My Chicago Roots

I've always had a fascination with canons, even long before I wrote a book about a composer (Nancarrow) whose major works were mostly canons. In the late 1980s, when I was in the habit of lecturing on the history of Chicago's new-music scene at the School of the Art Institute and other places, I ran across, in a Chicago used bookstore, a little book called Canonical Studies, by Bernhard Ziehn (1845-1912, pictured). I recognized the name. Ziehn was one of two German composer-theorists who were living in Chicago when Ferruccio Busoni toured … [Read more...]

“une nouvelle approche de la complexité rythmique”

My article on Nancarrow for IRCAM's contemporary music documentation archive is now online - in French, of course. I couldn't write it in French, but I did brush up enough of my high-school French (three years) to carry on the relevant correspondence in that language. Amusingly, the archive is called BRAHMS, which musicologist Nicolas Donin tells me was originally derived from something like "Base de données Relationnelles Hypermédia sur la Musique de notre Siècle" - though no one now remembers for sure, and it's now called something else, but … [Read more...]

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

One of the most striking things Morton Feldman said when I worked with him briefly in 1975 was, "In the '60s, my students were all using a tempo marking of quarter-note = 60. Now my students are all using 72." That was a revelation to me: that even something as neutral as a tempo marking might be a cliché, a learned behavior, an unconscious imitation, a hint of groupthink. Ever since then, for 35 years, every time I've put down a tempo marking, I've thought, is this really the tempo I want? Did I see another piece with this tempo lately? Am I … [Read more...]

Homophobia Case Against Ives Closed

In response to my writing on the subject, my attention has been drawn to an article, "The Cowell-Ives Relationship: A New Look at Cowell's Prison Years," by Leta Miller and Rob Collins, in an issue of the excellent journal American Music (Vol. 23, No. 4 (Winter, 2005), pp. 473-492) - don't know how I missed it, since I receive the journal. The story has always been that, once Cowell was imprisoned in San Quentin from 1936 to 1940 on a homosexual morals charge, Ives was disgusted to learn about Cowell's homosexuality, and cut off all contact … [Read more...]

A Mad Poet’s Ghost

On our recent trip to Concord, we took a side trip to Salem, where my friends Jim Dalton and Maggi Smith-Dalton, microtonal composers and early-American-music experts, took me to the grave of Jones Very (1813-1880), the temporarily-mad Emerson poet protégé whose ecstatic sonnets I set to music in my Transcendental Sonnets. (Jim's an isolated, Johnstonian just-intonationist in the officially 72-tet Boston crowd.) Very's tomb is in the Old South Cemetery, founded in 1689, and quite visible from a fairly busy street. Just one member in a family … [Read more...]

Academie d’Overrated

Ineresting evening, we had tonight. We had a meeting of all the Bard composers, faculty and students. In the course of it a student challenged me, Joan Tower, and George Tsontakis to name the Schoenberg pieces we really like. I don't think Joan and George will begrudge me reporting the meager results. Joan and I basically agreed on the Op. 11 piano pieces, especially the second one. George and I agreed that Moses und Aron is "great" - the two acts that he wrote. I'll never forgive Arnold for not finishing his magnum opus just because he … [Read more...]

The End of Exceptionalism

In my pedantically wonkish way, I'm excited to be teaching my sonata-form classes with William E. Caplin's book Classical Form (Oxford, 1998), as I have been for several years now. For those who don't know it, Caplin went through the complete sonata-form works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and catalogued everything that happens in all of them - what theme the development starts with, what relative keys get referred to in the codas, and like that. I don't use the book as a textbook: even though Caplin's writing style is admirably clear, it's … [Read more...]

A Couple of Complaints

I'm not a critic anymore, and don't want to be one. But I am bothered by a couple of things lately, and hope that a word to the wise won't be resented. (Like anything I say ever goes unresented by a lot of people.) I will, at least, refuse to specify what music I'm talking about.There is, in general, a problem with postminimalist opera. I keep hearing new operas that, to my ears, all keep making the same mistake. Namely: it sounds like the composer writes the instrumental accompaniment first, and then lays the vocal line over it. The vocal … [Read more...]

How Music Sounds to Children

I hadn't listened to Schubert's Fifth Symphony in far too long, and I did today. I have a special relationship with that piece - or rather, it has one with me. It was one of the pieces I heard on recording from my first weeks out of the womb. I knew how it went before I could talk. And whenever I play it, I'm transported into feeling like I'm a child hearing music again, as something magical and captivating that I can't figure out. It links me to a preverbal relationship with music, and reminds me, in a way unlike any other work, of how music … [Read more...]