Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Taking More Time

I was just perusing the prose score to a work by Douglas Leedy, Ocean Park 2 (or, Entropical Paradise Lost) from 1969-70.  It's one of Leedy's environmental pieces  (he was a pioneer in the field,  before the label "ambient" took hold in the 70s, with his models Satie/Milhaud and spatial/environmental music traditions like those for wind bands or carillon) and uses an ensemble who have recordings which they play back on portable cassette players of or related to his own synthesized work Entropical Paradise (released as a 3-LP album in 1968 by Seraphim Records.) While it is notable as a useful solution to the problems of presenting recorded music in live recordings (the performers begin, seated, among the audience, and then exit the hall with their sounding cassette players in tow) the most striking aspect of the score to me was this:

"Ideal total duration: 6-7 minutes."

By contemporary music concert standards, 6-7 minutes has come to represent a very brief duration for a program item, making an incredibly modest demand on an audience.  We have come to expect pieces pushing 20 minutes or so, whether at Da Proms or Da Rmstadt or at some Laptopping or Circuitbreaking gig.  Indulging the better part of an hour is not rare. Have we, as audiences, really become so much more patient?  Or do composers, generally speaking, really have that much more to say and require so much more time to say it?   While I would like to say yes to both of these questions: yes, that there has been some social-psychological change in the past decades (yes, Marge, those years of yoga class have paid off!) which has led to a net increase in listeners' patience and, yes, composers have gotten both smarter and more productive of compelling music, I just can't discount some other concerns, for example, the practical one, that once over a threshold of, say, 10 minutes, the license fees for a concert performance go up significantly (or simply, more time played means more money for the composer) or that concert organizers prefer to minimalize the number of items on a concert.  I don't, a priori, have any opposition to a piece of long duration (in fact, many of my best friends...), but do find the ratios between material and duration as well as between audience patience and composerly indulgence to be important but frustratingly sensitive to assess in advance (yes, an ideal total duration is hard to find) and  I do find it unfortunate, for too many reasons, that it's probably much harder these days to put a three-minute solo piano piece (or a 6-7 minute piece for cassette playing ensemble) on a program than it is to take up a much larger fraction of an hour with pieces demanding significantly more resources.

Monday, July 28, 2014

In our era

The Rambler (Tim Rutherford-Johnson) has some interesting theses about these musical times, identifying them as "classical".  I agree with this, though I prefer to label this an age of repertoire (thinking that there were also pre-classical eras of repertoire as well, the "Galant", for example, was also a time in which a body of techniques and styles were widely shared and emphasized subtle variety more than radical or dramatic difference (contrasting with the spirit of a "Masterpiece Ethic" of later times.))  He concentrates on technology, specifically digital, as the immediate cause here, and that's right (especially to the extent that, for example, unless you're a real laptop wonk yourself, it's getting very hard to say that one particular laptopper is going to be reliably more interesting or innovative than another)*, but I think that there is also a concentration, if not reduction, of the space for ideas and inventions (as would be expected given the tremendous growth in these in the 50s through 70s: there are a lot of tough acts to follow) as well as what might be best called The Once Thing, which means, largely due to the imbalance between supply of freshly produced compositions and the available number of venues, that most new music gets played once, if at all, so a composer's best strategy is either to attempt to make each piece a radically different, life-changing, one-time-only, all-in masterpiece, gambling that the monster of imagination can shake things up in a fundamental way, or (and this is the less anxiety-producing path) to treat each piece as an incremental development in a string or pool of ideas, in other words, a style, repertoire, or yes, a brand. And yes, a brand is a attribute of work in a competitive market, and all that that means.

* Rutherford-Johnson also hints at something here, with his illustration of a shelf of recent long-format TV series, that needs to be taken even further.  Because it's the fragmentation of the TV business that has made these formal innovations (and they're real, at least from The Wire on, and can be terrific if the energy is sustained) and new and experimental musicians certain should recognize that some of our best work has come from not only fragmentation, but marginalization!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

N is for Non-Stop

We (musicians, composers in particular) tend to have a lot invested in the habit that a piece of music is taken in in a single stretch.  Okay, operas and ballets have their acts and intermissions and symphonies and suites have their movements, but the assumption is that the audience receives a whole work of music in as close to one near-continuous audition as possible.  (There are some parallel arguments about the unity of the content of the work taking place in that continuity, but that's for another time, another place.)  There is definitely value to be had in this and some exquisite and exquisitely long works (think La Monte Young or Morton Feldman) have their lengthy continuity deep in their compositional and auditional DNA, if often risking that boundary of gullibility between the musically sublime and a cultic ritual of exaggeration, but it not an absolute value. Pieces of brief duration, pieces that can be heard and processed well before joints start to ache or chair start to squeak or fits of coughing flock in and the concert hall air becomes stale, can be just as profound an experience, given the right balance of material and time.

