Aesthetics and Arithmetic of the Looping Playlist

I’m somewhat number-obsessed, and the core idea of my music has always been melodic loops of different (mutually prime, in fact) lengths going out of phase with each other. (This is also generally true of John Luther Adams, Mikel Rouse, and to a lesser extent Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca – a lot of the totalist composers, in fact.) And so programming a repeating playlist on Postclassic Radio offers a comforting continuity with the rest of my life. I’ve bought 500 MB of web space, which offers me about 18 hours’ worth of music, and I limit it to 17, to have enough “give” room to add new works easily.

Now, 17 is prime, and (trivially) mutually prime with 24. What I imagine (and I have no idea what people’s radio-listening habits really are) is someone getting up every morning and listening to Postclassic Radio from, say, 8 to 9 AM (or in Manhattan, 11 AM to noon). Under this listening pattern, the person will hear everything on the playlist in 17 days. Of course, if you listen two hours a day, you’ll hear everything twice. If I only programmed 16 hours’ worth, you’d hear the same music at the same time every two days (16 x 3 = 24 x 2), and at 18 hours you’d hear the same music every three days (18 x 4 = 24 x 3), so staying around 17 is crucial. Even so, one friend wrote to tell me that it seems like every time he tunes in, Tom Johnson’s Bonhoeffer Oratorium is playing, and I’ve had pretty much the same experience – with that same piece. (It’s a great piece, but I finally replaced it.) I’ve been replacing about two tracks a day on the average, and since I have between 80 and 90 tracks up, that means a complete playlist turnover every 40 to 45 days. From my vantage point, I get a little tired of hearing the same pieces over and over again, but then, I frequently have it on five or six hours a day, which I imagine greatly exceeds the listening time of the average listener. On the other hand, I’ve included a lot of tracks from the to-be-listened-to stack of CDs that perennially occupies the side of my desk, and I’m gotten familiar with a hell of a lot of music I’d been meaning to get around to for months, in some cases years. One way I look at it is that I’m paying 35 bucks a month to listen to my own CD collection. But I learn a lot.

Statistically speaking, if you listen an hour a day, you should hear each piece two to three times before it’s replaced. I’ll appreciate hearing whether people think I’m replacing pieces too quickly or too slowly.

Conventional wisdom would hold that my playlist represents only one slender strand of new music – the Downtown variety – but I think the diversity is pretty remarkable, far greater than you’d get from any similar roster of recent orchestral commissions. There is much postminimalism, much totalism, but other things that don’t fit, including quite a bit of atonal music (Petr Kotik’s Asymmetric Landing, Morton Feldman’s Flute and Orchestra, and Clarence Barlow’s Çogluotobusisletmesi, for instance). A lot of music with pop influences, and a lot of music with no pop influences at all, mostly American but some from Finland, Korea, Holland, Japan, Italy, Russia, and other countries. I recently wrote that the typical prize-winning Uptown orchestra piece is brief, hyperactive, filled with rhythmic momentum, tonal but not too tonal, and dotted with splashes of orchestral color. The “typical” Postclassic Radio piece, if there is one, is precisely the opposite: long, often nearly motionless, extremely tonal or at least limited in pitch content, and monochromatic. No wonder these composers don’t fill their bios with prizes they’ve won.

Listeners can rate the works frm one to five stars, and the ratings so far have made no sense at all. A piece that has one star one day will have five stars the next, and while some pieces I didn’t expect to be popular get five stars, others by celebrated composers, like the Feldman, will get half a star. One Mikel Rouse song gets five stars, the next half a star. So I don’t know what to think about that; I tried leaving up the more highly-rated pieces longer, but it didn’t make any sense. The statistical sample seems too small to take seriously. If my audience has little inclination to divide works on the “thumbs-up, thumbs-down” principle, I can certainly appreciate that.

Recent additions, since I last blogged about them, that might interest you: Chas Smith’s Scircura is a gorgeous continuum that I wrote about here several months ago, and I’ve been especially attentive to uploading music I’ve written about. Tom Hamilton’s Sebastian’s Shadow is a lovely electronic work based on the harmony of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue No. 4, BWV 542. Terry Riley’s Journey from the Death of a Friend is the flip-side (really) of the old Warner Brothers recording of Happy Ending. The first movement of Gloria Coates’ Symphony No. 4, if you’ll listen long enough, reveals a basis on Dido’s lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, “When I Am Laid in Earth.” I’ve added in Jeff Beal’s soundtrack to the film Pollock, which I mentioned during the Critics’ Conversation as the first postminimalist film score; I wanted to see how it would sound in the context of other postminimalist music. As a slight joke, I added Max V. Mathews’ 1961 computerized realization of “Bicycle Built for Two,” which was used in the movie 2001. And you’ve got to hear Prent Rodgers’ Resolution in Blue for slide piano, meaning a piano computer-altered so that it sounds like it’s played with a gigantic whammy bar. The diversity of Postclassical music is endless, the quality very often remarkable. And the classical mavens are all convinced it doesn’t exist.

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