Saturday, April 27, 2013

Lost Thread

For all my engagement with formal experiments in my music, usually involving extensive planning, research, development, design, calculation etc., as often I just compose from brute force, drawing a continuous thread of music which starts someplace and goes wherever it (through that mysterious combination of habit, taste, caprice, and imagination) happens to lead.  But such unplanned excursions carry more of a particular risk than the planned journeys, as they depend — at least for me — on having a great deal of continuity in the compositional time and environment. When that continuity is broken, the thread can get lost and sometimes irretrievably so. Then you're left with fragments (which could be useful), outright abruptions (which could be useful), or fragile, tentative, questionable, or even broken continuities (which could be useful as well: think exquisite corpses.) (But could be useful is not necessarily useful.)

A broken heating pipe is never expected and the pipe (yes, it would have paid to have had copper instead of steel pipes!) that broke in our house two weeks ago unexpectedly interrupted a piece I was making that had been following precisely such a thread.  The damage to the house was, fortunately, minimized — wallpaper and flooring, and, interestingly, the 8-volume set of Wagner's writings got soaked beyond repair — and the process of repair already set into motion, and the weather has been warm enough that we could make do without heat, but all of the hectic and inconvenience of calling and organizing everyone and everything necessary to return to normalcy has put my piece in exactly that unplanned hiatus. I lost my thought. (What was I thinking?) I lost the thread. (Where was I going?) Time lost, continuity gone, no chance of reconstructing a plan when none existed in the first place.

So now, I play through the music I had made so far and wonder what to do next?  Do I file it away in the sketch box or drop it altogether? Do I analyze my own music and try to invent a plan, after the fact, from which further developments may be built?  Or do I just start when I left off, brute force after brute force, accepting whatever continuity — or lack thereof — circumstances now offer? How can I not be optimistic about this opportunity?

Monday, April 22, 2013


I was in marching band for exactly one summer, the summer before I started high school.  Although I began with high expectations for marching, as a trombonist, in the front row of the Montclair, CA High School Marching Cavaliers in their smartly tacky Columbia Blue and Black uniforms, I quickly found out that I didn't like marching and marching didn't much like me. Not yet 14 and already over six feet tall,  I was at precisely that awkward moment in pubescent motor development when control over my limbs was more a matter of random nervous system activity than the control required for marching, enough so that I was, honestly, very bad at it (once obliviously and famously marching several complete rounds of the parking lot with each sides' arm and leg in complete synchrony, just the opposite of how it's naturally — and supposed to be — done), but I probably could have gone along with the program had I actually liked the music. For each morning spent that hellish summer marching was matched by a miraculous evening at the (last) Claremont Music Festival, a season ticket to which was my parents' present to me upon graduation from Junior High.  An odd present for a 13-year, to be sure, but odder still was the experience of a morning spent playing the theme song to Hogan's Heroes over and over and over again (in between choruses of which, upper classmen from my lower brass section would take turns with pranks, a favorite of which was mooning passers-by whenever our beleaguered band director turned away (you could pretty well guess when he was coming around a corner, as he wore loud tap shoes as part of his training method) and then to hear, say, Hermann Baumann play the Brahms Horn Trio at night.  The ridiculous and the sublime, every day. Summer marching band was not a total loss, however, as the band director did manage to encourage some useful skills, one of which was spending hours in a practice room with a Conn Strobe Tuner.  Very soon, I learned that not only was it a useful skill to get that scope to stop moving, to create a precise and steady tone, it was also a great skill to select some intermediate place on the dial, between semitones, and get the strobe to freeze there, or to play very slow glissandi — both lipped and with the slide — and get those wheels to slow down or speed up.  I was an odd kid, to be sure, but it remains a more engaging experience than any video game I ever tried and probably the beginning of my active interest in matters of musical tuning. The other positive experience, in the long run, was that I composed a lot that summer, including the beginnings of three traditional marches. I was, and am — with qualifications — a serious Sousa fan, and was disappointed that our marching repertoire was largely themes from TV shows and bad pop tunes, and didn't include a single class march by J.P.S., but my more immediate model came from a pair of youthful marches on a Charles Ives recording by the Yale Theatre Orchestra.  Disappointingly, my high school band director, probably writing me off for the ineptitude of my marching, had no interest in my composing, but my junior high band director, Richard Johnson, generous shared a few hours to help me with harmony and instrumentation.  I wish I could say that my 13-year-old head, in those days with the Indochinese War still hanging heavy, was hip to the military character of the marching band and its repertoire, but no, that thought only came later to me, another story altogether.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

