PostClassic: March 2007 Archives
One thread of the pop-influenced-classical-music argument is becoming clearer to me from the comments to my previous post. A recurring refrain among younger musicians heavily invested in pop is that those composers who use pop instrumentation but don't really use it in an authentic pop style do so because they don't really respect pop music. They're doing it to make themselves look hip, or to try to "redeem" pop elements by dressing up a classical piece with them. Now most of the composers one might gather in by this description are friends of mine, and I can tell you one thing for certain about every one of them: they all love and respect pop music. They listen to it, they buy it, they comb it for ideas. Almost all of them played it and wrote it in high school and college, if not afterward. At this point, however, they are not writing pop music, and they abstract elements from it for their own music the way Roy Lichtenstein might borrow images from comics, or the way Copland borrowed stride piano style for his Piano Concerto. But I know for a petrified fact that they pay homage to pop music in their own work because they really do admire it.
No young musician I've told this to has yet believed me.
And I can recount an interesting and recurring experience from my own teaching that is revealingly parallel. I've supervised many senior projects in pop music. Though my pop credentials are rather preternaturally thin, I've never hesitated to take one on. The Bard College music department was allowing students to do projects in pop music years before I came there, and as far as I know, not once in the ten years I've been there has any music professor tried to discourage a student from working in pop music, even for course credit. We have a pop songwriting course taught by Greg Armbruster, who's got tons of real-world experience in styles from rap to Broadway, and whose course we consider a staple of the department. (Hell, I was once advisor to a stunning rhythm and blues project by a guy who had Ray Charles's arranging and singing style down so cold it was scary. Needless to say, I learned more from this kid than he did from me.) Musical academia has many faults, as I've occasionally hinted, but as far as I can tell in 2007, taking a disapproving or condescending attitude toward pop music is not a widespread one.
Nevertheless, year after year after year, we hear a refrain from students: "I'd really rather do my senior project with my rock band, but I hear I can't get credit for that." "I wanted to major in music, but since I'm a pop musician I know the faculty won't let me." "I'm doing jazz for my senior concert, because the faculty won't like it if I do a rock concert." None of this is true. Not one member of the faculty flinches when a student expresses interest in pop, nor do those students receive less support than anyone else. Yet they're all certain, and they all have chimerical third-hand evidence: "A friend of mine knew a guy who did a rock concert and the department flunked him." Never happened. I've rewarded many a rock-band concert with an A.
(OK, there is one real, famous Bard story in support: sometime in the late '60s, the department refused to let Donald Fagen, later of Steely Dan fame, become a music major. But the reason was he hadn't bothered to learn to read music and he didn't want to take theory courses, and according to my colleague Luis Garcia-Renart, who was on his board, Donald agreed with the committee's decision that he'd probably be better off majoring in English. But sheesh, that was 40 years ago, give us a break. Since then we've been petrified that anyone we flunk will become famous and make us look foolish.)
The point is, year after year after year the students come to us believing something that is not true. WIth no malevolent intent, they will subconsciously concoct evidence to support their belief. It's as though their self-esteem as rebellious teenagers requires them to invent a myth of the pop-disapproving faculty. I am tempted to conclude from this that young people cherish a widespread irrational faith that Pop Music Is Under Siege. We oldsters would love to get rid of it, and make everyone study classical music and jazz. Therefore, anyone of my generation who borrows pop influences without the air of authenticity cannot simply be incompetent, or abstracting elements for some non-pop-related purpose: they must be motivated by scorn. We all secretly hate pop music, and use it in our ineffective music to make pop music look bad. We so despise it that we rip off its elements superficially, without really listening to it. We're trying to show the world that any idiot can do pop music.
Well, none of it's true. Like the pop-influenced music of my generation or don't like it, but if you imagine it is motivated by opportunism, condescension, or classical snobbism, you are merely projecting your own self-doubt and resentment onto it. That it is not is a historical fact. And if anyone born after 1975 believes me, I'll be tremendously surprised.
An introvert, in Jung's view, was someone who not only is focused on his own thoughts and perceptions, but considers his own viewpoint the final arbiter of reality. When popular opinion and one's own perceptions come into conflict, the introvert cannot but decide that the world must be mistaken. However, in Jung's view, every conscious principle is balanced by a compensatory principle in the unconscious, and it is common, he observed, almost necessary, for an introvert to elevate public opinion to a deity-like monolith with which it is useless to argue. Secretly, introverts assume they possess the truth, but also assume that the world holds all the cards.
