Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Pear-shaped, flame-shaped

Satie's Trois Morceaux en forme de poire (1903 (with the opening movement, a 7th Gnossienne, dating to 1891 as a part of the incidental music to the play Le Fils des étoiles)), for piano, four hands, is a favorite piece with a favorite title.  But I've always found that title an awkward fit for the music, too comic, too awkward, silly even.  (Satie could do comic, awkward, and yes, silly, but that doesn't describe these pieces, even granting that the Trois Morceaux  is actually a suite framing its titular Three Pieces with two movements in advance and two following for a total of seven movements.) But I think it's likely that I've been fundamentally misunderstanding this.  How would you describe, in a single word, the shape of a (European) pear?  There's a perfectly good, if mostly forgotten, word for that shape: spelled either pyriform or piriform. (There is ambiguity about the etymology here, the former suggests a Latin root, pirum for pear, but the latter of which comes from the Greek πῦρ, flame.)  The image of a flame immediately suggests a character altogether different from that which we now associate with a pear-like form: a body in which most weight has drooped or dropped to its bottom, or even a event or action which has gone badly wrong. Gone South = Gone pear-shaped. But these pieces don't do that at all.  Could Satie have been referring more to the lithe and pyric pear, tapering in and up to the top, rather than the amply-bottomed, bulbous, pear, tapering out and down to the bottom? The progression of the three pieces at the center of this suite —   Lentement / En Leve / Brutal  (slowly/rising/brutal) — certainly suggest more of a flame than a bottom-heavy fruit.  A bit of research into pear history also tells us that the present premiership of the apple among orchard fruits is relatively recent and Satie would have come of age within the closing era of the regency of the pear, then thought more elegant and, as now, more delicate than its Rosaceae family cousin. The title of the Trois Morceaux en forme de poire  is aspirational not deprecating.

Monday, November 30, 2015

S is for Snowflake

Music makes a storm:
each new sound has a shape of its own
yet the whole flows;
its continuity, a flocking,
as so many snowflakes,
chiming eccentric spectra
a-gust in concert.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Mumma on Mumma and More

I've been reading the new collection of composer Gordon Mumma's writings, edited by Michelle Fillion, Cybersonic Arts: Adventures in American New Music (UI Press.)  It covers territory most widely associated with Mumma's career: at the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in Ann Arbor, with the ONCE Festival, the Sonic Arts Group/Union, and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, with colleagues including Ashley, Tudor, Cage, and Oliveros, but also his less familar but equally important engagement with a geographically wider American Music is well-represented here. The volume includes more explicit writings about his own compositional work for both electronic and "acoustic" instrumental resources than has been previously available.  Mumma has a precise and engaging writing style with a very distinct sense of balance between the explicit and the open or (provocatively) unresolved, whether the matter concerns notes, personalities, politics, or something larger we might venture to call a distinctive aesthetics.  (Balance, I have found, is a central concern in his music, whether playfully pushing analog circuitry in or (more productively) out of balance be it by the sounds of a horn or the movements of dances in a real space or working with pitches which seem to be arguing stubbornly against their own axes of symmetry (and in the various-sized -Mographs series for piano(s), tectonically so.)  Fillion's introductory materials are clear, usefully giving context to the writings but also suggesting wider lines of inquiry. I'm biased here — Mumma was/is my teacher, I publish some of his works at — but I can recommend this book without

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

R is for Resolute

Thomas Pynchon's three novel-length detective stories (The Crying of Lot 49, Inherent Vice,  and Bleeding Edge) each describe investigations by intrepid if improbable investigators that tend to turn in unexpected ways, encountering strange people in strange situations, all the while gathering inconclusive evidence of increasingly obscure reliability or even relevance. The world becomes less clear through the steady accumulation of detail. We do, in fact, know more, we are perhaps even wiser (perhaps mostly wiser about our own persons), but we have not necessarily solved the mystery. Indeed, the exact nature of that mystery is postponed (N.O. Brown: "The dynamic of capitalism is postponement of enjoyment to the constantly postponed future.")

I think that this is a quality shared with all the best "tales of ratiocination" (as Poe had it): from Oedipus, Hamlet, and the death of Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter onward. The process of discovering, in each of these, is so much more vital and compelling than any actual discovery of a definitive or settled fact or detail.  Things continually resolve without necessarily ever getting any more clear.

Often, I think, music is compelling precisely because it is resolute, moving forward (La Monte Young: "draw a straight line and follow it"), without necessarily coming to a definitive resolution (perhaps better: "draw a meandering line and find yourself by getting yourself lost.")  We spend a lot of time in counterpoint and harmony classes learning about resolution, which is offered implicitly as a kind of restitution of tonal order or, — less morally loaded — as a return to comfort zones (sensory consonance being relatively comfortable) and always in the direction, as the term of art has it, of "dissonance resolving to consonance."  But this avoids the truth here, that without the relief of dissonance, consonance is not audible as anything in particular; they're just directions in continua, not absolutes.  (Tonal prolongation is, indeed, a form of postponement of enjoyment to some postponed future.)  It's all about moving along continua, oscillating between investigating the unknown and bopping back into the comfortable. Going places but not necessarily ever getting there.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Q is for Quantum

I've opined here before that one of the reasons music works is that we, listeners, have a weak sense of what is the same and what is different in music.  This weakness creates significant room for all kinds of tonal ambiguity and illusion, allusion and variation to take place.  (An example: the sense that a piece of tonal music starts and ends in the same place, but — and reliably often so — a simultaneous sense that the ending is marked by some significant difference from the beginning. Think about it: it really does happen all the time!)

Here's another reason why music works: we have a degree of uncertainty about what the smallest bit of significant musical information is.  This uncertainty creates some useful room for variation in what might be called the level of attention paid to music.

To some extent, we go about our lives as practical musicians operating as if this is a settled matter: notes, those round blotches with stems attached, are the atoms or quanta of music.

I recall a transcription exercise, when studying ethnomusicology, in which everyone in the seminar was given the task of transcribing the same English folk song.  My own transcription was picayune, I tried to capture small pitch and rhythmic movements, whether due to design or error, with odd time signatures and several tempo changes, lots of 32nds and some tuplets, some bits of vibrato, even a sustained microtone or two.  I used those impressive-looking IPA characters for the text. It looked like something by Berio, ca. 1964. In stark contrast, one of my colleagues, who happened to be from West Africa, on the other hand, wrote it out in 4/4, straight quarters and halves, rounded up or down to a C major scale.  And the remaining class members made versions that were everywhere in-between.  Which transcription was correct? Which was incorrect?  Any or all, depending upon what you're attending to in the music, or for what you intend to use the transcription.  I imagine that my transcription could be used to recreate that particular performance — it would be something virtuoso to accomplish, but still possible —, but in some real sense, my colleague's more minimal transcription might be a more faithful — and certainly a more practical for performers — edition of the song.  Maybe the varied results in this exercise just illustrate that transcription is, necessarily, an analytical project, and there are many legitimate ways to analyze the same stretch of music.

