Monday, February 25, 2013

In Our Theatre

Around the middle of the 20th century, one cutting edge of American poetry found its theatre of operations* in the line, flexible in length (sometimes brief, sometimes extending so far past the edge of the page that it is graphically split and begins again at an indent, perhaps several indents for the long-winded), perhaps tied to a speaker's breath, certainly marking phrases and junctures in the poet's thought.  (See, certainly, Charles Olson's essay Projective Verse.) The line took over the weight which it had previously shared with couplet-ed pairs, stanzas, verses. At the same time, the line in this repertoire, generally speaking, was one without any of the traditional regulatory instruments of rhyme, metre, stress, and/or accent associated with lyric (but each available in principle as an optional local feature.)

Similarly, in some music, particularly the most densely notated, the theatre has shifted from the phrase — usually identifiable by a thorough-going line of some sort and a sustained or continuous pulse and metrical pattern, to the individual measure  (& often that measure is counted in smaller units — which can be very slow indeed  —  eighths and sixteenths and smaller, rather than the quarters and larger pulses of most "classical" repertoire, contributing in many cases — and ithinks not accidentally — to a graphic impression of complexity.)

Of course, there is considerable variation around this tendency towards the measure, some of which points towards phrases rather than measures. In the early — largely percussion and prepared piano — music of Cage, the phrase systems of Harrison, and the predrawn-measures of late Feldman, the measure is the constructive formal unit, replacing the pulse, thus representing a tendency towards extension of the theatre rather than reduction. And in Milton Babbitt's time point system, the single measure, divided into twelve (or whatever) points, is simply the minimal possible space for the presentation of a complete aggregate, with sets that don't fit into a minimal statement spreading out over several measures, consequently creating a reduction in density and/or the pulsed but, in principle at least, ametrical tempo.**

If we do go in the direction of the measure, though, it's probably useful to consider (and often: make clear to performers) whether elements of the traditional pulse-metre-measure-phrase practice, in particular those regular dynamic and durational markers of metric stress, have been preserved or are, in fact, no longer operative.  Does a measure have a pulse-defined tempo and if so, does it extend beyond the single measure, and does that tempo include any pattern of regular stresses or accents (in old song and dance days, when one might have spoken of "movement".)  Personally, I like to keep some of the potential for ambiguity present in the traditional system in reserve.

I've played and sang a lot of renaissance music in which there is a background metre present, but it is not over-determinative, and barlines — often edited in with the intention of assisting musicians more used to modern notational conventions — frequently coincide only weakly with regular metric stress patterns, if at all (one of the important steps in the historical process of opening a distance between lyrical text and tune; such distance to regular patterns of dance steps appears to have come much later — no surprise, I guess because there's more immediate physical danger with missteps than misspeaks.) In my own work, I'm increasingly drawn away from the empty stage of the blank measure and attracted to both lower and higher levels of organization — metrical feet and phrase systems.  But the experience of the measure as the principle theatre continues to be powerful background radiation.

* Yes, using a military term like "Theatre of Operations" is provocative, probably outright objectionable, and though there is a tradition (Emerson, N.O. Brown, Cage) of objecting to the militarized language to which I feel quite close, maybe it's usefully demilitarizing in itself to extend the use of a term like this to obviously non-military, indeed pacifist ventures.
** This is one of the mysterious topics, for me at least, with regard to serialism (of whatever sort, pre- and post- as well) and rhythm: how do we square the desire for a measure to be a-metrical — that is, without a hierarchy among the internal pulses — with the actual practice in which the notated metre is both a reference and frequently, an obvious source of compositional play?  If I had the time, I'd really like to examine Babbitt's synthesizer code, for example: did he give downbeats any extra intensity in his timepoint pieces? My impression — and I may be altogether wrong about this, so consider it only an impression —  is that the opening towards early music by Webern (Issac) and Krenek (Ockeghem), has not had the charge in later serial rhythmic practice that it once promised.  

Friday, February 22, 2013

Joseph Byrd re-encountered

Good news:  New World has released an album of works by Joseph Byrd, played with stylistic certainty by ACME, oka the American Contemporary Music Ensemble.  Byrd's music has long been an enthusiasm in these parts, and having these pieces from the early 1960s available goes some distance to recovering the diversity of the radical music of that era, particularly its west coast roots and branches.   Byrd connects to Young and Riley in the Bay area and later to Cage, Ono and Thomson in New York, but also to Douglas Leedy, but also should make us pay greater attention to the orbits around Barney Childs  (while we're at it, let's get some performances of Childs' Four Pieces for Six Winds, soon, with its desert-drawn gamut studies) and Harold Budd (Budd, of course, is the L.A. connection to both David Cope and James Tenney, from Budd and Childs, you also reach into the realm of Peter Garland's Soundings and Jim Fix's Cold Blue label.)