I think composers of my own age and especially younger have internalized some such attitude toward pop music. They've studied classical music and can deconstruct it and criticize it, but the very popularity of pop, its perceived universal appeal, makes it, for them, immune to criticism. They compensate for a secret guilt over the self-consciousness of their classical background by considering pop music sacred. I've encountered this attitude for years with my undergrad students, and I discussed it at length with the more experienced composers at the Atlantic Center, because I truly want to understand it. It's not a universal opinion, and there are many nuances and varying viewpoints, but the general attitude is too common to be ignored. My teachers' generation considered pop music beneath serious discussion; my students believe that whenever pop and classical collide, classical must be in the wrong.
I happen to think that pop and classical have a lot to learn from each other, and that neither has a monopoly on musical truth. Sonata form was an important contribution to culture, and so was the concept album inaugurated by Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds. I believe, as an ethical principle, that classical composers should learn from pop, and incorporate what lessons they gather - because I think its popularity is based on something real, if not all-embracing. Having come to pop music comparatively late in life, I don't appropriate its elements much myself, but some of the composers I admire most are those who have tried to fuse aspects of the two: Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca, Mikel Rouse, Eve Beglarian, Ben Neill, Nick Didkovsky, and so on. I don't believe, as some of my contemporaries have claimed to, that pop music is kind of a neutral vernacular with the same status as folk music: i.e., that borrowing pop influences is analogous to Haydn inserting rustic folk songs in his symphonies. Far from being anonymous, pop music is drenched in the personality of its performers; every byte of it is owned by someone, and often valued exactly for its personal associations. Nevertheless, if something of the physicality and contagious energy of pop can be imported into more extended or complex notated forms, so much the better for the progress of music.
But, as I've documented here before, I am not encouraged by the public reception of music that explores this aim. Music that borrows pop elements is rushed into an inevitable comparison with pop, and never to its advantage. Restrict yourself to cellos and oboes and marimbas and accordions and you can write whatever you want, but the second you insert an electric guitar or trap set, you've conjured up the genie of a pop-music comparison, and it is not going to go back into the bottle. For a hundred years or more, composers have been gleefully divesting classical audiences of their expectations: expectations of first and second themes, of tonality, of stylistic consistency, and a hundred other things have been thrown on the dust heap of history. But the expectations raised by comparisons with pop music are not to be denied. They are sacred.
For instance, many composers, in the habit of determining every rhythmic detail of a piece, have tried notating rhythms for trap set. But god help you if your drummer plays those rhythms accurately and doesn't swing them, if they sound measured out rather than improvised in the heat of the moment. Pop fans are accustomed to a certain kind of time-distorting drummer energy, and if you tie your drummer down to a 32nd-note grid, it makes no difference at all how brilliant your rhythmic structure is: they are not going to be impressed. Pop musicians also determine their personality by the obsessive search for a particular high hat sound, an exact guitar distortion. Classical composers have never been in the habit of notating music with specific sounds in mind; you write a drum part, you notate the cymbal, and you assume that the drummer, whoever he turns out to be, owns a high hat cymbal. A little bit of classical new music gets made with exact timbral specificity - Poème Electronique springs to mind - but it is entirely exceptional.
In short, the pop record has turned its fans into cognoscenti of precise timbres. One reads constantly how proud they are of being able to recognize a tune or album from the first split second of a single note. There are possibly classical music mavens so familiar with recordings of the Brahms symphonies that they can recognize which orchestra is playing from the first note; but what does that have to do with Brahms's intentions? Most instruments are neutral, and can be easily dissociated from the music they are associated with. We can hear a piano without being disappointed that it isn't Chopin or Horowitz or Bud Powell, we hear an oboe without thinking of Mozart or Strauss, even an accordion without necessarily thinking of polkas. But trap sets and electric guitars, at this stage of the game, are not neutral, and cannot be bent to any compositional use the composer imagines. They make musicians want and expect to hear a certain kind of energy and virtuosity, and no music that fails in that comparison will be well received.
The attempt to compete timbrally with pop music is usually doomed to failure not only in terms of instrumental deficiencies but in terms of production values. The amount of money that went into making Sgt. Pepper, or any of Bjork's albums, what they are is unimaginable to the new-music composer. Most of us make do with the machines and software we can afford to own. The great majority of electronic composers skirt the issue by relying on synthesized electronic timbres and gradual sonic transformations that never remind anyone of real instruments. Those of us reliant on MIDI, trying to simulate melodies, harmonies, and rhythms - in my case because I'm looking for tunings and polyrhythms that live ensembles can't currently play - are generally reduced to a repertoire of sounds summarily dismissed by audio software experts who can recognize their source. And even those who have their own groups and record in the studio rarely have access to the best microphones, the best mastering, the best guitar-shredders in the business.