In a large piece of writing many years ago, I worked with the idea that composers in the 20th century tended to focus on music as either single indivisible notes, as larger series or strings of events, or as activity taking place within the space occupied by the note. Of course, in practice, the best musicians attend to music at all three of these levels simultaneously, sometimes emphasizing one more than others, but we do tend to think of a musical performance as something that is ideally secure at all of these levels.  And better yet, there is considerable room for compellingly musical work which tugs at the boundaries of these levels.  I remember, for example, some field recordings of music that were, at first listen, rather reduced in material variety. A quarter-and-halves transcription would have sufficed, the tonal resources were not even pentatonic. But the music was compelling, and repeated closer listening revealed that there was in fact a whole world of rhythmic sophistication in the music that I had missed altogether. It was to be found in what I had probably casually dismissed as vibrato.  In fact, the vibrato was extremely regular and controlled as to speed, depth, and shape and I had almost missed it altogether.  Similarly, in his works which use the beating of closely-tuned intervals, Alvin Lucier often creates an environment in which conventional parameters — pitch, rhythm and tempo, timbre — become less distinct, the boundaries between them often fluid.  The tempi in Lucier's quartet, Navigations for Strings, for example, become paradoxical as it is unclear whether the prevailing tempo is that of the tones articulated by the players or the beating rates between those tones, and these rates follow independent, but generally opposed or contradictory, trajectories. I have been listening to this string quartet for 20-some years, and I'm still amazed at how my sense of the piece bounces between hearing it as basically a fast or a slow piece.  What a rich field of possibilities!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

P is for Predictable

Many years ago, in Santa Cruz, I knocked on David Cope's office door, probably to get his signature on some piece of superfluous-but-obligatory bureaucratese, or possibly to get a glance at his latest piece (he was then in the habit of composing scores, in a somewhat public way, with the manuscript paper lining the walls in the conference room attached to his then-office.) He had a cassette playing in the background, Sibelius's 6th, I think.  He said "I love listening to Sibelius. Even after listening to the same piece so many times, I never know exactly what is going to happen next, he never does the predictable."

Friday, July 03, 2015

All Things Brant

There's a new Henry Brant page, here, with information about the composer, known best for his pioneering work in spatial music and his unique approach to orchestration.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Yearbooks lost and found

Long since disappeared into that void formed by too many moves — between houses, between towns, across one continent, then an ocean, and then back and forth within another continent (hopefully to stay put for a while (I'm tired of moving)) —are my copies of my high school yearbook.  And more to good, I say, that that era of youth, but bad haircuts, has vanished from the evidence room.

But at least there is THE EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC YEARBOOK, here.  No bad haircut photos in it, but plenty of good things to read, hear, watch.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Letters of Recommendation, a Modest Recommendation

This year, even more than years past it seems, I've heard colleagues complain loudly about the letter-of-recommendation season, and these colleagues come from among both the letter-seeking and letter-writing.  A routine expectation has developed that all applicants for scholarships, jobs, and advancement need to accompany their applications with three letters of recommendation (LORs.) Now, there are a few large institutions with job placement offices that have got a system in place for reproducing application portfolios complete with copies of "to whom it may concern" LORs, and in many cases this system works well enough, but most applicants find themselves asking their LORs-writers repeatedly for letters and more LORs-writers dutifully generate those letters, and in many cases, write updated or entirely new letters tailored to the particular job or opportunity. All of this amounts to a lot of time and effort and no small amount of social awkwardness, and when the actual statistics of the crapshoot that these job markets and such are considered, most of this effort, — including LORs that are written in very thoughtful and considerate ways — is simply lost in the mass of materials received.

As someone who is (mostly) out of this business — rarely applying for anything and almost equally rarely being solicited for recommendations — may I be considered a neutral party when I make the following recommendation to persons or institutions taking applications for scholarships or jobs?

Do not require completed LORs for initial applications.  Instead, require that applicants provide a list, with titles and accurate and up-to-date contact information, of three persons qualified to advise on the applicant and her or his work.  Perhaps specify if you'd like to hear about teaching or performance or compositional work or scholarship or collegiality in particular and encourage the applicant to nominate people who could write or speak authoritatively to that particular area.  Do not require applicants to ask these people for LORs themselve, but, after having made a narrow selection from your applicant pool, contact these persons directly.  This is an indication to the recommending party that their opinion has been sought out confidentially and is being taken seriously in a process with some chance of success.  This is respectful of both your applicants and your recommendors, at the very least in terms of their time, and it is also more likely to yield recommendations that are less generic and more responsive to the particulars of your situation and search.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Experiment, maybe not, invention, maybe better

While I'm comfortable enough with the phrase "experimental music" (let me cheerfully remind that Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue was premiered at a Paul Whiteman concert billed as "An Experiment in Modern Music") particular when the outcome of the compositional work is unknown, and because there is a known historical repertoire or tradition to which this label — sometimes more, often less, accurately — is attached, I may be more comfortable with identifying music as inventive, or individual works as inventions.  Though my immediate nod of acknowledgement  here goes to poet Charles Bernstein (in his essay/interview collection Attack of the Difficult Poems), there is a legitimate tradition in music of using the term, from the contrapuntal keyboard Inventionen of Bach (in his "learned" mode) to the handmade circuitry virtuosi of more recent days (with added hat tips along the way to the fathers of Charles Ives and John Cage as well as those imaginatively monstrous soundmaking inventions of a Percy Grainger or Harry Partch and every Wagner Tuba or Sousaphone you'll ever encounter.) The term invention gets us usefully out of characterizing and evaluating a work based on whether a precise and verifiable experimental method has been carried out and takes us more, well, musically, into a realm of trial and error in composition, performance and audition, with evaluation — does this "work"? is this compelling? does this stretch of sound — this potential (hat tip to the Oulipo here) music — actually achieve the musical? — usefully returned to questions of aesthetics or taste rather than experimental demonstration without relinquishing the thrill associated with the experimental that comes from the potential, the risk, of failure.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Our music's history has more texture than the textbooks say

Received music history and the repertoire or canon that comes alongside it is necessarily streamlined and condensed.  It's got to fit into concert programs, program notes, survey course semesters and textbooks and, whether as advocates or critics, we tend to try to make it fit some larger arc, trajectory, argument or narrative.  And so both works of monstrous extraordinariness and ordinary repertoire get selected and fit, and much gets lost, forgotten or simply set aside as inconvenient in the process.  And that's mostly okay, because most musical ventures can be lost or forgotten without major loss, making room for further refinement, other voices, and even some altogether new ideas. But the inconvenient omissions often require some attention, if only to tug at the edge of our certainty with regard to our arc, trajectories, and narratives and see if we needn't recalibrate or retell them.

Here's a narrative-challenging example, from my work on the Douglas Leedy Nachlass, a previously unpublished and — I believe —  publicly unperformed piece dated 5 April 1964 with the title Spatial Rotation of 10 to 20 Like Instruments:

The 10 to 20 instruments — the composer suggests either clarinets, French horns, trumpets, violas or cellos, providing fingering charts for clarinets or horns — are to be distributed widely throughout the performance space.  Each of the instruments may begin at the beginning of any measure (excepting those measures in which a tone has already begun), continuing left to right, top to bottom (and back to the top), continuing strictly to a common tempo which varies by and is exactly proportional to the number of players, until returning to the initial point.  The pitches consist of the outer tones, b and e'' and eight tones microtonally spanning the interval between a raised f#' and lowered a', so that a maximum-content static but internally continuously changing sonority is produced which could be though of as an inversion of a triad on e, in which the internal tone is varying, blurred, and beating within the space among the plausible thirds above the tonic.

