The Tough Discipline of the Vernacular


Students are inscrutable. I've taken over first-year theory again this semester, as a favor to a younger colleague. So far I've brought in, as examples for musical analysis, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game"; Tom Lehrer's "Bright College Days"; two ragtimes by Scott Joplin; two barbershop quartet songs, "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" and "Lida Rose" from The Music Man; "Yesterday" by the Beatles (unrecognized by half my class); and the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." The other day a songwriting guitarist kid came to drop the class. His reason: "I'm … [Read more...]

Propelled into Action


My life has been sedentary and uneventful of late, but that's about to change. In the month two weeks beginning next week I give nine seven lectures in locations across the nation. First I head for the University of Missouri at Kansas City, where I've already had such happy times, to teach classes on the Concord Sonata, microtonality, and such. I will also give my lecture "Thoreau's Flute and Charles Ives's Concord Sonata" at the Kansas City Central Library, 14 West 10th Street, at 6:30 on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 19. Then I'll teach some … [Read more...]

Ezra Sims (1928-2015)


I was saddened this morning to hear from Mathew Rosenblum of the death, at age 87, of microtonal patriarch Ezra Sims. He was the pioneer of a 72edo (72 equal divisions of the octave) notation that spread among his younger colleagues in Boston and gave that city its own microtuning culture distinct from the rest of the nation. I only met him once, briefly at a Dinosaur Annex concert, but I respected his music from the first time I reviewed it in Fanfare, and we shared some jovial correspondence surrounding some liner notes I once wrote for him a … [Read more...]

Bronson or Louisa? The Alcotts Question


I'm snowed in, and statistically speaking, you probably are too. So let's blog some of my Ives book, and I'll give you my complete analysis of the Alcotts movement. I've already written about Ives's mysterious references to Lizzy Alcott's piano, and I won't repeat that section here. At issue is which parts of the movement were meant to bring to mind Louisa May Alcott and her famous novels for children, and which her fecklessly philosophical father, Bronson Alcott. You'll need to know a couple of things from earlier in the book to follow the … [Read more...]

We Condescend to the Past

This defense of contemporary music by visual artist Curt Barnes on Susan Scheid's Prufrock's Dilemma blog is so accurately stated that it jarred even me back into consciousness of things I tend to forget: [A]s citizens of the 21st century, now, we need to acknowledge the truism that the art (read: music) of the past is to some degree artifact. Its force as art has been softened with age, and unconsciously or not we condescend to its conventions, its narrower world, to fully enjoy it. It coddles us with the safe haven of its familiar forms. … [Read more...]

Minimalism Unbounded but Helsinki-Bound

All attend!: the Fifth International Conference on Minimalist Music, taking place at the University of Turku and the Sibelius Academy in Finland this September, has finally announced its call for papers. They will be focusing on "the relevance of the minimalist style in the 21st century," and are looking for papers on the core minimalist repertory but also postminimalism, Nordic minimalism, the migration of the style among genres, minimalism in popular culture, and so on. The keynote speakers will be scholars Robert Fink and Jelena Novak. This … [Read more...]

New Horizons in Microtonal Neoclassicism

I wrote some more of my Nursery Tunes for Demented Children that I recently mentioned here. They're silly little pieces, but they serve a serious purpose for me. I've been doing a lot of sketches for large works in what I call my 8x8 tuning, which contains potentialities that I need to explore and learn to hear before I can commit myself to basing entire pieces on them. In particular I've been trying out, in the second and fourth pieces here, more exotic triads a little higher in the harmonic series, such as 7:9:11, 10:13:15, and 8:11:13, which … [Read more...]

A Born Symphonist Heard at Last


For years I've been complaining about the unavailability of George Rochberg's symphonies on recording, aside from the 2nd and 5th. The 2nd is such a fantastic piece - just about the one 12-tone piece I can count on students going nuts for at first listening - that I've felt like an important slice of history was missing in especially the 3rd and 4th symphonies, the ones written during his turn toward romanticism and collage in the period of his Concord quartets. Well, several months ago the remaining symphonies were quietly added to YouTube, … [Read more...]

In Which I Am Danced to


I meant to post this earlier, but between semesters I lose all concept of time. Some of my microtonal music, specifically Charing Cross and Echoes of Nothing, is being used in a new dance today choreographed by my Bard colleague Peggy Florin. The event is at 3 PM at the Danspace Projects DraftWork Series at St. Mark's Church in New York on 10th Street and Second Avenue. Dances by Peggy and also Lisa Kusanagi, performed by Peggy, Harriett Meyer & Dana Florin-Weiss. Free event. I like people dancing to my music. Happens occasionally. And I … [Read more...]

Things Composers Can Do


Peter Burkholder’s book All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and the Uses of Musical Borrowing is my bible. In it Peter systematically outlined all the various methods and intentions with which Ives quoted and borrowed from other music. Peter worked from the manuscripts outward, and when he found a folk song penciled next to the symphonic tune Ives derived from it, Ives was caught red-handed. There were many attributed quotes in Ives that I was reluctant to think were intentional, but when Peter shows the notes in the manuscript next to the score, … [Read more...]

Justifying the Strange Artist

For forty-five years, since I was a middle-schooler in Dallas, Ives's Essays before a Sonata has been one of the most important books in my life. Lately it's become tremendously underrated. Some Ives scholars have dismissed it nearly entirely as a jumble of psuedo-intellectual bloviations. The literature about the book has mined it piecemeal, a few sentences at a time, for insights into Ives's biography, or to prove that he was highly influenced by Emerson and considered himself a Transcendentalist - or to prove the opposite. One of the themes … [Read more...]

Bob Gilmore (1961-2015)


I am stunned by the news on Facebook that musicologist and my close friend Bob Gilmore has died at age 53. He had survived a bout of cancer when I saw him two years ago in Amsterdam and London, and was physically reduced, but last I'd heard he was on the road to complete recovery. What a loss! He was not only a superb scholar (biographer of Harry Partch, anthologizer of Ben Johnston) but an incredibly irreverent spirit, incisive and fearless. I'll never forget, after corresponding with him for years, pulling into Dartington, England, on the … [Read more...]

Charles Ives as Improviser


One of the passages in my book I'm most proud of is the one in which I analyze my transcriptions of Ives's recorded performances of the Four Transcriptions from Emerson (passages of the Concord's Emerson movement that he revised to be closer to the way he played them). One of my external readers advised firmly that this chapter should be stricken from the book. That's right: for the first time, someone transcribed what actual notes Charles Ives played when he considered that he was playing Emerson, giving us a chance to see how what Ives … [Read more...]