And finally, some composers will never use pop elements to pop fans' satisfaction because they're trying to do something else instead. What classical music, generally speaking, has to offer pop is a more global sense of structure, a reconceived relationship of detail to overall form. For those details to be as imagined by the composer, the performer can often not get carried away. You may set up some nested polyrhythms, or an interaction of two isorhythms, which would lose their rhythmic meaning were the drummer to play them imprecisely. Many composers, myself included, think music through notation, and there are limits to which the performer can interfere. What I listen for in music may be perfectly well satisfied by a composer using vernacular elements. But for most pop music fans, the points of comparison are sacred, and admit of no leeway.
Well, so what? I find it a little sad, because a tremendous amount of music that I find powerfully written and brilliantly conceived gets dismissed as worthless because of timbral and production-value reasons that have nothing to do with the music's intent. I trust that the state of affairs is temporary. It may be that a new generation coming along now will become so expert at studio techniques that they will be able to merge a classical sense of composition with the most timbre-oriented recording values. It may be that a future generation less in thrall to pop records than ours will return to the pop-influenced music of the last 20 years and hear all the wonderful things it had to offer without perceiving as a negative the things it wasn't trying to do. Whatever the case, I think we need to acknowledge that the sacredness of expectations based on pop music comparisons puts the would-be-pop-influenced composer in a difficult double bind. One can continue writing music that has nothing to do with pop, and resign yourself to endless facile charges of elitism no matter how transparent, pretty, or cogent your music is; or you can cross the line and try to draw on the other music you love listening to, and almost certainly draw yourself into a contest you are going to lose. I've become convinced: a pop-classical fusion may indeed be the eventual future of music, but given the way people are conditioned to listen today, there is no chance it will be the immediate future. I admire the people who try, but personally I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole.
As part of New Music Box's series on new-music economics, Vivien Schweitzer does a good job of succinctly summing up the advantages of having a publisher for your music versus not having a publisher. Namely, a publisher will market out your music to specific conductors and administrators who otherwise wouldn't see it, but orchestras (and this I didn't realize, but it makes sense) prefer to play music by self-published composers because the score and parts cost so much less. I will add that, as a critic, author, and program annotator, I always find it much easier when I can get a score from the composer. If I have to go through a publisher, the employees there are always as helpful as they can be, but the process is glacially slow, one often has to navigate endless and confusing web sites, and sometimes scores are for rental only and I can't get what I want. If I had a choice between writing a profile about a self-published composer and one with a publisher, all else being equal, I'd take the self-published composer every time. It's so much more convenient. I'd long ago decided that the sole function of publishers was to prevent music from being disseminated, and I'm surprised to learn from Ms. Schweitzer's article that they play any positive role at all.
An excess of spicy food last night got me up extra early this morning, and I ended up where I often end up in the wee hours: Wikipedia. I noticed on my "watch list" that a change had been made to the Minimalism entry, and upon checking, found that the word "chicken" had been unaccountably added to a quote by Tom Johnson. A moment later, I found inserted into the text this line:
i think the music is very boring and to repitive so please get rid of it!!! [sic]
(One concludes the words "too" and "repetitive" were deemed too repetitive as well.) I reverted, and saw that both changes had been made by someone whose computer IP address was 126.96.36.199. Looking up his other activity, I found that he had committed eight acts of vandalism in the "Stem Cell Controversy" entry, and that he had replaced an entire paragraph of Keanu Reeves's biography with the sentiment, "he is GAY! lololololololololol."
UPDATE: I note that, pursuant to further adventures, 188.8.131.52 has been blocked by Wikipedia administrators. The block was extended after he worded a request to end the temporary block thusly: "unblock me you fucking twats or il shove a spade up your old wrinkley ass[.]" 184.108.40.206 clearly harbors modernist sympathies, and is not the type likely to interpret musical stasis in terms of cultural relativism.
I've linked to articles expressing outrage about the recent decision of the Copyright Royalty Board that threatens to shut down a wide swath of internet radio stations, including my own PostClassic Radio. Just so you know what the other side is saying, I print here a letter a friend sent me that he received from his musicians' union. It's a nice piece of propaganda, framing the CRB decision as being entirely motivated to make sure musicians (not corporations, of course) get paid their due. My own comments are bold-faced:
A recent pro-musician decision of the Copyright Royalty Board has sparked a lot of adverse press. Even worse, webcasters and broadcasters have instigated a "grass-roots" campaign urging music fans to complain to Congress about the decision. The purpose of this e-mail is to make sure that musicians are informed about the facts - and to ask you to send your own pro-musician message to your representatives in Washington!