I have not heard this piece except in a rough mock-up on my computer, so I will reserve judgment about whether it "works" or not as a concert work, but I do think that it has a distinct character and internally engaging sonority that could only be richer in a live performance in a real space.  To the point, now, it is very striking in its historical context, reflecting the individual concerns at that time and place of the composer and the "scene" in which he was then working, and I believe that it presents some real challenges to our sense of how music history subsequently went, in particular as there as aspects of the piece which strongly connect to some music of the 80s or 90s by composers including Cage, Feldman, Tenney, or  Lucier.  To understand its position in the Bay Area scene, consider that it was written at approximately the same time as Terry Riley's In C, the Spring of 1964 (In C would receive its first performance in November of the same year) and that it was written while the composer was in the graduate composition seminar at UC Berkeley.  The surviving materials suggest that it had been read through in some form by student musicians for the seminar but not in a public concert; indeed it is difficult to imagine the piece getting played on either practical or aesthetic grounds in that setting and my suspicion, based on conversations with the composer is that he was discouraged both by the unlikelihood of gathering 10 to 20 like instruments with players sympathetic to the piece and the lack of sympathy from Berkeley professor Seymour Shifrin. But nevertheless, the score represents a nexus of Leedy's  interests: a non-developmental or even uneventful environmental music, a static harmony based on a fixed gamut of tones,  a degree of indeterminacy, canons, intonation, mathematically-determined time lengths, and something broader with regard to texture that looks forward to — and perhaps helps explain — his stay in Poland during 1965-66.

Score example Copyright 2015 Estate of Douglas Leedy & Material Press, Frankfurt am Main

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What do we call our music?

Today I was looking over the program for a concert of the THIRD ANNUAL FESTIVAL OF THE AVANT GARDE, held in San Francisco in 1966 and then minutes later two festival announcements for the coming summer came across a social media feed, one for a "(n.n.) festival of experimental music, sound art and media", the other for a "(n.n.) 2015 Festival of Contemporary Music."  Why is the oldest festival, and the one that uses that ex-military term, the one that sounds to me, at this moment in history, the most intriguing and fresh  (and not only because that THIRD ANNUAL FESTIVAL had not been preceded by a FIRST or SECOND, let alone followed by a FOURTH)? Why is it that "experimental music, sound art and media" doesn't carry the charge any more that any mention of media did, say, in the MacLuhan heyday of 40-some years ago?  And why does anything with "Contemporary Music" in its title say nothing more or less than "snooze fest"?  

Yes, The New Music has a nomenclature crisis, a branding problem.  It doesn't help that we can't unambiguously use The New anymore in the US or other anglophone contexts (unlike in German-speaking countries in which the Neue Musik term still has some charge, almost a century late), at the very least ever since the New Music America Festival days (1979-90), during which time the New Music label got diluted internally by an increasingly diffuse content message (in large part due to a necessary increase in programming diversity, but still diluting the brand name) and was externally occupied  by an "alternative" popular music trade fair (but then again, new as in novel was never going to be a useful external label for a particular tradition as each tradition can and will have its own novelty acts.)

I don't have a solution to this.  After the New Music, there will always be another New Music. Contemporary Music is supposed to be what's happening now (though usually sounds like what happened then.)  I happen to like experimental music, but it's a label about means not ends, too internal to compositional or technical concerns and without much suggestion to potential listeners.  I like The Radical Music even more, but for a particular direction of music-making, and I'm a party of one here with regard to the name.  So in the meantime, until we can agree on terms, maybe we can just settle on making and listening to, well, music?

Composition is (sometimes) Research.

A recent article by the English composer John Croft with an assertion for a title, Composition is not Research, has received a lot of social media attention within Newmusicland.  Within the narrow context of academic employment for composers and the even-more-narrow context of evaluating the non-teaching, non-service activities of faculty composers, the title is mostly true, but only for the reason that most of the music faculty composers anywhere write is going to be quietist in nature, producing usable repertoire, but not music which asks questions about the nature, extent and limits of listening in general or music in particular.

I make a lot of music that falls into that quietist comfort zone too, but I also make music with a more radical or experimental nature and, reliably often, characterizing it as a form of research is not only fair but accurate.  When — and I'm just following Cage here — the outcome of a compositional procedure is unknown, then characterizing the work as experimental, indeed as experimental research, is fair.   The method, using a speculative thesis, testing it, repeating it, advancing conclusions, trying alternatives and consequential procedures, etc. is research plain and simple. Moreover, the areas of exploration enters into the fields of acoustics, material sciences, psychoaoustics and cognitive science which are established areas of scholarship. I find that composition which engages these areas adds an interesting and challenging aesthetic dimension to the research at the same time it risks adding to the given definitions of the music.

Thus, I am comfortable in asserting that this kind of work is research suitable to a university setting and suitable materials for evaluation as research whether for degree or academic employment and advancement.  My sense, however, is that the more urgent  question behind an article like Croft's is a question of the place of aesthetic production without an explicit research dimension, i.e. repertoire music designed as reliably performable rather than requiring compositional, performative and auditional risks, within a research program or institution.  I don't know the history in British institutions, but this has been wrestled with in US academia since after the Second World War in which the decision of an institution to offer graduate degrees to composers reflected a serious division among institutions, with some insisting on a terminal master's degree of some sort for composition, others promoting degrees based principally on creative work, MFAs, DMus etc., and others recognizing a PhD in composition as a form of research.  However, that era of wrestling on principle soon gave way to a considerable loosening of the categories and even — let's say it — degree inflation, such that many institutions established doctoral programs with PhDs or DMus-ez without investing much in their distinction. And, with regard to faculty hiring, there seems to be little discrimination based on the presence of a research program per se, but certainly on aspects of publication (commissions, performances, recordings, sheet music) and when the publication of written words is expected, composers are not always expected to produce scholarly papers in the manner of musicologists or theorists, but material that more immediately represents the composer's viewpoint, source literature not secondary, if you will.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The occasional is okay, too.

A treasured older couple in our neighborhood just got married after 29 years of wilde Ehe (I'm leaving it in the German — "wild marriage" — because the English equivalents are not quite right: "common law marriage", "shacking up", "living in sin" etc.) and I congratulated them by writing an ironic little wedding march with that title, for piano four-hands.  It has a few tricks, but it's tonal and traditional enough both to have the desired recipients cheered and to have me worried about having subconsciously plagiarized a phrase or two (which is one of those risks you will always have when writing tonally and traditionally!)

I mentioned this to an old friend from Newmusicland, played it through once, and was immediately read the Riot Act from the Newmusicland Code of Conduct:  "You can't do that!" my friend said, "you're supposed to be making New Music, not... (as he repeatedly jabbed the score with his forefinger)... that!"

I was taken aback by the vehemence of the complaint, too much so to have an immediate replay, but now that I've had a chance to breathe normally, I wish I had said: "It's time to get over the idea that a composer is a kind of brand with a certain fixed market identity.  Most of us are much more interesting than that and can do more than one thing, whether within music, or beyond music. Sure, the best of us will have a sensibility that projects itself throughout our catalog, idea, styles, practices, and ethics that can often allow a listener to successfully "name that composer!" But not always, not consistently so.  Interesting composers and good composers — intersecting but not identical sets — are inevitably inconsistent because the issues they are concerned with and the circumstances they write in or for are always changing, and the composer responds to that change, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing (and when failing, the best fail spectacularly!)  A composer's work has trajectory, but it also necessarily has variety and it is done within lifetimes of events and occasions that aren't always of the same importance or general interest, and if a composer happens to also make work that fits such events and occasions, even if you find it to be Kitsch or worse, if others find it useful or appropriate isn't that still a net enrichment rather than a loss?  And even if you disagree with me still, (a) please rethink how committed you are to composers having to have market identities, and (b) so far as I know, no one holds a license to tell me to compose this or not to compose that, and that empty set, that no one, excludes you and me both" and (c) isn't it okay just to have some fun, sometimes?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Gentlemen, seriously?