On not being a film composer

I'm from Southern California, east of L.A. and grew up in in environment where film, no, movies had a deep presence.  I loved (and love, though parental responsibilities have slowed down the pace) going to the movies and watching old favorites or new discoveries on late night TV (for which German TV can be good.) Sometime in high school, something clicked and I suddenly had a revelation that movies could be more than just entertainment, they could intersect with the real world in unexpected ways and use the manipulation of time, sound, and image to tell me things about the world, sometimes shocking things, that I didn't know before.  The could help make the world more interesting and lively, creating opportunities for reflection and action.  Movies became almost as exciting as music.  What I liked, and like, most about watching film was/is paying close attention to details:  a line of dialogue written and executed supremely well, an uncannily timed cut, secret depths in sound design (done well, polyphonic sound design can contribute more to making the most implausible world believable than the most detailed visuals), the wallpaper in a Feuillade serial. or an obscure and curious object unreasonably situated in an otherwise unexceptional film set.  I can recall hundreds of favorite lines from films and probably as many favorite bits of editing, both sound and visual, and have some very strong opinions about how films work or don't work.  I can go on for hours about my favorite Bresson, Buñuel, Huston, or Ozu.  I can even spend a half hour trying to convince you that O.C. and Stiggs was exactly three technical mistakes short of being Robert Altman's masterpiece with a darkly paranoid subplot shared with Nashville.

Although I have, from time to time, done some sub-contracted emergency orchestration work for overdue film scores and have enjoyed the money (when it's actually been paid), I've never seriously considered trying to get a gig to write a film score.  I could make an intellectual argument (following Bresson) that I only really believe in diegetic music (the "real" music that incidentally takes place on screen), but I do really like a film score done well.  But I don't think I have the aggressiveness required to promote myself into that business and, to be honest, I'm not sure I have the composing speed to produce a score in the time frame required for a film (the score usually comes late in the process, after a director's provisional edit, and thus has to be done (= short score -> orchestration -> recording) quickly (weeks, days, quickly) and I, perhaps to my own career detriment, like to ponder, no, ruminate on, musical ideas for a good long while. The movie business doesn't pay composers for ruminating.  Also, a film composer needs to have a very rare balance between solid self-promotion on the business side and the ability to complete submit her or his ego to the fact that a film is a corporate production and the score and its author(s) have to adjust to the overall design and working atmosphere; again, although I've done orchestrating according to the strict guidelines handed me, but beyond that limited piece-work, I'm not sure I could hold my own ego back as required. 

But more than any of that, and not unrelated to the issue of holding one's ego back, although I can sometimes produced good Imitat, I probably don't have the stylistic chops to be a Hollywood composer. Hollywood film scores tend to emphasize similarities over differences and incorporate innovations only slowly  (it's interesting to note that some smaller film scenes, like Britain in the 50s and early 60s, or the GDR, actively employed contemporary composers working in idioms more akin to contemporary concert music.)  I can understand this conservatism, in that a film is a big investment and the producers have to balance risks, in this case the possible attractions of musical novelty against the security of audience-proven musical tropes. Fortunate is the composer like Philip Glass who can come into a film composing career by being sought after on the basis of his concert work. And unfortunate is that producer who turned down a Morton Feldman score for its accompanying a scene of violence with quiet strings and a celesta, likely a cold and ironic move on Feldman's part that the producer couldn't accept either because it didn't pass in the accepted catalog of film music figures and affects and was unwilling to risk the possibility that it might — and powerfully so — extend that catalog. 

My old friend Jonathan Segel recently, and correctly called out the Game of Thrones TV series on the cheap production quality of its score, although given its budget*, I find it's still, musically speaking, an improvement over, say, Lord of the Rings. Why do these pseudo-medieval fantasy films (you know the ones) always have to go pseudo-symphonic in the first place? How about imaging the kind of instruments and musical material that would have been current to the local time, place, and technology instead of trying to pull a full Korngold (which no one presently working in Hollywood has the technical chops to do anyways)?** The deep irony, of course, is that sound design, as a whole has become very interesting territory for experiment and complexity (don't believe me?  Just listen, sometime, eyes closed to Ren Klyce's sound track for The Social Network — the whole film could have been done to a blank screen and would've worked), while the musical track has declined so badly (yes, if I see the name Hans Zimmer on opening credits, a composer reliably producing yardage good labeled as music, I immediately head for the exit lights.)
* Yes, it's TV and TV is still not film, but it is a area of some formal experimentation, particularly in the long-term series, that has welcomed some interesting music. The score for LOST by Michael Giacchino, for example, focused on ensembles of strings (often with extended techniques) and trombones,  with some airplane fuselage percussion, creating a wealth of material that extended well over the first few seasons and, in the total sound design, contrasted spectacularly well with the diegetic music.   
** Yes, there has been some diegetic music along these lines in the series, but it's not been great stuff and has not played compellingly with the line between the diegetic music and the musical score.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Kraig Grady on Erv Wilson