The Background. The Copyright Act requires webcasters and broadcasters to pay royalties when they stream sound recordings on the internet. By law, 50% of the royalties for streaming go to performers. SoundExchange collects the royalties and pays 45% of them directly to individual featured performers. SoundExchange pays 5% (the share set by statute) to the AFM and AFTRA Fund for distribution to session musicians and vocalists. The remaining 50% goes to the sound recording copyright owner - which is usually a record label [interestingly soft-pedaled admission] but in some cases [!] is also the performer.
The Decision. The judges heard 48 days of testimony and reviewed thousands of pages of evidence about the webcasting business and about the businesses of performers and record labels. AFM Vice President Harold Bradley and member Cathy Fink testified about the creative work musicians do in the recording process, and about how important this new income stream is to musicians. President Tom Lee testified about the ways SoundExchange works for musicians. And then the judges carefully considered all they had heard - and got it right. They wrote a careful, 115-page decision that acknowledged the value of musicians' creative work and the importance of fairly compensating us when businesses ["businesses" - there's a loaded word that totally misrepresents most internet stations likely to be killed by the ruling] use our product. ["Our" product - whaddya mean "we," paleface?]
The Webcaster Backlash. Although the webcasters and broadcasters presented a complex and detailed case to the judges - and although the hearing process is one that they asked Congress to create - some don't like the result and are seeking a Congressional override. This makes no sense. What is worse is that large (and wealthy) webcasters like AOL and Yahoo are hiding behind a few [thousand] small webcasters who complain that as "small businesses," they can't afford to pay the royalties [or are making no income at all, doing it as a labor of love or mere means of exposure]. Webcasters made similar complaints the last time rates were set in 2002 - and since then, webcaster revenues overall have jumped from $50 million to $500 million per year. [Tenfold? I'd bet the number of webcasters has increased more than tenfold since 2002, so that's a meaningless statistic.]
Performers Need to Be Paid for Use of Our Work. Most musicians need to patch together lots of income streams in order survive - including royalties for the use of our recordings. Please let Congress know how important this money is to musicians! Urge your representatives to resist the pressure to override the rates set by the CRB.
There follows a sample letter to be sent to one's congressperson, hitting most of the same talking points. I think I need hardly point out that PostClassic Radio costs me about $300 a year to run, and that I derive no income from it at all. The composers I play are almost all greatly in need of exposure, and I've heard abundant anecdotal evidence of people buying CDs to get what they've heard on PostClassic Radio. Shut me down, price Live365 out of my affordable range, and a few hundred composers will suddenly not be heard on internet radio at all, and will get nothing - no exposure, no royalties, no CD sales. Becoming entirely commercial, internet radio will then be forced back into the same deadening lack of variety that radio has suffered in recent years.
Here's Alex Ross today, though you might as well go read the whole thing:
But the whole point is that there are no hits in classical music. It's a niche market that is itself a vast conglomeration of sub-niches, from early music to the avant-garde, from Furtwängler fanciers to Toscanini types, none of whom ever agree. Collectively, however, they purchase many millions of records a year, and the Internet has made it far easier for them to find what they want....
Out in the media mainstream, any information that suggests health or lack of death in the classical area will appear counterintuitive, and will be questioned or ignored. The lack of hits guarantees a lack of coverage, because media outlets want to be able to tell their audience about the four or five big things that matter in any field -- the Arcade Fire, Heroes, Spider Man 3, etc. -- and this galaxy of subcultures won't oblige. It's so much easier to disregard the entire thing. The neverending "death of classical music" talk is the wishful thinking of the culture industry. But the fact that orchestra subscriptions, opera ticket sales, and, possibly, record sales have gone up in the last year or two suggests that music from Hildegard to Anna Clyne can still find its audiences without help from TV, magazines, and commercial radio.
Not that I give a damn, I'm in postclassical.
The immortal quote from Alvin Curran's New York Times blog today:
Elliott Carter told us the first day of composition class, "You can bring anything in here you want, except octaves."
Alvin continues: "Octaves are in essence sandwiches with nothing inside, and I love them." (I seem to recall that Carter's Piano Sonata, one of the best pieces he ever wrote, starts with a multiple-octave B.)
I didn't want a laptop with a camera in it. I had no desire to learn what I look like to my computer.
But I have to admit, I no longer go to the bathroom mirror to comb my hair. I just open Photo Booth and comb the hair in my computer screen.
Well, all right, it's Sunday night and you could use a laugh.
The Concord Sonata gave Charles Ives a reputation as "the man who plays piano with a stick." But what if Rachmaninoff had gotten the idea first? I think it might have gone something like this.