So this 2015 Geneva International Competition in Composition has an international jury with five senior composers on it, all male, and the five younger composers selected by that jury as finalists are all male as well. (Thanks for the link, here.)  Above and beyond the ridiculousness of plopping down 100 Swiss Francs to participate in a crap shoot like this, I can't hold the finalists responsible for their selection from the paramutual field; indeed, even in a demographically more balanced jury it is possible they might just have been the five to have been selected, but I do think that the organizers of the competition itself as well as the sponsoring Reine Marie José Foundation have some serious explaining to do for selecting an all male jury and each one of the jurors has some explaining to do as to why they accepted a place on an all-male jury. Why did none of these jurors turn down the appointment to the jury and suggest a woman colleague to serve in their place? It's 2015, so I think it's fair to ask Pascal Dusapin, Luca Francesconi, Dai Fujikura, and Wolfgang Rihm why they accepted a place in such a jury and to ask Michael Jarrell why he would accept the chair of such a jury.  In the photo, it looks like all five jurors are having a perfectly chummy time together, but come on, it's 2015 and as fair-minded as you each may well be, Gentlemen of the Jury, the optics just don't work anymore, and instead they suggest an atmosphere of, well, chumminess rather than diversity and openness.  At the very least, the organizers and the jury owe the finalists an apology, because their selection will forever be discounted by the fact that it was made by an all-male jury, like one of those asterisks after a track record qualifying it because of the altitude, wind direction, absence of competition, or subjective judging.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A life, a catalog

Over the past few weeks, I've had the opportunity to assist with compiling a provisional catalog of Douglas Leedy's/Bhishma Xenotechnites's musical works, with a parallel, if less detailed, organization of his writings and correspondence.  I suppose that this is work that a properly credentialed historical musicologist or archivist is supposed to do, but I think that a composer/publisher does bring a useful perspective as well and, in the case of a catalog with its particular nexus of concerns — not just the postwar avant-garde, but the west coast radical or experimental music, tuning theory, Carnatic and Javanese music, early western music, electronic music, and Classical Greek and Latin — the overlaps with my own interests and experience are advantageous.  Plus (and objectivity be damned) I knew the guy.  But actually handling the sketches, drafts and manuscripts of nearly 60 years of composing life and simply ordering them chronologically inevitably conveys more of the rhythm and texture of the life lived alongside the work than I had known before and, in the process, uncovered a large amount of music that was previously unknown to me (and much of which had been inaccessible to the composer himself for many years) so that I think I have a better grip on how the various phases of the composer's work connected, for example from the radical Bay Area scene to his stay in 1965 Poland to his electronic environments and then the deep engagements with historical and non-western musics alongside his increasing attention to intonation. With this intense study, I've only grown to appreciate the man more — not always the inevitable result of musical-biographical study — as well as confirm my commitment to getting more of this music out into the world (about which I'll have more to write later.)  

A catalog of works does not contain the life of the artist who made it, but it is a kind of tracing or shadow, of that life.  Sketches show steps and — just as usefully — missteps or paths not followed. Manuscripts are often affixed with the place and date of composition and together with programs, reviews, and letters, the basic contour of the life, in terms of motion through space, can be established.  Marginalia and other material evidence hints at the social and environmental connections (i.e. names of performers and appointments for rehearsals; that sketch written on the back of an angry, but unsent, letter to a politician; a switch to using Kenaf rather than dead tree paper.)  I don't personally subscribe to composition as a literal, biographical means of expression and for the most part, Leedy did not either, but many works are written to mark occasions or events in the composer's life and if the biographical does not directly attach meaning to a work, it can often be useful in understanding the connections between works in the catalog, how the composer went from one idea or practice to the next.  The life is not the work, but much of it is certainly found in the space between entries in the catalog.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Douglas Leedy - Bhishma Xenotechnites

I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing late Saturday of Douglas Leedy, also known as Bhishma Xenotechnites, composer, music and classics scholar, teacher and friend. The native of Portland was 77 and had been ill for a long time, but the news still comes as a shock, having just moved into a hospice facility in Corvallis, Oregon.

In his life and work, Doug followed an extraordinary trajectory away from the current trajectory of western civilization, with his passions for nature and the environment directing his musical searches, rejecting both virtuosity (he had been an orchestral hornist) and the (not quite) equal-temperament of the piano, digging deep into the past of European music (he founded and directed the Portland Handel Festival, where he conducted rare performances of the oratorios Theodora and Jeptha from the continuo keyboard), to Ancient Greek and Latin Music as well as an intensive study of South Indian music in Madras with the great vocalist K. V. Narayanaswamy. As a composer, he had studied at Pomona College with Karl Kohn (but was closest to William F. Russell, the director of choirs and Department Chair) as well as with Lukas Foss as Crofts Fellow at the Berkshire Music Center in 1958 and then went to Berkeley where he studied with Seymour Shifrin, William Denny and Joaquin Nin-Culmell and was part of an extraordinary group of students including La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, and Paul A. Epstein. Upon completing his MA in composition, he began work on a (never-complete) dissertation on the songs of Berlioz and played horn in the Oakland Symphony and San Francisco Opera and Ballet orchestras.

His Bay Area years included the premieres of chamber and theatre works, including his Octet: Quaderno Rossiniano, an assembly of Rossini fragments, mostly from internal instrumental parts and Decay, a theatre work composed in collaboration with Ian Underwood and staged by Robert Moran. Leedy's Wind Quintet, a piece of considerable complexity, earned the enthusiasm of Gunther Schuller who commissioned a new work for the Tanglewood, Usable Music II in Bb for (untuned) wind ensemble, a work featuring the instrumentalists cynically reciting texts drawn from Piston's orchestration textbook through their horns.  The reception in the Berkshires was one of considerable controversy (that Leedy was not invited back to the Tanglewood event 2008 celebrating the "class of 38" is one sign that the scandal had not waned!)  He spent years abroad in Venezuela and Poland. Called to teach first at UCLA, where he established the electronic music studio and was commissioned to compose several albums of electronic music, including the landmarks of environmental music (i.e. "ambient" music before ambient music was a thing) The Electric Zodiac and Entropical Paradise.  (Selections from the latter were featured in the soundtrack album to the film of Slaughterhouse Five;  realizations of one of the Entropical Paradise pieces have become standard repertoire in the analog synthesizer community.)  He later taught at Reed College in Portland before exiting the academy for a life of even more intense but strictly independent scholarship, which culminated in his late settings of ancient lyrics — a substantial portion of which he could sing from memory — as well as a monograph on the subject, which I have pointed to here before. Among his major later works are Canti, music for contrabass and chamber ensemble composed for Bertram Turetzky, Sinfonia Sacrae, for soprano, viola da gamba and harpsichord, books of music for keyboards in just and meantone tunings, Pastorale after Horace for chorus with retuned piano, 4-hands, Sur la Couche des Miettes for mixed ensemble, a Piano Sonata in memory of John Cage, and Three Symphonies for unison orchestra, without conductor or rehearsal.

I first met Doug at the Early Music Workshop in Idyllwild, California, led by my teacher Shirley Robbins. I was 14 and we have been corresponding ever since, making it now 39 years. He gave me a copy of Lou Harrison's Music Primer and I will forever be grateful for that, a perfect gift for an aspiring composer with experimental ideas. He was the last of the great letter writers; though he would sometimes use the Internet in a library, he didn't own a computer of his own or use email. We sometimes telephoned, most memorably during the days while Mt St Helens, above Portland, was erupting, but he could get cranky on the phone. He preferred pen and paper and each letter is beautiful to read as well as to look at and his concerns went from the environment to politics in general, to music ancient and much less so. A vegetarian, he kept a good garden whenever he could and kept his environmental footprint small. I don't know believe in the notion of 36 Tzadik, hidden righteous ones who secretly keep the whole planet in order by justifying humanity to God, but if I could be allowed a smalled gathering of the righteous, inspiring personal confidence in humanity, Doug, Bhishma, would have been very much among them.

