In My Dreams

I keep thinking about this self-indulgent course I want to teach, all European music. My Advanced Analysis seminars usually encompass three pieces from different historical periods, analyzed in depth. And I desperately want to teach one based around the unfinished fugue from Bach's The Art of Fugue; Ferruccio Busoni's Fantasia Contrappuntistica, which is based on that Bach fugue; and Kaikhosru Sorabji's five-hour Opus Clavicembalisticum, which also uses the same fugue theme and is heavily indebted to Busoni. I figure I'd probably attract one … [Read more...]

A Smidgen of Feldman, a Dash of Milhaud

New recording, from the other night, of Sang Plato's Ghost, played by the Ghost Ensemble under the baton of David Bloom. Expert young musicians, they did a fine job. The drums are a little too evident on the recording, imagine them softer. On June 7 I have a performance of The Stream (Admonitions) by the New Music Ensemble of the Australian National University in Canberra. It's the first time, to my knowledge, that anyone has simply plucked a score off my web site and decided to play it - after seventeen years of posting PDF scores … [Read more...]

The Spirit Must Die So the Letter Can Live

A student of mine had a performance with a very professional new-music group, and one in which he participated. He told me about a rehearsal they had which was going really well, in which all the players were locked in and the music was really soaring. One of the instrumentalists abruptly stopped the music, explaining: "We were making a crescendo, and there's no crescendo notated." It's like Miles Davis said: robot shit. … [Read more...]

Louder Sang that Ghost, “What Then?”

My major composerly event of the season is the premiere of my septet Sang Plato's Ghost by the Ghost Ensemble, conducted by David Bloom, this Saturday night (Satie's birthday, propitiously enough). The ensemble was formed by one of my former composition students Ben Richter, who plays the accordion, and I've always wanted to write for accordion. Bloom, another Bard product (if indeed the reverse is not true instead) is conductor of the Contemporaneous Ensemble of skyrocketing reputation. The concert is at the Queens New Music Festival at the … [Read more...]

Orchestral Music as Paradox

A brilliant composer friend of mine recently had a reading of a piece done by a major orchestra. All the other composers, she said, and the orchestra management, went around talking about how the orchestra desperately needs to come up with new ideas, so they can build up a new audience. Her piece was very percussion driven, centered around a trap-set part that the orchestral percussionists didn't know how to handle, and so the reading was somewhat lacking. The other composers, commiserating, told her that the string section really needs to be … [Read more...]

The Modernist Populist

SteelTown

Even beyond Ives, I'm on a roll lately of research on dead American composers (DACs - I wish there were more public interest in LACs, but they are a needy and competitive bunch, and I've discovered the pleasures of communing musicologically with the serene and undemanding dead). Aside from Robert Palmer and Johanna Beyer (of whom possibly more soon), I've gotten an opportunity to study Marc Blitzstein, whom I've always admired for his politics and for the musico-political miracle of The Cradle Will Rock. For years after I'd read about the piece … [Read more...]

Working in My Sleep

This morning I dreamed, honest to god, that an editor was coaxing me to write an online music theory text. So I started mapping out, on paper, a starting point and an endpoint, and a tree diagram of ways to get from one to the other. At the point where you study triads, both classical and jazz terminology would be given. Then, to go to seventh chords, if you click on classical it will take you to a page on the five standard classical seventh chords, or if on jazz, to a page with the seven or eight or nine (depending on who I've been taking … [Read more...]

The Missteps of Genius

PSon1-iib-score

God knows I think Charles Ives is god - or rather, Charlie knows I worship him - and I bristle like hell when he's called an amateur, but I have to admit his rhythmic notation makes me tear what's left of my hair at moments. Below are mm. 84-86 as taken from the second movement of the Piano Sonata No. 1, and below that the corrected rhythmic notation as I feel sure he intended it: In the original, the first half of the first measure has only seven 32nds duration in the right hand, and the second half of the second measure has twelve … [Read more...]

Absolutely Uninterested

Every couple of weeks I get a query from a stranger asking me to explain some mathematical aspect of microtonality, and I am so fanatical on the subject that I tend to answer them quickly and at generous length. But for just as many people, I seem to be a go-to guy on the issue of whether we should maintain A as 440 cps or raise or lower it to 432, 442, or whatever. I suppose it says a lot about how immersed in microtonality I am, and how vague the concept is to the general population, that I am astonished that people think these issues are … [Read more...]

Classical Music Can Make You Dumb

On Saturdays we sometimes drive back from breakfast just as the NPR opera is starting up. Today's was Strauss's Arabella. The male and female commentators were discussing it, and the man mentioned something about the emotionalism of the music being especially appropriate because "this is an opera that really deals with issues of human emotion." No kidding? As opposed to all of those operas that don't deal with human emotion? What a curious departure from the norm. A moment later the woman pointed out that Strauss and von Hofmannsthal had … [Read more...]

A Difficult Genius

111409_Fred_Ho__048.jpg

I'm terribly sorry to read in the Times that saxophonist and composer Fred Ho died, at only 56: I knew he had been fighting cancer for years. He gave me a splendidly colorful interview in 1997 that's reprinted in Music Downtown, beginning, "Fred Wei-han Ho knows how to cut your carotid artery with his hands...." What he learned at Harvard, he said, was that "privilege doesn't equate with talent, ability, intelligence, or hard work. Privilege is simply privilege." Fred could be a difficult guy, and no matter how much I tried to support him, I … [Read more...]

Tribute to an Elegant Postminimalist

Duckworth-sketch

I figure everyone who's interested and lives within driving distance of Lewisburg, PA, already knows about this, but Monday evening at 7 I'll be giving the opening talk at a tribute to the late William Duckworth in the Weis Music Building at Bucknell University, where I taught for a few years in the 1990s. (The linked press release, unless they fix it, misstates my tenure at Bard College: I've taught here since 1997, not 2007.) The event is part of the Gallery Series, a series of new-music concerts that Bill founded many, many years ago. He … [Read more...]