side of preserving an ambiguity rather than settling matters altogether, so playing, for me, involves creating a dynamic balance between the segregation and integration of the two voices.


With a piece like the Telemann, or any other example of Baroque or classical counterpoint which takes advantage of perceptual streaming, this balance between independence and distinctiveness of voices is of course constrained by the tonal system, and distinctions are maximized only to create tonally proposal dissonances (which always resolve) and complementary figuration. At the same time, the tonal system offers a reservoir of ways to fill-in the pitch space — i.e. scales and chords — (and, in so doing, filling in the rhythmic space as well) that make analog polyphony in non-tonal environments necessarily a different beast. To my ears, a significant development in this practice occurs only with Ives (and with Brant, as a successor to Ives) in the use of  simultaneous but highly contrasting streams, not note-against-note counterpoint, but style against style.  I think Cage caught some of this, if accidentally, with Music of Changes, in that his source materials were already highly distinctive in character but the instrumental parts to the Concert for Piano and Orchestra,  Atlas Eclipticalis and his Music for Piano series fail to become contrapuntally interesting, in part, by leaving individual notes on the page of an individual part entirely unconnected whether in a referential or a spontaneous melodic or harmonic context.  Cage really resolves this, as far as I'm concerned, with his 30 Pieces for String Quartet, in which his precomposition of five different "types of music" which can appear in a part, alone or in combination, creates a reservoir of  material with distinctive but non-hierarchical characters that can fill in pitch space and musical time with a capacity similar to the (hierarchical) materials of a tonal system yet without appeal to historical or novel styles as with Ives (or Brant.)  

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Josephine Miles

Ron Silliman, whose blog has become my one stop shop for contemporary and experimental poetry, points to a recorded 1954 talk by poet Josephine Miles on teaching poetry.  Miles was an important figure in the Bay Area, and was, from her tenured chair (later University Professorship) at UCB, the academic point of contrast or even pendant to Robert Duncan (on one hand) and the Beats (on another).  But when she was kind enough to give me a few minutes, a very long time ago when I was a Santa Cruz undergrad, it was to ask her about her Los Angeles High School classmate, John Cage.  She recalled that he had wanted to become a minister and had excelled at oratory, with his high-pitched voice well-suited for public speaking (which makes sense for a time when the microphone was not yet ubiquitous to the pulpit.)  In this talk, Miles recalls a high school class on the Aeneid, in which the text was read and not analysed, as a critical experience in her life. I doubt that Cage was in that class, as Cage had Greek and not Latin in High School, but taking pleasure in the uninterpreted experience of a work is certainly close to Cage's thinking, for example his work with texts by Joyce or Thoreau, so I do wonder if he had the same classics teacher for a similar course in translating a major Greek text. I don't know how much more the connection between the two can illuminate the very different work, the very different poetics in particular of the two. (Indeed, I can't imagine a greater difference from Cage than in Miles'  identification of poetry as an "art of making sense.")  In any case, it is an unexplored part of the biography of both artists. And it is interesting in this talk on teaching poetic composition, that Miles focuses on the making of questions rather than the production of answers, a similar focus to that of Cage, and I wonder if it might have been a shared teacher at LA High who pointed them in this direction.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Some Listening

Here are a couple of recordings that have landed my way of late and I'd like to share, showing some nice extremes of style and means*:

* I don't go out of my way for recordings, preferring live music, but recordings are almost unavoidable — they just show up, it seems, like door-to-door salespeople, missionaries, and those scented pine tree-shaped plastic things that hang in car windows — and of course they are useful, both for music intended idiomatically for recorded media as well as for documentary evidence (pharmikoi though they be) of events I cannot attend. And, at the moment, since my right forefinger is on holiday, recordings make up for some of my current awkwardnesses with my daily harpsichord or piano sight-readings  

Wednesday, September 05, 2012