Update: Charles Shere has a fine tribute here.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

More Sapphics

As long as we're talking Sappho, let me note that the Sapphic stanza provides a very attractive metric for non-lyric composition as well. Here's a modest example, using  Sapphic stanzas and chromatic tetrachords, from a set of pieces I made for my daughter to play:

Friday, March 13, 2015


The New Yorker has a fine review-article coinciding with the publication of Diane Rayor's new volume of Sappho translations (Diane is an old friend and it's been an intellectual adventure and aesthetic pleasure to be able to watch her shape and re-shape her Sappho over decades.)  The reviewer, Daniel Mendelsohn, has also attached an article about trying to recover the music in Sappho's poems, here, including a recording of a Sappho "performance" by the late Columbia classicist Stephen Daitz. With all respect to Prof. Daitz, while we get an exaggerated version of the pitch accent of spoken Ancient Greek, I don't think his recitation actually recovers much music. Much better is something like this reconstruction by Douglas Leedy which actually dares to compose a melody that complements the natural pitch accent of the Greek:

Friday, March 06, 2015

Composing, or: From One Wreck to Another

You finish a big project and what's left over?  Wreckage: Flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict.  Some on paper, some in the head, some sounds still ringing.  Some can be recovered, recycled, others can be abandoned, most without regret. The next piece, always the next piece.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Slow Death by Administration

Pay attention to Stephen Soderberg's post about the growth, no explosion, in degree programs, through specialized MBAs, in Arts Administration or Management, here.

There are a couple of things going on behind this that I'd like to emphasize, albeit with less of Stephen's diplomatic grace:
  • The first is that growth in such programs comes directly from the pressure on higher education to create ever more asses-in-seats, fee-bringing programs, regardless of any actual, real world need for graduates of such programs. 
  • The second is credentialism in fields that have gotten along perfectly well without formal credential systems for a good long time. When I first came to Germany I did a lot of English teaching, to bankers and brokers in particular, feeling part of a noble-enough tradition, going back at least to James Joyce, of liberally-educated native speakers teaching individualized courses in their own language for too little pay, as an interim working situation which found a natural optimum for student and teacher alike and was sufficiently profitable for even the greediest language school; but already at that time, a quarter century ago, the first signs were emerging that institutions in the UK, many of them private, were introducing credential courses in FL teaching. I haven't encountered any evidence that language teaching has gotten any better as a result of the credentialing.  I'd like to see evidence that credentialed music administrators are more effective.*  
  • The third is that these programs are overwhelmingly filled with students taking out massive personal loans. And these are loans that are incredibly hard to pay back from the small salaries in the small number of position available. 
  • And the fourth is: where is the normative arts administrator position that demands a normative arts administrator training? and where is the performance deficit or expected growth in such positions that would demand producing more from cookie-cutter training programs? Every single position of the sort, in my experience, has a distinctive profile of requirements. Some require more artistic experience, others require great writing skills, others are primarily PR, others personnel management, others bookkeeping/accounting, others fund raising, or contract writing, lobby work, or general management skills. Many of them demand only modest management skills, but an amiable personality and familiarity with the local community. In almost all cases, someone trained or with work experience in one of these specific areas would be more useful for the job than someone with pseudo-academic traveling papers. 
  • And finally, Point the Fifth, there is the unmistakable trend that growth in administration/management in the arts leads to less spent on actual artists and artistic content. Yes, we do need competent, knowledgeable, friendly, and (com)passionate arts administrators to help make the magic happen, but the magic remains the object, not the institution.

* As another piece of credentialism, hasn't the invention of the professional music theorist — and with it, dedicated music theory tenure track lines — been a net loss to composers who would otherwise have been considered for the gigs? Yes, it's a day job for composers, but it's a often a very good day job and composers do have a pretty good historical record as theory teachers.  (Inasmuch as some composers who had been actively seeking a more secure role for composers in academe — I assume we all know that essay that was originally titled "The Composer as Specialist" — were also active in the invention of the academic theorist, it's another example of composers acting in their own worst interest.)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Pop's Stereo Cabinet

A musician's individual musicality — that completely internalized sense of how music goes — comes directly out of, and is a reaction to, the music he or she knows best, and knowing best is often knowing first.

What music did I know first?  Surprisingly, I don't remember much "children's music" beyond the folkish and patriotic songs we sang at school; I can still sing "Put Another Candle on Your Birthday Cake" and the theme songs of too many TV programs.  We had a lot of children's 78s, 45s, and LPs, but they were heavy on narrative (i.e. 78 box sets of 'Hopalong' Cassidy adventures) and light on music.

To some extent I was shaped, within my cohort, by the music I didn't hear much of.  I grew up in a 60s/70s household almost completely without rock'n'roll; with parents born in the 1930s, they just missed it, my father too old, my mother married too young, for it. My mother came from a Lawrence Welkish-family (a faithful Welk watcher, her mother played Irish sentimental music at the piano) and she thought Elvis was a hick and sure, our entire family watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, but that culture-wide event was a novelty, not a musical, act, with as much interest in the haircuts as anything else. Instead, the music my mother liked ran to Broadway shows — nothing really current, but more the shows she had seen as a teenager in Sacramento: Showboat, South Pacific, and later some Petula Clark and some of those Mighty Wind-ish "folk" acts.  But popular music has an astonishing background radiation effect and I'm constantly surprised at how much rock repertoire  I do know, without ever having properly paid attention to it and there is of course considerable remedial listening that took place in college, in Santa Cruz, where I lived in dorms with 24/7 of intensive stereo blasting and a student body that, by and large, took their left end of pop music very seriously.

As a kid, I probably knew more pop music from the first half of the century than the second.  Besides my grandmother, the other important live music experienced from an intimate distance was from a "honky-tonk" player who played everything by ear in the "black key" keys — B, F#, C# — and from a neighbor during our years in Mt Baldy Village, who owned a player piano with a healthy collection of rolls, all popular, none recently so.

But the music I liked as a kid that I now remember best was that in my father's LP collection.  It was very small, maybe 20 albums at most, but carefully selected on his limited budget, and just about filling the available storage space in the speaker cabinets.  He had had more musical training than my mom, and though I wouldn't know it until, at twelve, I bought a neighbor's piano (a Broadwood upright labeled "made in San Francisco", the only one of the brand I ever encountered, with a light touch and a sweet sound (the neighbor, Mr. Starr, had long been retired from his Ford dealership and was a WWI vet, an ambulance driver, who also gave us kids his old Army uniform with those amazing wool knickers)  for 100 dollars, saved from a paper route) was actually a pretty good piano player.