This is a nice informal video of composer Kraig Grady talking about his studies with music theorist Erv Wilson.  I'm also a student of Wilson's, having my first lesson with him while I was still in high school.  He lived (and still lives) in one of the oldest houses in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles, a wooden place (the stone chimney fell in an earthquake a couple of decades ago) high above Arroyo Seco, now the oldest section of the the west's oldest freeway.  The terraced garden in front of the house was planted with corn seedlings (later to be joined by chenopods) which, I would learn, he bred from wild plants and old cultivars he had gathered, to plant on his family's ranch in the mountains of Chihuahua, where he had been born. (Wilson speaks English with a slight trace of Chihuahuan Spanish.)  The inside of his house was full of guitars fretted in unusual ways, not one of them with twelve equal steps to the octave, bamboo and wooden flutes from South America and a variety of mallet instruments of metal tubes and slabs, wooden bars, and bamboo, each of them in a different tuning system.

When I identify Wilson as a theorist, it is not as the type of scholar who researches and teaches how to imitate or analyze harmony and voice leading, or counterpoint or form in existing tonal music or "set theory" in atonal music (though there is a certain relationship to the latter.)  Instead he's a speculative theorist, investigating the huge vector space of possible new musical materials and relationships and attempting to locate those with the most potential for use in new musics.*  His great predecessors were the theorists Huygens, Bosanquet, Novaro, Yasser and Fokker and he was also a collaborator with Harry Partch.  To this end, he has designed keyboard layouts and notations for these new scales and systems and a series of techniques for generating new materials and tools for visualizing their properties (Wilson's was a professional draughtsman in the aeronautics industry, among the last generation of pre-CAD virtuosi.)  I have written before that Wilson is probably the most productive collector and inventor of scales since Ptolemy, and that's not likely to be an exaggeration; aspects of his work in classifying scales and systems have been taken to further consequences by members of the tuning community, revealing some extraordinary new environments for potential tonal practice, much of which is now made practical (if not possible) only by computer-assisted analysis and synthesis.

Kraig Grady, now based in Australia, has been a far more loyal student of Wilson's than I, having made a formidable body of music in alternative tunings and most of the instruments required to play that music, much of it connected to Grady's (imagined?) island nation of Anaphoria.   (That website also hosts a formidable repository of Wilson's papers, which are not documents with scholarly expository prose but the visual accompaniments to his oral teaching and demonstrations.)  Although I have made quite a bit of music in tunings other than 12-tone equal temperament, and much of that in extended just intonation, the bulk of the music I get asked to make is in a nominal 12 equal, but the impact of an early exposure to the possibilities of intonational and tonal-structural alternatives has its way of infecting everything I do with pitches in any collection configuration, whether through unexpected modulations, flashes of harmonic or subharmonic spectra, or the play between local and global tonalities.  Thank you, Erv.
*One of Wilson's ideas, the Moment of Symmetry, which occurs when a generating interval —let's say a perfect fifth with the ration of 3:2 — reiterated within another interval space — let's say an octave (taking octave "equivalencies") — creates symmetrical melodic patterns when closed (returning to the initial tone) by a single anomalous intervals — for example 6 perfect fifths and 1 diminished fifth in a 7-toned scale, but also for four perfect fifths and minor sixth in a 5-toned or 11 perfect fifths and a wolf fifth in a 12-toned scale  —  a property which is prescient of the attention given to well-formedness and Myhill's Property in the academic music theory community. Wilson's "scale tree" is essentially a catalog of Moment of Symmetry scales indexed by the size of their generator and the number of iterations.

Around and about

Here are a few blogs and sites that have turned up recently:

Sound Expanse, composer Jennie Gottschalk
Detemporalizing, composer & poet Samuel Vriezen, now blogging in English
Desiring Progress, pianist & musicologist Ian Pace
Composer Daniel Goode
New Musical Resources,  trumpet player & musicologist Peter Gillette
Classical Music is Boring, photo funnies
Well-Weathered Music, composer Miguel Frasconi
The Great (un)Learning, composer Christopher Shultis
Helen Bledsoe, Flutist, exactly that
Essays & Endnotes, theorist Stephen Soderberg
Divergence Press, a new web magazine