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.