In addition to the recovery of diversity, re-encountering this music helps to strengthen the evidence that many of the musical ideas of the time were not exactly the invention and certainly not the property of individuals but were much more in the air and shared:  coming, perhaps, out of a commonly shared ambiguity with regard to serial/atonal orthodoxies (but also an equally shared distance to the neoclassical alternatives of the time) and open to the achievements of jazz, the early music movement, and the increasing contact with non-western musics; working with small gamuts and cells and of tonally suggestive materials; lots of repetition and loops; comfort with the strategic use of improvised or indeterminate elements, for example, indeterminate paths through fields of material; a preference for the extended, low and slow over the hyper-animated (that desert sound!)

Byrd is probably best-known for his work in popular music (albeit in the decided vanguard of popular music), with two very famous albums, The United States of America and The American Metaphysical Circus.  He did considerable studio arranging and producing work for others as well, often drawn from his scholarly expertise in the history and practice of American popular music — one highlight of which is definitely his arranging on Ry Cooder's album, Jazz — but this work, too, showing off aspects of the radical music as not only a compositional, but a performance practice.

Addendum: The New Music Box has a fine review of the CD, here.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Lucier Introduces

Overthe course of four decades at Wesleyan University, Alvin Lucier taught an open-enrollment undergraduate course, an Introduction to Experimental Music, coded for the catalog as Music 109.* Wesleyan University Press has just published a book titled just that, Music 109, collecting Lucier's lecture notes for the course.  It's a highly personal guided tour through an exciting repertoire, with Lucier's notes more or less in their rough-but-ready-for-extemporaneous-elaboration original form, organized by a series of intriguing topics (from Indeterminacy and Graphic Notation to Repetition, Long String Instrument, and Words) and made more compelling for the lay reader by being told as much in the form of stories and anecdotes as in historical or analytical prose.  He doesn't attempt to analyses anything in great depth, but instead picks a feature or two from each work discussed, piquing curiosity and giving the new listener a handle onto music that might otherwise escape, and, through the course of lectures, these handles accumulate into a rich collection of listening tools.  A real advantage to such an approach is that one can acquire a feel for the scene around the music and its aesthetic without having to bring heavy technical prerequisites.   There is much of Lucier's own musical autobiography here, but that's merely the surface over which I believe he is making a more substantial argument about listening to music as an opening to the world rather than an inward turn to a received culture — and how the skill of listening can be extended far beyond the conventional assumptions about the nature, extent, and limits of the musical.

Much writing about music hovers around in a dull middle ground, in which neither individual trees nor the forest as a whole gets accounted for and I think we're in real need of more writing that deals either in deepest detail with trees — yes, I sometimes do want to learn where each and every tone came from — or in broadest overview, with forests — as Lucier does here —, in both smart and sensitive ways.  

It would be valuable to have more documents like Music 109 around.  Alvin Lucier has a number of colleagues who taught their own courses of legend in their own institutions.  For example, one of the highlights of my own undergraduate years in Santa Cruz was Gordon Mumma's History and Practice of Electronic Music course, which was perhaps more general and technical than Lucier's Music 109, but did cover certain topics reflecting Mumma's unique experiences and expertise, especially with regard to live electronic music, music for dance, and Latin American electronic music. Mumma's lectures certainly should be published.  It does seem, though, that it is experimental music which has been getting its due documentation-wise** and though I'm of the experimental party myself, I'd certainly appreciate being able to read a similar account of recent music history from the viewpoint of someone from a more academic avant-garde or from the quietist mainstream.  Just where are the lecture notes that make the historical and aesthetic case for the new music programming at the Baltimore Symphony or at Tanglewood?

 * I wasn't a Wesleyan undergrad, so did not attend Lucier's course myself.  But one of the reasons I chose to go to Wesleyan as a grad student was the course description for the grad course he taught: 508 GP Contemporary Music. Study of selected works of Robert Ashley, John Cage, Phil Glass, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Alvin Lucier and others with emphasis on scale, chance, phase, coincidence, task, meditation, and the exploration of natural phenomena. Mr. Lucier.
** I have an argument about why this is the case — music history being made by the innovators, those who question the extent and limits of the musical, not the conservators — but that's a polemic for elsewhere. 