From that record collection, I remember

The Moldau.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice (in a box, apparently the first, free, sample item in a promotion for a classical LP subscription series.)
— The Franck Symphony in d minor.  (Like the Smetana above, Pop had heard Wallenstein conduct it at a LA Philharmonic concert which he was able to hear as an usher (Apparently he ushered and otherwise worked concerts a lot, including a concert by Judy Garland (!) at the Shrine Auditorum, where he heard her sing Somewhere, Over the Rainbow with tears flowing only to walk backstage, take a drink and say "that'll hold the bastards."))
— the Montreux recording of The Rite of Spring with its Henri Rousseau cover.
— a disc with Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta b/w the Schoenberg Five Pieces for Orchestra; one summer, around 1950, on the USC campus, he stumbled into a concert by the Hungarian String Quartet which played through the Bartók quartets in a series (he never did hear the sixth quartet because he was asked to show a ticket for the last concert) but was so impressed that he bought the first Bartók recording he could find, and got the Schoenberg in the bargain.
— The Stravinsky Violin Concerto— The 1957 Pal Joey film soundtrack album.
— The original Broadway album of The Most Happy Fella.  Okay, my father had his showtunes, too.
— Two Martin Denny LP, Exotica and Primitiva.  During his draftee naval tour of the Pacific on the USS Lexington, my father had heard Denny play when his aircraft carrier docked in Honolulu in '57 and from his reports, it seems that clubbing around the faux-Polynesian sound world was a big part of his bachelor years
— A sound effects LP of railroad sounds that came with Pop's stereo, so he could show off the stereo effect.
— Cal Tjader's Latin Jazz Concert. (Between the Bartók's celesta, the Denny and the Tjader, was I destined to love mellophones?)  This was something special for a small kid" the disc was red and the cover had a cartoon of a bullfight arena, with the Tjader band playing in the middle, while in the stadium there are text balloons rising with messages like "Nixon go home."

There were also a few jazz recordings dating from his clubbing times in 1950s LA: Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, of course, but his favorite was a 10" 78 with two sides by "Poison" Gardner & His All-Stars, a favorite boogie pianist who Pop heard mostly at The Melody (pronounced "Mellow-Dee") Club in South LA.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Screen villains, real villains

In the Dr. Seuss-authored The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), the evil piano teacher Dr Terwilliger (Hans Conried) abducts 500 boys to play his enormous two-tiered and fantastically curved piano at his "Happy Fingers Institute."  In last year's Whiplash, a high school jazz band teacher (J.K. Simmons) is so driven by his own notion of perfection that he becomes abusive, possibly even driving one of his students to suicide.   Yes, the mean music teacher is an authentic screen trope, one suspects with deep roots going back to myths of musicians with demonic gifts, for dramatists a useful villain.  And to be completely honest, both Conried and Simmons were compelling and memorable in their, respectively, comic-camp and dramatic performances.

However, both performances reflect a real presence in music training, the abuse of power and authority, often reaching the sadistic. This is totally unnecessary for achieving musical results, entirely outside the spirit of the musical and plain wrong, morally, ethically, and often legally. Although, with the advantages of being male, tall, and fairly self-assured, my own personal experience with cruelty in music education and practice were almost trivial — a band teacher who, in frustration at a bunch of 12-year olds with loud instruments, too often had no pedagogical tools left but screaming, yelling and throwing things at the ground, a college musicianship teacher from the Boulanger school (famous for endlessly proclaiming its "love of music") who would hit our wrists with a ruler if we played something wrong, or working with well-known composer who inevitably threw tantrums (yelling, flying drumsticks, slamming doors) before performances — there are far too many colleagues who have experienced far worse, in forms of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, and far too many of these are never able to recover.

Such abuse always begins with unequal balances of power and in this music teachers are no less prone than others in roles of authority: officials, bosses, religious leaders, athletic coaches, or teachers in general. We should expect that music teachers should be held to the same restraint in exercising that authority and power which we demand of all of these figure and abuse should cause appropriate action, from removal from teaching environments at a minimum to criminal prosecution when warranted.  But music teachers who use the virtues of their art form — that abstract "love of music" or that will to "perfection" — to excuse their human vices deserve, I think, additional rebuke: if they have to resort to violence or abuse to produce their music, then they have left the realm of the musical entirely.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Playing the Sea-Changes

A phrase that turns up far too often in legal briefs and business management texts is "orchestrating a sea change."   I have to object.  Not so much to the notion of a sea change (or seachange or sea-change) which is a lovely notion, and even more so for its inherent ambiguity.  It seems that the term doesn't appear earlier than in Shakespeare's Tempest, when Ariel sings (in "Full Fathom Five") ...Nothing of him that doth fade, /But doth suffer a sea-change,/into something rich and strange,... to Ferdinand, reporting on the apparent death by drowning of Ferdinand's father.  Here the change wrought by the sea is personal but significant, but the term can, in fact, describe change in two dimensions, one of scale and one of speed, for the observed actions of moving water can push flotsam and jetsam onto a beach in a blink or smooth a small stone or shape the edge of a continent over years or millennia, or with a sudden great flood or tidal wave make changes of frightening scale.

(I can't help but add this passage by the late mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, in part describing his working method: "La mer s’avance insensiblement et sans bruit, rien ne semble se casser rien ne bouge l'eau est si loin on l'entend à peine ...Pourtant elle finit par entourer la substance rétive, celle-ci peu  à peu devient une presqu’île,  puis une île, puis un îlot, qui finit par être submergé à son tour, comme s’il s’était finalement dissous dans l’océan s’étendant  à perte de vue...[...] C’est ‘l’approche de la mer’, par submersion, absorption, dissolution – celle où, quand on n’est très attentif, rien ne semble se passer à aucun moment: chaque chose à chaque moment est si  évidente, et surtout, si naturelle, qu’on se ferait presque scrupule souvent de la noter noir sur blanc, de peur d’avoir l’air de bombiner, au lieu de taper sur un burin comme tout le monde...C’est pourtant la l’approche que je pratique d’instinct depuis mon jeune âge, sans avoir vraiment eu à l’apprendre jamais." )

Yes, sea-change is a great pairing of words, so all the shame to have it get moored down as business jargon, and particularly so when the mooring is done by the verb "to orchestrate."  Do we really need this additional reduction, no, discounting of the art of orchestration to an act of technocratic or bureaucratic manipulation?  He orchestrated a sea change in the office supply market.  Or:  She was widely seen as orchestrating a sea change in personnel management through the strategic adoption of the "Human Resources" label for her specialization.  These sentences wouldn't have the same effect if the word "composing" replaced "orchestrating", would they?  Why does "to compose" continue have the soft edge and caché of the creative while orchestration handles a skill, a routine, and certainly nothing frightening  (and yes, nothing is more frightening than the creative (remember "Dick" Cheney's worst epithet for the 9/11 highjackers was that they were creative? (Which was, incidentally, the same assessment that Karlheinz Stockhausen made and was skewered for making!))

I'd like for my own composing — of which orchestration is an integral, not separable, part — to aspire to making sea-changes.  To the degree that a new piece can challenge me — and possibly others — to hear in some new way, then it sometimes even succeeds.  I certainly have gratitude and envy towards my colleagues who, to my ears. are to be able to make their own sea-changes even more reliably!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Getting it right, not getting there first.

I heard a terrific performance of Varèse's not-often-enough heard Arcana last night (by the HR-Sinfonieorchester under Peter Ruzicka*) — the pacing and balance were just right, between the brass and everyone else as well as in those tricky dry percussion-dominated segments — and this was a useful reminder of what a tight and forward-moving piece Arcana is, particularly when compared to the composer's other, earliest suriving large orchestra piece, Amériques which, arguably more exuberant and inventive throughout (those sirens!), tends to stall at moments through its dependence on brute force for continuity as it lacks the strongly cohesive elements present everywhere in Arcana.