I've been very much enjoying New Music Box's new Counterstream Radio Station (click "Listen to Radio" in the upper right-hand corner), though I haven't yet heard Sarah Cahill's double interview with Bjork and Meredith Monk. I have heard a lot of lovely new music, though. And I thought there was very little overlap with my PostClassic Radio station, until John Cage's Dream came on, the piano vignette that is a similar companion piece to his In a Landscape, my signature piece on PostClassic Radio. For one brief moment, I suspected they were stealing my aura. But the more good new music we have out there, the better, and they're explicitly going for a wider range than I am.
You're not hearing from me because I bought Logic, and I'm playing with my new toy. You can imagine what it's like for someone who has spent 32 years writing pieces based on repeating loops going out of phase with each other to start working with a software partly based on exactly that paradigm. It took me about two minutes to generate a typical-sounding Kyle Gann piece. I added some string chords, and it started sounding like John Luther Adams's Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing. I added a percussion track and it started to sound like an Ives orchestral adagio. At that point I had to stop and give my aesthetic some serious philosophical thought.
One point of interest is the tuning capability, which is limited to a 12-pitch scale, repeating in every octave. The menu of tunings (File > Song Settings > Tuning) offers dozens of historically defined meantones and well temperaments replicated beyond any Baroque expert ability to distinguish them all by ear. Yet there is no harmonic series tuning, no tunings based on Ben Johnston's piano music, nothing inspired by Harry Partch - although there is, somehow, the tuning of La Monte Young's Well-Tuned Piano (here called Well-Tempered Piano). You have to wonder what it is about people who design software and synths that they are savvy enough to realize that different tunings would be nice, yet naive enough to think that people making electronic music would want to work in meantone, let alone forty different meantones that differ only by a few cents here and there. It's the strangest combination of sophistication and ignorance.
The program seems to only allow one 12-pitch tuning at a time; I could get 36 pitches to the octave by having three identical instruments with different user tunings, though there is no way to save user tunings, and I guess I'd have to record them as separate audio files. But I'll be using sounds and scales from Kontakt anyway, and I'm having a blast with Logic's glib usability.
On another rather technical microtonal note, L'il Miss' Scale Oven software has brought about a revolution in the way I write microtonal keyboard music. When I write for live performance, every key I play is assigned to a certain pitch, and in the past I've generally had to keep the pitches in scalar order, running low to high. The reason is that most keyboard-based synths have built-in filtering systems so that if you tune a key more than a few half-steps from its intended pitch, the sound becomes extremely tinny in the lower register and very dull in the higher register. But L'il Miss' Scale Oven reassigns to each key the sample whose pitch is closest to it, so that no such distortion occurs. So now, high pitches can be assigned to low notes on the keyboard and vice versa, and a lot of microtonal pitch configurations that were formerly unplayable become easy. For instance, in my piece The Day Revisited, I got to renotate the passage notated as follows:
Tremendously easier to play, and both of them produce the pitches given here:
where E in the first measure is actually 8/7 above D (231 cents), G# is 10/7 (617 cents), B is 12/7 (933 cents), E in the second measure is 9/8 (204 cents), A is 3/2 (702 cents), C quarter-tone sharp is 20/11 (1035 cents), E quarter-tone flat is 12/11 (165 cents), A quarter-tone flat is 16/11 (649 cents), C is 7/4 (969 cents), and so on. What I can do now is assign any pitch to any key on the keybord, and thus assign different harmonic areas to different registers, with concern only for maximum playability, and without concern for actual highness or lowness. My first piece to take full advantage of that was Fugitive Objects, the microtonal keyboard piece I wrote at the Atlantic Center, in which different musical objects were assigned to each octave for optimum playability. In general, the right hand plays the mid-register melody while the left hand plays both bass notes and high treble notes, which are all assigned within the same octave. I'll put the mp3 up once I've finished revising it. Neither hand moves far from its original position, though the pitches are all over the place.
Perhaps this is an arcane matter, of interest to only a few people on the planet, but where better to put arcane information than on the internet, where the words "microtonal keyboard mapping" may well bring in the four or five people engrossed in exactly that subject?