Thursday, February 07, 2013


One of the features of an overwhelmingly large share of tonal music is that pieces or, at least, movements of pieces, start and end in the same tonality — with some variations, i.e. starting in minor and ending in major or vice versa etc. — with a typical tonal narrative sense of being someplace, going someplace different — different, by degrees, of course, with going to the dominant or a parallel or relative tonality being relatively modest journeys, and tonalities more distant from the tonic suggesting journeys of more exotic or adventurous varieties — and then returning to the place from which you started.  (The late composer Robert Erickson was fond of a baseball metaphor, then ends of the piece marked by home plate, and the bases implying ever more distant tonalities relative to home.  (Under the Ericksonian system, hitting a homer is slick and efficient, but having to work one's way around the bases — through whatever combination of drives, flies, bunts, walks, and and steals — is certainly more interesting.))

At the Zenith of atonal/twelve-tone/serial music's academic presence, one of the strictures was that, in order to avoid the suggestion of tonality, beginning and ending with the same tone or pitch configuration, or other suggestion of the same tonality (taken, in its most liberal sense) was to be deprecated.  (Alongside restrictions on octaves, major-minor triads and dominant seventh or stacked-third chords (I can recall that one of the common criticisms in certain academic quarters, of Steve Reich's phasing pieces, was that they usually phased all the way around their modules, coming back to the initial arrangement; but it's striking that there was little self-criticism of serial or twelve-tone works which just as systematically — if not auditionally as democratically — cycles right through their own exhausted aggregates and whatever-featured arrays, inevitably implying that the next note, the hypothetical note to follow the last one in the score, was most likely the first one (and, may I add, if we are allowed to imagine implied-but- unsounded tones in Schenkerian analysis of tonal works, then we damn well ought to be able to imagine the implied-but-unsounded in non-tonal pieces.)))  Unfortunately, holding tightly to a rule like this suggests a very weak understanding of what actually happens in a piece of tonal music, and in particular, in the very best pieces of tonal music.  In such music, I contend, the appearance of a return is usually just that, an appearance, not an identity relationship, for one doesn't really return, but arrives at a place, with similarities to the point of origin, to be certain, but so informed and so colored by the experience of everything that has transpired in the journey — and all the more so when that journey is full of tonal fakes and puns and errors —, that "the same" isn't really "the same at all."  (See also these (here and here) recent posts about the useful weakness of "same" and "different" in music.)  

I suspect that one reason we resist recognizing such differences is that we have a lot invested in the metaphorical notion of a piece as a journey with a singular trajectory, that of getting lost and coming home (or, there and back again), so that all the adventures and detours and cul de sacs along the way get largely discounted  (recently, there have been a couple of surveys of German tourists which have shared the conclusion that most German tourists enjoy their holidays least while they are actually on them, and most when they are back home on their sofas, reminiscing and planning the next package vacation) although those are precisely the parts of the journey which give it texture and distinction  (I recently had a gig which involved copying massive amounts of Beethoven & was once again reminded that I'm never sure which is more impressive: the banality (arid, bromidic, characterless, cloying, colorless, commonplace, dead, drab, drag, drudging, dull, flat, ho hum, humdrum, insipid, interminable, irksome, lifeless, monotonous, moth-eaten, mundane, nothing, nowhere, platitudinous, plebeian, prosaic, repetitious, routine, simplistic, spiritless, stale, stereotyped, stodgy, stuffy, stupid, tame, tedious, threadbare, tiresome, tiring, trite, unexciting, uninteresting, unvaried, vapid, wearisome, worn-out, zero altitude) of his material or the extraordinary things he makes out of his materal (like, wow.))  Perhaps it would be useful — if not as a listener or performer of existing music, but at least as a composer of new music — for us to change the metaphor a bit.  Maybe we don't really use music as a form of travel; at least we don't use good music as a means of traveling in straight lines from here to there and then back here.

What might an alternative metaphor sound like?  How about this from Raymond Roussel:  In his How I Wrote Certain of My Works (which is essential reading, buckoes) identifies one working method which begins with a pair of words which have some similarity — which could be homonyms or metagrams or rhymes or assonances or visual but not acoustical similarities etc. — and then creates sentences or phrases around the word with their own punning resemblances, but altogether distinct meanings, assigning this pair of sentences or phrases to the beginning and end of the poem or novel. Composition then becomes the process of connecting these two same-but-different bits of information through a process of interpolation (and often multiply interpolated interpolations (which are represented in Roussel by multiple sets of nested parentheses.))  In tonal music, or not-yet-tonal, or even not-really-trying-at-all-to-be-tonal musics, might it often be the case that apparently-same tones or tonalities are actually only punningly related, with an external marker of similarity or two temporarily confusing the listener into conflating events that are really fundamentally different in character (in a trivial example, but getting back to Beethoven, in the Consecration of House Overture, he begins with all the tones of a C major triad spread thick and wide, but ends with only Cs, in five conjoined octaves — gone to C alright — and, for that matter, hard not to hear as major, but hardly the same C as the opening)?