* Yes, this was another one of those Forum Neue Musik concerts that didn't really feel so much like a, well, new music concert.  It did feel well-composed as a concert, with nice internal connections (particularly a common use of reference pitch complexes or sonorities throughout pieces) as well as contrasts between the four pieces: Crumb's A Haunted Landscape, Ruzicka's own Spiral (a concerto for four horns and orchestra), a Scriabin arrangement by Haas and the Varèse.  But it was the almost century-old Varèse that was most fresh in sound, the Crumb was an audience-friendly overture (someone quipped that it was a "Prelude to an Afternoon of  Modern Music Clichés", which was not far off the mark, although I think the problem comes with the lack of development of those clichés, particularly the use of exact repetitions, which in this style, sounds too much like stock modernist-imitat film music), the Ruzicka was very professional but missed many opportunities to go from professional to interesting (in particular, one would have liked to hear some more independent use of the four soloists) and was ultimately not memorable, and the Haas arrangement of Scriabin's 9th Sonata was mostly very good, but his promising ideas with the use of an accordion and some percussion were defeated in this performance by their physical isolation in the hall, such that sounds that should have been striking within the ensemble texture were made them the aural equivalent of sore thumbs.  This should have been a concert in the regular season of the orchestra, not a Forum Neue Musik concert.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Landmarks (51)

Alan Hovhaness: Symphony for Metal Orchestra [Symphony No. 17] Opus 203 (1963)

I hadn't planned to go past fifty items on this landmarks list — thinking that that number was already presumptuous, even indulgent, on my part — but there are still some pieces that I have to shout a bit about.  I've had the score to Hovhaness's 17th since 9th grade, when I used the prize money from a local composition contest to buy an handful of scores from Ralph Pierce Music in Pomona, California (this was a very special music store; Pierce sold pianos and sheet music and had an assortment of the latter quite unlike anywhere else in the 'States — when I finally saw the famous Patelson's in New York some years later, my first thought was simply "Ralph Pierce doesn't have to worry about the competition.")  Hovhaness's small set of keyboard pieces, Bare November Day, a prelude and five canzona-like "hymns" in odd scales, was already favorite Hausmusik for me, and I had worn some grooves in recordings of scattered examples of his orchestral music, particularly Symphonies (and not just Mysterious Mountain, which I always found lacked the unpredictability that Hovhaness's great model, Sibelius, had) borrowed from a local library.  What music-obsessed 14-year old wouldn't be impressed by the idea of a metal orchestra?  So I've lived with this score for a long time, and can still recall the excitement of working out its mechanics, figuring out how Hovhaness could use simple and efficient of means to achieve engaging surfaces and deeper textures that are, to the ear, far from simple. Indeed, to the ear, the piece often suggests the "textural" musics of the European Avant-Garde of the same historical moment, but Hovhaness arrived there from a very different point of departure.

The Symphony for Metal Orchestra comes in the middle of what might be called Hovhaness's Japanese period, during which he was able to spend time in Japan listening to everything he could and gaining some practical playing experience with traditional instruments.  He wrote, i.a., several chamber operas connected to his experience of Noh music and dance dramas (the first of which predates Britten's first Church Parable, also Noh-connected), featuring instrumental ensembles with multiple flutes and percussion, and in some cases, multiple trombones. This metal symphony is part of that same ensemble concern, in which the pitched texture is often based around modal monodies amplified by simultaneous variations, often densely chromatic, and the model, rather than the Noh ensemble, is more that of Gagaku, court music, with the massed flutes and trio of trombones recalling the ryuteki (flute) and hichriki (cylindrical reed instrument) in their deliberate melodies graced by slides and movement between unison and not-quite unison playing.  Senza misura sections for the six flutes in the third and fourth movements recall both the loosely canonical wind introductions in Gagaku repertoire, but also recalls the textural quality of some European 15th century vocal polyphony, and despite the continuous play between modal, chromatic and portamenti lines, the net tonal effect is generally static.  The five part percussion ensemble here — glockenspiel, two vibraphones, chimes and tam-tam — allows both for similarly clustered pitched writing in the metallophones to that of the winds as well as a suggestion of the formal markers found in the percussion of many Asian large ensemble musics.  However, in its instrumentation and in the level of playing technique demanded, the percussion writing here does seem dated now, dated back to an era in which the variety and technique expected from the percussion section was generally less on both counts;  one imagines that, had the piece been written a decade later, Hovhaness could and would have done much more with the percussion.  

Setting aside a more substantial argument about whether this piece, for 14 players, "really" is a symphony, this a four movement piece (Andante, Largo, Allegro, Adagio) that inverts and retrogrades the tempi of a stereotypical classical symphony (instead of Fast, Slow, Fast, Fast, it's Slow, Slow, Fast, Slow), but even that Allegro is actually in a paradoxical tempo (the flowing sixteenths in the first vibraphone are predominantly repeated tones (also paradoxical is the relationship between that vibraphone and the other percussion — which is the solo and which is the accompaniment?), such that we're really talking about a piece in all slow movements, somewhat in the manner of East Asian court musics; nevertheless, Hovhaness achieves a sense of pacing within this slow spectrum of tempi that is frequently magical.

Finally, a note about the provenance of the piece: It was commissioned by the American Society for Metals (now the professional research society ASM International) for their annual meeting, which naturally makes one wonder why organizations of the sort don't do more commissioning of the kind — new works of music with thematic connections to their own work —  nowadays?

Monday, February 02, 2015

Ezra Sims (1928-2015)

News comes that the composer Ezra Sims has died.  He was a fixture in Boston New Music and a well-know practitioner of microtonal music, but was always an independent and his music fit into no category other than his own.  Alabama-born, he studied at Harvard and then a Mills College under Milhaud  (the number of interesting composers who worked with Milhaud at Mills was unreasonably large and remarkably heterodox!)

Sims turned to his own microtonal practice via a process of determining the tones he needed to produce his melodic and harmonic needs, including representation of septimal and higher ratios, optimally locally in terms of just intonation and then mapped that set of 18 or 19 tones onto the 72 equal division of the octave, which allowed him both unlimited transposition as well as intervals that usefully gained tonal ambiguity under temperament, thus allowing uncommon voice leadings via common tones.  The polymath and musical lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky delighted in telling the story of how, making an inference from Sims catalog, he (Slonimsky) mistakenly added a String Quartet No. 2 (1962) to the works list in Sims's entry in Baker's Dictionary of Music & Musicians, when, in fact, there was no such work. Yet. Sims felt obliged to keep the notoriously accurate Slonimsky's reputation intact, so in 1974 he composed a work with the title String Quartet No. 2 (1962) for a five piece ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, viola and violoncello.

I did not know Sims well, but our longest interaction, in getting an article of his ready for Xenharmonikon, a journal I edited for a time, was a delight.  He was clear about what he wanted (a quality that is not often found in composers writing prose), he had a healthy sense of humor, an equally healthy disregard for large-scale musical organizations (and he did know something about scale, being an active organizer the Dinosaur Annex new music ensemble in Boston.)

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Timing is everything. Especially when anytime is the right time.

You have one minute and during that minute, you may strike a woodblock once. When, in that minute, do you strike it?

Repeat this, substituting, for example, a cowbell or a tam tam or an electric doorbell for the woodblock; then repeat this, substituting, say, two or four and a half or eleven minutes, maybe three quarters of an hour or one month or a season or a year or a lifetime for the single minute; then repeat this, substituting must for may. Finally repeat this, remembering that "you may strike" includes the option not to strike at all.

Do we have a style, now? Do we have an aesthetic, now?