M.C. Maguire, Scott Unrein, and Jim Altieri at the Atlantic Center for the Arts (see update below):
Photo by Caroline Mallonée
UPDATE: Corey Dargel sends a photo from an ACA residency a couple of years ago, with Joshua Palay, Eve Beglarian, Paula Matthusen, and himself (same exact spot, I think):
My three weeks at Atlantic Center for the Arts flew by in a pleasant blur. Getting tremendous free tech support from the composers who came to work with me, I achieved my long-delayed goal of being able to play keyboards off of my new laptop, and wrote and performed a little 13-limit tuning study, Fugitive Objects, to celebrate the fact. But I was kept busier than the other composers, and composing took second place to a very helpful kind of networking. The nine of us met every afternoon; I taught a lot about microtonality, and they coached me on technological skills, everything from programming the "Dashboard" on my laptop to how to get microtones in Logic, the music software program that's been declared verboten in the Bard College electronic studio, but that I'm about to buy and start using anyway. The more significant meetings, though, were those we had between 10 PM and 1:30 AM, where, over liberal amounts of single-malt scotch, we listened to tons of music from half a dozen iPods, as well as from my 13,000-mp3 hard drive. I got to know my composers' music very well, and I am happy to introduce you to them - listing them in reverse alphabetical order:
Scott Unrein, a doctoral student at University of Missouri KC, was the one whose iPod so matched my own new music list that I started exulting when I found a rare piece he didn't know - a feat in which he reciprocated all too often. He is a devotee of the quiet, atmospheric aesthetic typified by Jim Fox's Cold Blue label, and his own music has migrated from a rhythmic, Reich-influenced postminimalism to a sustained lyricism of tenatative saxophone lines over tremoloing chords and ostinatos quite elegant in their simply metamorphosing logic. Scott's also an active podcaster of new music, and his Nonpop station runs parallel to my Postclassic Radio and garners many times as many listeners.
Maria Panayotova, originally from Bulgaria but completing a doctorate at Cincinnati College-Conservatory, used to write soulful, metrically fluid acoustic music, often with vocals that evinced an almost unconscious-seeming influence of Balkan folk music, falling into lovely patterns of quick 5/8. In recent years, however, she has switched entirely to electronics, and has started making her own video as well, based in one case on geometric patterns found in forest images, and in another on a cute children's story about a traffic light that baffled a town by starting to glow blue. An accomplished pianist, she embedded a section of Schumann's Kinderscenen in the shimmering electronics of her In the Forest video, which became clearly audible after she pointed it out. She kindly introduced me to Soundhack, showed me how she did it, and now I'm Soundhacking away like a hipster.
Matt McBane recently moved to New York City from Los Angeles, where he has started an ensemble of violin (himself - no fewer than three of our composers were violinists), cello, bass, piano, and drums. The ensemble is yet unnamed, but has several upcoming performances booked, to which I'll try to alert you. One of his formative experiences was conducting a performance of Reich's Eight Lines, and his music is often marked by a fanatically detailed sense of slow textural transformation. A new work, Drivin', replaces rests with notes in a maniacal 5/4 rhythm demanding a concentration that only the fearless enthusiasm of youth could negotiate, but other of his pieces are simpler and more pop-influenced.
Due to her formidable resumé and creative prolificity, Caroline Mallonée, who's got a doctorate from Duke and teaches at the Walden School, earned for the duration the nickname "Alpha Male." Carrie's ambitious chamber pieces, such as Throwing Mountains, play off of permutational schemes developed as an expansion of Reich's technique in Piano Phase (notice how often that name comes up?). Capable of the kind of bristlingly impressive ensemble works that are good for getting commissions, she also has a penchant for simple pieces exploring clear tonal and microtonal phenomena with a Tom Johnson-like directness, and the violin trio she whipped up for herself and her fellow violinists in the last few days explored the harmonic series in a fetching idiom of light folk fiddling.
Andrea La Rose was familiar to me, and will have been to many readers, as the feisty flutist-composer from New York's Anti-Social Music ensemble who weighs in with considerable fire at Sequenza 21. She's completing a dissertation on Rzewski at CUNY, and when a horoscope reading attributed to her an "excess of vitality," it was considered apt enough to become a running gag. She writes high-energy music that usually forays into improvisation at points - thus the Rzewski interest - combining it with minimalist tendencies, so that some of her pieces achieve the odd effect of differing considerably from performance to performance, but maintaining a strong sense of identity in any one reading. I particularly admire her Concerto for Anyone (PDF available at her web site), an entirely instruction-based piece that so reduces concerto form to its essence that a concerto is bound to result no matter what players are used. Prolific and an expert performer, she's bouncing among a dozen good ideas, and wherever she lands will doubtless cause merriment, consternation, insight, and possibly the End of Civilization As We Know It.