But the durations of the biggest musical works are somewhat modest when compared with those required to read very long works of literature or episodic television dramas or some computer games.    I'm something of an obsessive reader (and re-reader) of big novels and some are so engaging that they begin to take over my waking life (and much of the dream life in-between), and although I try to give as much continuity as possible to the experience of reading, there are inevitable breaks (sleep, eat, personal necessity, kids, dog, spouse, work...) which, ultimately, don't seem like intrusions, just part of the larger continuity that, say, My Fortnight Reading Against The Day (or whatever) happens to form.  (Okay, this is just a guess on my part. I haven't actually tried  reading a book in such a way that all distractions could be eliminated and total continuity is assured (and, come to think of it, actually have no interest in trying such an experience, thinking of what it might entail: an isolation chamber, tied to a moderately comfortable chair, tube feeding, adult diapers, massive amounts of caffeine and/or Modafinil.)) Do we accept such breaks in the continuity of reading literature when we continue to assume that a piece of music has to be heard all at once to "really get it"?

I'll contend that the big novel, like the serious television serial of recent years, and perhaps the computer game, offers some formal opportunities for the large musical work, both in terms of flexibility and complexity but also the potential for extension, if we can simply take a more relaxed approach to continuity. (In part, this is why recorded music so rapidly overtook concert-going.  Also, those famous attempts at multi-day opera cycles (Wagner, Stockhausen, Braxton) have come to depend on their being able to be taken in pieces, often widely separated in time and wildly rearranged in continuity.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

(Not Just) Fun and Games

Stephen Soderberg has a typically thoughtful post, from his on-going series on "Music Theory Today", which uses the notion of music as a game.  The usual framework for thinking of music as a game is that it works with a finite set of rules yet their application can lead to a (potentially) infinite set of of outcomes (whether pieces, performances, or auditions.)  Innovation — unexpected new varieties of music — are understood as coming from unexpected, yet still strict, applications and combinations of these rules.  But that's not the only way to think about these innovations.  One way is to think in terms of rule-breaking.  (I can't help, in this case, but think about the (probably apocryphal) legend of the invention of Rugby Football, when a footballer suddenly picked up the ball with his hands and ran for it and, I supposed, all his teammates and competitors spontaneously agreed that this was okay.)  And a regime of rule-breaking would presumably run in fits and starts of testing the extents and limits of the known rules, sometimes by cunning, often by accident, and then periodically revising the rule book to better reflect the current state of play.  But this view is still based in the notion that there are, in fact, rules, and that their understanding and application is shared.  But what if we're really playing a kind of game like a Wittgensteinian language game, and we bop along on that notion of a shared rule book and shared interpretation of those rules, but every so often we get a kick from the reality of obvious dissonances between how different people are performing, in the form of ways of making music that simply don't follow the set of rules we've been operating under?   It's not just a more imaginative application of the rules we've agreed upon and neither is it a breaking of one or more rules, it's a message that the whole scheme of rules we think have defined music-making, have been fundamentally off.  Sometimes, this suggests a social gap of some sort is at play: I once heard a conversation between two famous experimental music composers that went on for twenty minutes or so before each of them realized that they were talking about different things (as it happens, one was talking about "Polish mead", the other about "Polish meats"; how they ever got to that pair of topics, I'll never know, and each of them was solidly puzzled about why they should be conversing about such things (to be fair, each was exhausted after some long days of travel, rehearsals and concerts), but they chatted happily enough along, simply enjoying each others' company until a third party intervened and asked what they were talking about, thus popping that little balloon of misunderstanding.)  But other times, I think this is due to the fact that our joint or individual operating "Theory of Music" really is only ever a provisional one and that there is a great deal of indeterminacy about the causal relations between theories of music and actual music making, that there are an indefinite number of ways of arriving at the same musical outcome (not to mention all the uncertainty around our weak definition of "same" wrt music) and that it is far from clear whether any one particular way is or even can be more correct than another, or even if it is actually possible for us to determine this. What all this means is that we have a lot of room to maneuver before, during, and after music making.  And if that doesn't give you some optimism about the future of music as an art with as-yet-unknown variety, I don't know what else does!

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Exercises and the Cadence

I've mentioned my fondness for Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style (1947), in which the same (pointless) story is told and retold in a large variety of writing styles, 99 to be precise — telegraphic, in Alexandrines, as reported speech, in metaphors etc. —, and the exciting thing, of course, is that it invites the reader to exercise her or himself stylistically, too. It strikes me that we musicians already had a variant on the idea in Alfredo Casella's The Evolution of Music Throughout the History of the Perfect Cadence (1924, but do see the posthumous edition, which updates the "evolution", even finding a perfect cadence in a Boulez score.) The variation here is that the same (pointless) story is the perfect cadence, but Casella did not compose his stylistic examples himself, instead finding them in historical musics, and by presenting them in historical order, he makes a narrative of the whole that Queneau's unorganized set of 99 does not.  John Cage was famously enthusiastic about the Casella volume (but do see the first edition, which does confirm with Cage's narrative of the exhaustion of the cadence.)

Casella the composer is a figure that we've had trouble with.  Although there are remarkable aspects of his work — a good portion of his music (mostly instrumental, and at its best often as exercises in historical, especially Baroque, styles) is quite wonderful, his own piano rolls and sound recordings present a very fine pianist, he was a leader in both promoting new and old music, for which he was perhaps the person most responsible for the revival of the works of Vivaldi... heck, he was even Arthur Fiedler's predecessor at the helm of the Boston Pops — he was also very much on the wrong side of world history, politically, and there are concrete aspects of his musical activity, for example founding the so-called "Corporation of the New Music" together with D'Annunzio and Malipiero, two very murky figures, that continue to be more than uncomfortable.