The exercise above comes directly from a piece by Kenneth Maue composed in the late 1960s or early 70s in which a large gong is brought unnanounced into a prominent position in a public space and struck once.  The gong player stands ready with the beater, so any audience present will anticipate the sounding of the gong, but there is no information, no signal about when that might happen (and once it happened, no signal about what would happen next, up until the performers moved the gong out the space.)  This is also related to Cage's use of time brackets — stretches of time into which sounds should occur — which he would illustrate to the public by moving his arms like a moving hand on a clock (a practice begun with the conductor's part to his Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-58) and instruct a volunteer to make a sound at some point, any point, within one revolution.  Some volunteers would make a sound right at the start, others tried to divide the time span precisely in half, clapping or stomping or shouting just as Cage hit six o'clock and switched from his left to his right arm, others waited as long as they could to make a noise before the clock ran out at high noon or midnight.  And still others would choose some other less simply or rigidly marked point on the dial.  But this is all really about how composers and players and listeners deal with musical time, all the time.  The rhythmic character of a music can be located on various continua, one of which stretches between absolute precision with regard to orientation to an ongoing pulse to absolute disregard for the same. Another quality of a music is the way in which it invokes — or doesn't  — different subdivisions or multiples of a pulse, still another concerns a sense of anticipation or belatedness in relationship to a pulse that a musician brings to the articulation of a sound in time. And to this I would add the option to not play, to "throw away" a note, something (unfortunately, AFAIC) deprecated in most classical music performance with its all-too-often practiced emphasis on playing a score "note true" and not "dropping" anything.  When a rhythmic practice regarding a particular relationship to the beat becomes a common practice for a performer or group of musicians, then we readily identify it as a style.  And when that style is something like Viennese expression or swing (in which there is a rather strict relationship between the degree of the inequality of a divide beat and the tempo) it can be something quite special,


Just two footnotes to the above.  (1) An explicit possibility of dropping notes is recognized in Cage's later sets of virtuoso Etudes for piano and violin in which the player was instructed to simply play through as if the notes were present.  Similarly, Douglas Leedy, in his Serenade for one or more recorders, encouraged out-of-doors performances in which the players were not necessarily visible to each other or an audience. When I observed that, on a windy day, when, due to more air going in the beak than coming out of it, a recorder would frequently be unable to speak, the composer said, just play on as if the tones had been there, preserving the larger continuity even if details were missing. (2) With some trepidation at wading into a more popular body of water than I usually allow myself, I'll note Bob Dylan's recent album of song covers associated with Frank Sinatra. Critics have been — unsuprisingly given the disparity in styles and general cultural associations between the two — grasping for something that makes a meaningful musical connection between the two singers and have mostly been frustrated at the odd coupling. Let me suggest that the connection here is one of musical technique, in particular one of rhythmic style, but not of a shared style, rather of simply having individual styles that are equally marked by being able to play more liberally along a continuum between sharply articulated metrical rhythm and ametrical utterances than most musicians as well as to throw away material in uncanny ways and to do both reliably enough that we can recognize an individual style.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Monochord Does Matter

I am very pleased to be able to share a treatise on the monochord by Bhishma Xenotechnites,  an extraordinary musician and scholar, who has been my teacher and friend for almost 40 years. I have previously called attention here to several compositions of his as well as a major book on singing classical Greek epic, lyric, and dramatic verse. This new essay, Monochord Matters or The Power of Harmonia can be understood as a report on how an ancient and simple instrument, the monochord (or, classically, Kanon) — essentially a stretched string with a bridge somewhere along its length — opens up a world and a worldview, the part of the quadrivium we usually call music, but more precisely known classically as harmonics, the art/science that begins most concretely — physically and sensually — in the realm of the rational. The author wisely keeps the balance, no, the tension, between perception and reason which is the central dynamic of the enterprise, unresolved.  

A PDF of the text is available here, as well as at the link provided by Charles Shere, whose item on Monochord Matters is worth reading.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Bob Gilmore, 1961-2015

News comes 'round that the musician and musicologist Bob Gilmore is gone and gone far too soon. Gilmore specialized in the performance (in particular as keyboardist with the Trio Scordatura) and study of music with alternative tunings.  His biographies of Harry Partch and Claude Vivier are landmarks, he edited the valuable collection of writings by Ben Johnston and had only recently begun an exciting tenure as an editor of Tempo.  Gilmore's recent series of podcasts about music he valued are well worth your attention, here.  We never met in person, but our paths crossed by post and email and online many times over at least twenty-five years and with our shared interests (i.e. Partch) and serious disagreements (i.e. Radulescu), a long promised and oft-broken sit down to chat is now postponed for ever.  He was a smart, kind, and generous man and will be sorely missed.

Metre, lost and found

A while back, I wrote a bit about the first of Schoenberg's Three Piano Pieces Op. 11 from 1909.  I can't quite let the topic go without mentioning something extraordinary that goes on in with his use of musical time. I'm using the words "musical time" here, because what he is after is something that, although rather modest in scale, is really outside the box for "rhythm" in everyday usage and here you can hear (and see, in the notation) Schoenberg really stretching the limits of notation.

Look at the gesture in measure four and the first quarter and a half of measure five.  The right hand part then gets repeated twice, each time augmented in duration and with two different arpeggiations of its two voices, the last repetition with an added contrapuntal voice in the middle of the bass clef. The left hand part, on the other hand, gets detached from its position synchronized with the attack of the b-g' dyad of the right hand and instead enters with a delay of first one eighth after the dyad and then in an arpeggio g' - b - left hand.  The left hand figure is not, however, in augmentation, but maintains its eighths-over-a-sustained-bass dimension, with, however, a ritardando over the last statement.

Now, there are precedents for all the details here, so I don't want to make a priority claim for Schoenberg, but I do want to indicate how much this is at once in the spirit of his own tradition and in dissonance to it. The Wiener Espressivo tradition from which Schoenberg's music came was at once — coincidentia oppositorum — a strongly metric one and one that delighted in a continuity of subtle and not-so-so deformations of the metric, both within a measure (leading to great inequalities of beat lengths) and between measures and phrases, with a highly flexible tempo overlaid in frequent accelerations and slowing-downs.  These deformations could come about from a marking (rit., accel. etc.), traditional performance practice, or spontaneously.* The measure unit throughout this, however, remained very clear, perhaps a marker of the centrality of dance to the style (with its necessity to regularly mark the moments when feet were expected to touch ground.)

But Schoenberg here goes astray at the measure with his augmented durations in the upper voices making a written-out ritardando with some expressive arpeggiation, so the figure crosses the barline before measure five and floats away from any metrical attachment in its two further iterations.  But the left hand maintains the eight-note tempo strictly and then with a verbal, rather than written-out, ritardando of its own.  Something has to give here, and that something is the metrical strength of the barlines at measures five, six, seven, and eight, but that left hand figure at measure eight, even under the ritardando marking, very clearly leads us to the (unsounded, but felt) downbeat and new, slower, tempo at measure nine.   So we have a two-handed figure get separated into a decelerating and a steady part which loosen enough to detach from the metre, floating over five bars, yet come back in synch to form a sensible anacrusis to the next phrase.

I think this little waltz phrase with which this piece begins and then periodically, if fragmentarily, returns to (note the smooth but startling deformation of the metre into a few measures of 4/4 on the last page of the piece) opens a particularly rich field of prospects and problems with musical time that Schoenberg only touches upon here (or later in his catalog, which would continue to be dominated by his strongly conventional sense of metre and phrase.)
* My impression is that Schoenberg's composing here (as frequently in other works) was, in large part, improvisatory, with reconciliation to notational practicalities a secondary thought.