No description of Teresa Hron will sound very credible. A Canadian living in Amsterdam, Terri plays the recorder, travels with a bass recorder almost her own height - and is one of the most challenging rhythmic minds of the age. She studied Carnatic Indian music in India, absorbed unnerving subtleties of rhythm, and came home to apply them to music she plays with her recorder ensemble, as well as more pop-oriented groups with which she's associated. So she sets up these long, complex isorhythms (e.g., 7 + 5 + 3 + 3, 7 + 5 + 3 + 3, 7 + 5 + 3 + 1), within which certain rhythmic motives recur at tempos of 4-against-3 and 7-against-5, often over the barline. It's a notational nightmare, though, as she insists, the music is quirkily melodic, and doesn't sound complex. I'd have declared her crazy, except that she played recordings of herself and her Dutch Indian-rhythm-aficionado friends performing her scores quite competently. Suffice it to say: I nearly fried my brain trying to disentangle her rhythmic structures, and I wrote the Nancarrow book.
(At the final concert Andrea and Terri played duets they had written using copious quantities of 4/6 and 5/6 meter, and if you think that's impossible, then go back and read the "Rhythm" chapter of Henry Cowell's New Musical Resources.)
Jim Altieri I've written about here before, for he's the genius who implemented John Luther Adams's The Place Where You Go to Listen installation in Max/MSP. He's the kind of guy who, if you muse aloud about some weird transformational effect you'd like to hear, will come to you the next day with a disc containing software he devised to effect it. One of the heirs to the James Tenney aesthetic, he's writing (among other things) string pieces that glissando slowly through various overtone and undertone series', elegantly simple in conception and quite sensuous and surprising in effect. He was also the third violinist, and much of his compositional technique is based on the fact that, like Tony Conrad, he can play microtonal intervals on his violin and bring out the difference tones and missing fundamentals quite clearly. (Jim and Carrie play together in a band called Glissando bin Laden and his Musichideen, but you didn't hear about it from me.)
Along with Mike Maguire, whom I've already written about, that was the group. They impressed not only me but the poets, architects, and administrators at ACA with their omnipresent energy and professionalism. The final concert, in which most of them performed, was remarkable for its absence of reference to any 20th-century idiom - no hint was left that modernism had ever existed, and the future sounded wide open. I imbibed their musical optimism and curiosity like a healing nectar, and washed it down with 12-year-old Bowmore. You'll be hearing more about them all, and not only from me.
(I'd also like to mention two alternate composers, who, had we had world enough and time, I wish could have joined us: Paula Matthusen, a composer of lovely music for voice and electronics, and Jacob Barton, a young take-no-prisoners microtonalist who's already attracted attention in the pitch-splitting world. I hope to get to work with them someday as well.)
My choral work My father moved through dooms of love, based on E.E. Cummings, received a lovely premiere in New York last night, with James Bagwell conducting the Dessoff Choir, Rachel Handman playing solo violin, and Steven Ryan on piano. I've posted the recording. Rachel was nearer the microphone than the chorus was, with the result that the violin is a little overly foregrounded on the recording; heard from inside Merkin Hall, she slipped more easily into and out of the choral texture, which was my intention. The text can be found here among other places, and a PDF of the score is available here (click on "choral"). Jeff Lunden's interview with me about the work here. That's all the info there is.
As a teaser for my upcoming CD on New Albion, provisionally titled Private Dances (not due until September), I upload a pre-final edit of The Day Revisited, my microtonal piece for flute, clarinet, fretless bass, and two sampler keyboards. Twenty-nine pitches to the octave, unequally spaced. Though you can occasionally hear the effort that woodwind microtonality involves, I'm really happy with it, one of those pieces that asymptotically approaches the perfect Kyle Gann piece I hear in my head every day. Pat Spencer plays flute, Meighan Stoops clarinet, Bernard Gann bass, and Blair McMillan and I keyboards. The other day I gave a talk about my music at Stetson University down here in Florida, and a student asked, "How do you feel about form?" I told her that my favorite form was to start something and then just keep going.
I suppose it is redundant to alert my readers here to the highly visible blog that the Times is running by an rotating quartet of four composers: Annie Gosfield, Alvin Curran, Michael Gordon, and Glenn Branca. I might note, however, that all of them are what I might have called "Downtowners," and all thus refreshingly devoted to free-thinking creativity, and unlikely to harangue us about the importance of credentials, knowledge of the European repertoire, and solid education in traditional theory. (I wondered aloud why no composers from the academic establishment or orchestra circuit were represented, and a friend theorized, "Maybe none of them knew what a blog was.") I also note that Gordon, despite Bang on a Can's habitual refusal to take sides on the Uptown/Downtown issue, points to a time in his career in which he did take sides:
If I had to choose I would have without question sided with the downtown school. I found the modernists were totalitarian in their belief, misconceived in my opinion, that the point of writing music was to show off how smart you were.... Not only was the downtown school more expansive in its ideas and concepts, they also began to reembrace the misbegotten audience by reintroducing the now forgotten idea that music, in order to be good, needed to actually sound good.
