Greedy Corporations – Always A Safe Target

I just returned tonight from Indiana University, where I gave a lecture Tuesday for the music department entitled “The Ethics of Composing in a Corporate Society.” I probably should have mentioned here beforehand that I was going to present this, so that if you were around you could have gone. But I mention it now because, to tell you the truth, one of the benefits of maintaining this blog is that it contains a running list of my gigs, so that later, if I need to update my résumé (something I hope I won’t have to do many more times in my life), I can look through my blog to locate the details. And I’m not going to post the lecture text here. I need to cultivate a repertoire of unpublished talks I can give when asked to do these things, so I don’t have to write a new lecture every time the way Mozart wrote a new concerto for every concert. After all, I only have a finite number of ideas. At least, I only have a finite number of noncontroversial ideas, and I’ve been trying lately not to piss off the people who invite me somewhere. This hasn’t always been my practice.

Besides, as always with academia, it’s the peripheral human contacts that carry more weight than the central pretext. For the subsequent evening, the faculty invited me to a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, which I hear is a cute piece, but grad student Brent Reidy also hinted that he was hosting an informal concert of student compositions at his apartment, and that was better bait. Brent – a composer who’s getting a doctorate in musicology, which is an idea I kind of wish I had thought of at his age – hates the standard people-in-rows-of-chairs concert format, and he’s starting his own concert series at which each piece will be played, then discussed, and then played again. It’s a wonderful idea, reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performance but even friendlier. So I heard six student pieces, twice, whose lack of academic pretension would have been deemed miraculous during the era I was in grad school. The faculty I met were lovely and gracious and impressive, but the students are always more interesting, aren’t they?, because they give me clues as to what’s coming up in the future.

I also heard an informative and admirably clear lecture analyzing the music of Thomas Adès by John Roeder of the University of British Columbia. This gave me a new vocabulary item with which to discuss my music. Apparently Adès employs a technique that Roeder calls “parsimonious voice leading,” which means that the chord progressions move by the smallest intervals possible. I’ve spent my entire creative life exploring parsimonious voice leading, but didn’t know to call it that, and with 31 pitches to the octave as opposed to only 12, I’ll go up against Adès in a parsimony contest any day. Partch called it tonality flux. [UPDATE: Ah, “parsimonious voice leading” is a Schoenberg term – not one I had paid specific attention to, but it obviously seeped in and took root somehow.]

While there I met some students who read my blog religiously, and I hope that percussionist/musicologist Kerry O’Brien and percussionist Andy Bliss, in particular, will appreciate reading here that it was lovely talking to (and drinking with) them. Store these names away, because you’ll hear them again someday.


  1. says

    joe straus discusses parsimonious voice leading (with examples by john adams and others i can’t remember off the top of my head) in the most recent edition of his Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory. there’s a copy of that lying around somewhere, right?
    KG replies: I started reading the copy in my dentist’s waiting room, but I didn’t get to finish.
    Hey, if parsimonious voice leading becomes a new “thing,” where do I apply to be poster boy?

  2. mateo says

    Isn’t “parsimonious voice leading” one of the guidelines taken into account when doing SATB exercises anyhow? Maybe I’m missing something, but what’s so novel about this?
    KG replies: Only the use of the word “parsimonious” as a musical qualifier, not the concept. Perhaps it’s common in certain theoretical circles, but I note there are only 62 citations on the internet, mostly from pretty hard-core theoretical papers, and I hadn’t run into it before that I remembered.

  3. Michael Wittmann says

    Hi, Kyle,
    As to students being more interesting than faculty to talk to… I’m a physicist, and this story comes from Richard Feynman’s “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.” He decided at some point in his life that he would rather give talks when students invited him. Not the faculty, who would contact the press, but students, who would talk about physics. Their trick was to come up with a fake name and some really, really, really dry physics title that only a real physicist would want to hear a talk about. Then, he’d show up, say “My colleague, Dr. Frunklwunklpashtowi (or whatever) couldn’t make it, so here I am.” Then they’d talk physics. Without the press, and with hungry minds.
    I kind of like that idea.
    KG replies: Great idea. I’m so tired of being hounded by the press wherever I go. :^)

  4. says

    mateo, the idea behind parsimonious voice leading is that it applies to non-common practice period use of tonal materials; in other words, you use it to talk about weird chord progressions in post-tonal music (although folks have been applying it to the burgeoning field of rock & pop theory). i do have a copy of straus’ book lying around (my dentist has a copy…), let’s see if i can find a short choice quote (straus is my advisor; i figured i should read his book): He talks about two ‘principal types of triadic progression in post-tonal music.’ One is ‘motivic.’ The other is ‘triadic transformations that connect triads of different quality (major goes to minor and vice versa). Triadic transformations are defined by two qualities: voice-leading parsimony and contextual inversion.” And it goes on. it’s a nice little eighty dollar book. =)

  5. Amy Bauer says

    The name and specific methodology employed in parsimonious voice-leading should be attributed to Rich Cohn (Neo-Riemannian Operations, Parsimonious Trichords, and Their “Tonnetz” Representations
    Richard Cohn
    Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Spring, 1997), pp. 1-66); it was elaborated further by his student Clif Callendar before – as you noted – many others.

  6. says

    Hmmm. I think I need a new dentist!
    Hey Brent R, if you’re out there – mind if I bite your idea for your concert format? I would love to sponsor concerts like that in Seattle. Does the series have a name?