Composers’ Brains Change

When school ended I had been asked for new pieces by three people, and I have now finished two and a half of them. This morning I put the final touches on a piece for viola and piano, Scene from a Marriage, for my Bard colleague, violist Marka Gustavsson. I also completed, this afternoon, a tentative first draft for a 25-minute string quartet in one movement, titled The Summer Land of Time, for a concert Carson Cooman is organizing at Harvard. And yesterday I reached the halfway point in a new piano piece. It's 38 minutes of music since the … [Read more...]

Chance vs. Serialism Redux

In my recent post How to Care How It Was Made, I did not at all mean to invoke, as a couple of commenters suggest I did, the old canard about serial music and chance music being indistinguishable. Boulez, in his letters to Cage, absolutely rejected chance as a legitimate musical technique. I find it odd that, having said so so stridently, he was at that very time using pitch techniques that were theoretically just as groundless and arbitrary. This does not mean that I think Le Marteau sounds like chance music, nor that it sounds like Cage. The … [Read more...]

Please to Leave My Glass Alone

I just learned that the final movement of my Implausible Sketches for two pianos, "Don't Touch My Pint," received its world premiere in Belgrade on May 23, by students of pianist Nada Kolundzija. Other composers on the concert: Glass, Cowell, Cage, Reich, Ligeti, Pärt, Nyman, Dusan Bogdanovic, Marjan Mozetich, and Milos Raickovic. Nada had mentioned the possibility to me, but I had no idea it had happened. "Don't Touch My Pint" is based throughout on a 5-against-4 rhythm, which explains the title. Um... the, uh British [oops!] Irish mnemonic … [Read more...]

How to Care How It Was Made

I mentioned that I find myself working Sudoku puzzles lately. My other spare-time hobby, relentless nerd that I am, is analyzing the 12-tone pieces I'm using for my 12-tone analysis class in the fall. The two activities - tone-row searching and Sudoku - are kind of alarmingly similar, so much so that I can forget at times which I'm doing. (Is that "aggregate" filled up yet? Am I looking for 12 of something, or 9 of something?) I do like understanding things, though, so that I get a real childlike kick out of teasing out the structure of a piece … [Read more...]

“Success Is Just Another Form of Failure”

Allow me to sharpen the source of some of the disillusionment I expressed in my last entry. Part of what I'm going through is the perceived failure of a project on which I've spent much of my life's energy. And yet it hasn't failed: it has been victorious - and now that it has succeeded, I can see how circumscribed that success necessarily is. As John Cage liked to say, "Success is just another form of failure." I have been called "the Downtown academic" - I am hardly the only one to merit the title, but for many years we were few and far … [Read more...]

Almost All Is Vanity

[TWO UPDATES BELOW] I don't submit many scholarly articles to journals anymore. I figured out I can put my research in some journal and only three people will ever read it, or I can post it here on my blog and hundreds will read it, and comment, and link to it. I'm certainly not going to hand the scores of my music over to some publisher so he can take half the royalties and tie up the copyrights. My music gets around much faster as PDF scores on my website, and with no appreciable loss of potential income on my end. Likewise, I've been … [Read more...]

Bounce to Disc

One more thing about composing, since these theme columns tend to come in threes. This is a guilty secret. When composing, I usually imagine more how the piece will sound on recording than in live performance. There is, as we classical types all too seldom recognize, a difference. I love listening to Feldman's For Samuel Beckett on disc; I can just melt into it. But I heard it live once (John Kennedy conducting at Lincoln Center), and I felt nearly suffocated, sonically claustrophobic. Ten minutes into it I had an impulse to flee the hall - but … [Read more...]

What “Composing the Music You Hear” Means

Since people seemed to like the subject of keeping the performer in mind while composing, it's been on my mind, in response to a couple of comments, to hopefully blow apart a notion I regard as superficial and misleading: that the composer "writes what he hears." Creative activity is virtually infinite in its forms, and I would never claim that no composer does this, but I think it must be fairly rare. Of course, in a sense I certainly do write the music I want to hear (my ability to relisten to my own CDs verges on narcissism), and I do … [Read more...]

Vicarious Pleasures of the Web

I've always said that the optimum way to experience Nancarrow's Player Piano Studies was "live" and close-up, being able to watch the piano roll go by. It's a roller-coaster experience: you can see the notes coming before they get there, anticipate their crash into audibility a split-second before it comes, and it adds to the excitement. Well, Nancarrow's piano technician Jürgen Hocker has put up You Tube videos of (almost) the complete Studies, including a couple outside the official canon (I say almost because I don't see No. 41 yet, but … [Read more...]

Placating the Postminimal Performer

One of the issues I deal with every day as a composer (every day I get to compose, that is), is the tension between what I want to hear and what's "grateful" for the performer to play. I suspect a lot of us are in this boat now. It started with minimalism. There are a lot of postminimal pieces I love listening to, and then I open the score and see page upon page of streaming 8th-notes without rests, or multiple tied whole-notes for wind players, or intricate permutational passages within small ranges, and think, "Boy, I love hearing it, but I'm … [Read more...]

The Composer’s Guide to History

My summer hobby, as it turns out, pursued in-between writing a string quartet and finishing my Ashley book, will be relearning the history of music at the feet of Richard Taruskin. That is, from his five-volume Oxford History of Western Music. I should have bought it earlier, and I know what a brilliant writer he is, but I thought it would be full of things I already knew, perhaps kind of a super-Grout (and no former music student will need to be told that I am referring to Donald J. Grout's omni-required and stultifying A History of Western … [Read more...]