Good for him. Of course, he locates the whole argument to the generation preceding his, thus perhaps obviating the need for any defense of Bang on a Can's arm's-length treatment of the Downtown scene during the 1990s.
Far more entertaining is Branca's wacko tirade (and I mean this in the best possible sense) today about the "secrets of harmony":
One example of a chord that defies analysis is the "unison cluster." This is a type of dense cluster in which the tones are placed very close together using small microtonal intervals. The effect is neither of a cluster nor a unison. But the sound is rich with a strange, singing choir-like quality. The clash of harmonics which occurs in a standard cluster does not occur here because the harmonic interaction that creates the harsh sound is so high that it's outside the range of hearing....
Music is not pure. It cannot be pure. Sound is noise. In the 70s it was popular for studio engineers to try to get the "cleanest" possible sound, a vogue that lasted for years and was a complete failure. The only clean sound is silence.
It's lovely to see a composer go flying out into the public eye with all the kinds of thoughts we music weirdos usually try to keep people from realizing we have.
One of my expected pleasures of being here at the Atlantic Center for the Arts has been the opportunity to learn more about the music of M.C. Maguire. (I'll introduce you to all my ACA composers presently, but Maguire, older than the rest, deserves his own day.) Mike's a Canadian composer, used to live in Vancouver, but moved to Toronto four years ago, and makes his living making soundtracks for films, commercials, and the like. His work for hire is rather amazingly sophisticated, and you can hear his imaginative commercials for Nike, Smirnoff, Fruit Loops, and others here. But I first became aware of him via a torrential sound continuum called Seven Years on the 1989 Bang on a Can marathon, and I've been trying to figure him out ever since.
Because his music - wild, noisy, intense, relentlessly high-energy - is nearly opposite in style to most of the music I like, but it is nothing at all like most modernist music characterized by those qualities, and I always have to admire fanaticism. Most of his pieces are what he calls "concertos," by which he means pieces for solo instrument accompanied/obliterated by tape or electronic soundfile layered with from 200 to 400 tracks. The noise periodically parts for pop references and quotations: lightly-altered pop songs, the scherzo from Bruckner's Eighth, Brazilian pop, heavy metal, all cascading by like someone trying to find his favorite radio station during a hurricane. Two of his pieces, which he analyzed for us - Got That Crazy Latin/Metal Feelin' for guitar and tape and Short History of Lounge for piano and tape - will be released on the Tzadik label in May, and he had to alter some of the quotations to avoid copyright infringement. He claims that he replaced the vocal parts with vocalists singing software manuals in Portugese, but Mike's humor is so dry that it's hard to discern where reality ends and satire begins - probably somewhere within his music.
It turns out, though, that beneath all the wildness runs a detailed sense of proportion and structure as obsessive as that of the Berg Chamber Concerto or the middle studies of Nancarrow. Got That Crazy Latin/Metal Feelin' is based on 49 tonalities that alternately rise and descend by thirds. As Mike helpfully charted out on a blackboard for us, the piece ascends to chord 7, returns to 1, slogs its way up to 14, returns to 1, and so on until it finally climbs the mountain of 49. The central tonality is the E power chord of the guitar solo, and you can sometimes hear the music dramatically return to it via a circle of fourths - though Maguire's moments of repose and respite start about where Mahler's climaxes end. Short History of Lounge, its title notwithstanding, is - at least on paper - a conventional three-movement concerto form, though enlivened by background quotations and sections that greatly accelerate and decelerate. The finale runs through an incredible gradual deceleration from quarter note = 900 to quarter note = 4. The magnitude of such gestures leaves you exhausted. In retrospect, though, I should have figured that his sense of form was knitted together by obsessively detailed structure, because it would be extremely difficult to make music of such rich complexity without a plan to generate all the various moments: the musical analogue of Bruno's Theater of memory.
I've included some Maguire on Postclassic Radio, but I've also uploaded Short History of Lounge here on my website, so you can hear it. It's the easier-listening of the two pieces, if that term can be used in this case, and I'll take it down when the CD appears in May, and remind you that it's out. I can see why Zorn likes the music - perhaps a rare point at which our tastes overlap. Maguire's not completely isolated in Canadian music, for his friend Paul Dolden also makes take pieces of mammothly superimposed hundreds of tracks, and has gained a little more attention for doing so. But with his peculiar blend of postmodern style juxtapositions, pop appropriations, and fanatical intellectual structure, I think Maguire's the most original Canadian composer since R. Murray Schafer - and I don't know Schafer's music well enough to be certain the qualifier is necessary.
Sites To See
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog