PostClassic: March 2009 Archives

I live in New York's 20th congressional district, upon which the eyes of the nation are riveted at the moment as Democrat Scott Murphy and Republican Jim Tedisco battle it out to fill Kirsten Gillibrand's empty seat. Many are trying to make this a referendum on the Obama administration. But the truth is, nothing Obama has done since taking office could have swayed any vote in my county one way or the other. Half the county is local rednecks descended from families who've lived here forever, and they despise the other half: New York cityfolk who moved up here from Manhattan, along with academics like me at the local colleges. The cops are all Republican. Get stopped for speeding, and if you can prove your area code isn't 212, you might get let off. Recently at a political rally, a woman Democrat started arguing with a Republican man, and the Republican punched her in the nose: the police, of course, arrested the woman for disturbing the peace, and the Republican judge ruled against her. Bard students peacefully protested after the 2004 election, and police wrestled them to the ground, after which the local Republican judge threw the book at them. At a city meeting at my town, a distinguished older gay citizen (formerly from the city, of course) spoke and got called "faggot" by one of the police, who hustled the gay man off to jail for the crime of speaking his mind - and the worse crime of not having originally been from around here.

So the district is divided just about exactly in half between long-time locals and displaced New Yorkers and academics. Who everyone voted for could have been predicted months ago, or years. (Democrat Gillibrand, whom I like, did well here by courting the NRA) The only insight one could possibly wring from this election is what the current proportion of rednecks and city folk is - a matter of some interest to locals, perhaps, but one that sheds no light whatever on the public reaction to Obama. 

A neighbor put up a huge hand-painted sign up on his property in November that said, "NOBAMA." I thought of countering with one that read, "TediscNO."

March 31, 2009 11:09 PM | | Comments (5) |
Well, the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music committee has gone through all the paper proposals, and we've put together a program of about 56 papers. It's a stunner. I'm really proud of the lineup, especially because it exhibits an intelligently varied yet limited range of minimalism. Yes, there are ten papers that talk about Steve Reich, but there are no fewer than four on Phill Niblock (!), two on Julius Eastman, also two each on Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Arvo Pärt, one each on Jim Fox, David Borden, Michael Torke, Jim Tenney, and Charlemagne Palestine. (Not that Niblock doesn't merit it, quite the contrary, he's a vastly influential underground figure; but I'm impressed that so many academics latched on to someone so quintessentially Downtown, in all literal and metaphorical senses.) We have musicologists coming from the UK, Canada, Belgium, Australia, the Czech Republic, Serbia, and France. There are even papers on minimalist aspects of Morton Feldman and Milton Babbitt - we could have turned down the latter in good conscience, but I'm just too curious. And the performance part of the conference is geared around little-known but often historic early minimalist works: an early Terry Riley piece that's only been played twice before, some rare Tom Johnson opuses, my own reconstructions of 1959 Dennis Johnson and 1982 Harold Budd, performances by Palestine and Mikel Rouse, and a few surprises we're still cooking up. This is going to come very close to defining minimalism as I hear it: not a watered-down catch-all term that includes everything from Wagner's Rheingold to Donna Summer, but a true tradition among people who knew each other and exchanged ideas during an intense historical period. It's the most exciting thing in my immediate future. Kansas City, September 2-6: be there or be neoromantic.

[UPDATE:] Shouldn't tell you to be there without telling you how: we'll have registration information up on the web site soon, and I'll tell you when it's ready.

March 28, 2009 10:46 PM | | Comments (6) |
Here's a brief audio sample from Harold Budd's Children on the Hill, the improvisatory piece I'm transcribing from a 1982 perfomance for reconstruction on our upcoming Minimalism conference. At 23 minutes in length, it's a completely different piece than his eponymous performance on the old Obscure CD. The beginning and end were easy to transcribe, but in the middle of the piece is a wildly rhapsodic wash of arpeggios that goes on for 13 minutes. I can slow down the soundfile to catch all the notes, but slowing down also blurs the note attacks, and makes low notes in particular less distinct. So what I end up doing is transcribing the general outlines as far as I can at normal speed, slowing down to 50 or 60 percent to catch all the treble arpeggios, then slowing that down another 50 percent to decipher grace notes and disentangle rippling arppeggios, then listening to the whole thing sped up again - which often reveals mistaken rhythms as well as mis-heard bass notes. Of course, it's not just normal piano, but piano played through an Eventide Harmonizer, which blurs the notes and makes them sound like they're sustained or played again, which doesn't make transcription any easier. I'd say I've been spending at least three hours on every minute of the recording, and I've got seven minutes left to go. Below is my transcription (so far) of the passage above. Of course, rhythms are kind of a humorous fiction in a rapidly improvised passage like this, so the pianist (Sarah Cahill) will have to ignore the meter, play in an unmeasured rush of excitement, and listen to the original recording to try to capture the original expression. Next to this, the transcription work I did on The Well-Tuned Piano was a piece of cake, but Harold's music is so beautiful that it's going to be totally worth it. 


March 25, 2009 8:58 AM | | Comments (8) |
Tomorrow night at 8, Wednesday, March 25, pianist Justin Kolb will play some of my Private Dances along with Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata at the PHCC Performing Arts Centre in New Port Richey, Florida. Also on the program are pieces by Victoria Bond and Stella Sung, as well as some Liszt arrangements of Mendelssohn songs and Bernstein's piano-ization of Copland's El Salon Mexico. It's not often I find myself in such company. Justin, with whom I've carried on a lively correspondence, will repeat my pieces April 20 at Symphony Space in New York City; I'll give details closer to the performance. 

As the thermometer sits here intransigently below freezing on this deceptively gorgeous-looking late-March day, I wish I had followed my music to Florida.

March 24, 2009 10:04 AM | | Comments (1) |
I've been so busy surviving until spring break that I forgot to mention that I'll be on a panel today at 5 in advance of Elodie Lauten's Two-Cent Opera tonight at Theater for a New City in New York (1st Ave. between 9th and 10th). We needed a Beggar's Opera for the 21st Century and this sounds like it: a mystic meditation on jobs and money. It doesn't quite sound like anything else she's ever written, yet it's still infused with that same Neptunian personality that enchanted me in The Death of Don Juan 25 years ago. 

March 21, 2009 12:36 PM | | Comments (1) |
Only five short years ago, it was part of my daily morning routine to mentally run through my imminent classes and gather all the compact discs and scores I'd need for the day. I'd stash as many as I could in my computer bag, and sometimes make two trips to the car. At least two days out of three - I don't exaggerate - I would head down the little lane that leads toward school, turn around after a quarter-mile, and drive back to get something I'd forgotten. I frequently had to get to school in time to run to the library and check out a couple of scores. And then there were hours to spend over the Xerox machine, making enough copies of the relevant selections for everyone in class.

Now, just about every piece of music I'd ever consider teaching is stored on two external drives as mp3s, one drive at school and a duplicate at home. A lot of the music I teach is 18th- and 19th-century, and the bulk of that repertoire can be downloaded as scores on my desk computer from For 20th-century repertoire, I've scanned a lot of the music I teach regularly into PDFs, and I've traded PDF collections with faculty from other schools (I protect my sources), so I have hundreds of modern and postclassical scores on those hard drives as well. Now I carry no CDs or scores to school at all. It still feels strange to pick up my computer bag every morning with almost nothing but my laptop in it - like I'm going to work naked or something. With a touch more organization I could even leave that at home. If I start to play something and find it's not on my hard drive (as happened recently when I tried to make an unanticipated foray into Giya Kancheli symphonies), I write myself a note and rip the CD to my computer when I get home. I can always make a class out of the 16,000 mp3s I've got with me (it's a larger collection than Bard's CD library). If I don't own a piece I need, I can plug into the internet at school and play it from the Naxos music library service we subscribe to. 

I save a lot of paper by projecting PDF scores from my computer onto a screen, rather than making individual copies for all the students. When I do need to copy something, I print a PDF and run it through the machine, rather than stand there laboriously turning the bound score over page after page. If I need to research something for class, say, find some repertoire for an assignment so obscure that students can't look up the composer, I do it all on the internet rather than in the library, and spend many more hours at home than I used to. (Of course, students can take advantage, too. I am told of a grad student who was given a take-home test of anonymous pages from orchestral scores to identify as closely as possible by style. Seeing the publisher's score number at the bottom of each page, he simply Googled each number and correctly identified every piece.)

My extensive PDF collection of 20th-century scores will make it sound like I'm one of the scofflaws responsible for the gradual death of music publishing, but not so. I used to go to Patelson's in New York and buy whatever attractive modern scores they had, which were never many. Occasionally I would order something, but it almost never came. Now, I scour the internet for scores, and find obscure things Patelson's would never carry. I've been buying more printed, commercial scores than ever, because the internet allows me to find what I need. (And believe me, I've done about as much to keep poor Patelson's afloat as any mere academic could be expected to do.) Many of the PDFs I use for teaching are made from scores I paid for, and if I break copyright laws, it's usually to get access to music that the music publishing companies somehow can't manage to keep in circulation - often music that they'll rent for performance, but won't sell. Of course, almost all the postclassical scores I have were home-produced by the composer and never entered the commercial marketplace at any level. I get the music legally if possible, but I get it.

And though I seem a little ahead of the curve by musical standards, I'm a Luddite compared to some of my colleagues in other fields. They use something called Moodle that lets them store all their teaching materials on the internet, including letting students upload their papers, which the professor corrects on the browser and reposts. We've got professors who walk into class empty-handed, having everything on the computer, and never touch a piece of paper. Of course, for that, you need a "smart classroom" with a computer terminal, which we can't seem to get in the music building (though I'm first in line every time they're offered), and for wireless we musicians walk around the halls like we're dowsing for water, trying to tap into the film department's wireless next door. Also, our current Moodle system can't quite accommodate the space-intensive audio files I need. (The year the library offered to put reserve recordings on the internet, my first and legitimate request was Der Ring des Nibelüngen. They balked.)

(Also, imslp, though I'm its biggest fan, is a work in progress. Aside from highly variable scanning quality, I recently downloaded Schumann's Davidsbündlertanze only to find that imslp's copy is labeled Davidsblündertanze - David's Blunder Dances? - right on the music. I tried to leave a complaint, but couldn't access any page at imslp to do so.) 

But I'm astonished at how much less paper there is in my life, how much more time I spend at home, how much less time I waste searching for objects, how much less it matters where I am, and how many more materials I have access to anywhere I go. Not once this school year have I driven back home because I had forgotten something. Also, I used to, like many composers, show up at any performance with an extra copy of all the parts, just in case. Now all my parts are posted on my web site at non-public URLs. You want to perform a piece of mine, I'll e-mail you the URL. When I fly around the world to lecture I upload my lecture and examples to the internet, and print them out when I get there, if not simply project them on a screen. I carry almost nothing.

March 13, 2009 6:37 PM | | Comments (14) |
Sarah Cahill's premiere of my War Is Just a Racket last night was fabulous. The video her husband John Sanborn made to accompany my piece (which I hadn't yet seen), was, I thought, with its footage of General Smedley Butler speaking and a dollar bill waving like a flag, the evening's most apt and imaginative video, and I'm ready to package the music plus video as a multimedia piece. (It does require three screens, though, which will make the video impractical for general use.) 

But I'm stuck with one of those nagging problems that plagues composers from time to time: the agony of unintended quotation. There's a bluesy tune at the end of the piece (E minor/major over an A-flat minor bass line, I just love bitonality) that contains five notes in a row in common with the Gershwin song "It Ain't Necessarily So," and too many people are coming up to me to ask, "Why did you quote 'It Ain't Necessarily So'"? Here's the melody:


I wasn't thinking of the Gershwin song when I wrote it, and it doesn't come to my mind when I hear the piece. Gershwin's song is in triple time, it doesn't start with a double upbeat, and its quintessential feature is a chromatic descent from B down to G, of which I use only B, A#, A, and a repeated G natural. I really, truly, I swear, don't think of this:


when I hear my piece. As far as I'm concerned, I was channeling a blues idiom that Gershwin was also thinking of in Porgy and Bess - we had a source in common. The worst is the people who ask me, "Have you ever heard 'It Ain't Necessarily So'?," and then hum it for me, as though I hadn't been able to sing Porgy and Bess all the way from "Summertime" through "I'm on My Way" since I was 13. (I am, after all, the author of a history of 20th-century American music, and had it turned out that I was unfamiliar with Porgy and Bess, a move would have been called for to remainder the book and strip me of tenure.)

Now, since the piece consists of General Butler basically talking about having been deceived by the U.S. military, reference to "It Ain't" makes a certain sense, so I could just respond to queries with a knowing look and slight arch of the eyebrow. But it comes at what I intended as the most poignant point in the piece (which John replicated in the video as well), and the idea of all those lovely audience members suddenly brightening up and thinking of Gershwin at that delicate moment drives me bananas. As a critic, I tried never to point out resemblances between note patterns in new music and classic tunes, unless some reinforcement or context made it clear that it was intentional. (I broke that rule once in the late 1980s with regard to a Mikel Rouse piece that started coincidentally with the first five notes of "There's a Place for Us," and it's been on my conscience ever since.) As I once rather notoriously quoted Billy Joel saying, "There are only twelve notes, so everything's going to sound like something, man." No one should have a de facto copyright on any pitch pattern as small as five notes. But I'm a pragmatist, and all those people are my friends and well-intended, and I think I'm just going to have to change it. Porgy and Bess ain't going anywhere, fortunately, and I just have to concede that Gershwin got there first and planted his flag on E B A# E A. But I can't see what to change it to that's as good. I guess most composers run into this at some time or another - but not Xenakis, I bet. Maybe that's why serialism had the run it did. 

March 13, 2009 1:12 PM | | Comments (6) |
Yesterday I received a check in the mail from Arts Journal, my first income from the ads over on the right side of your screen. Since 2003 I've now made nearly a quarter per entry for all my musings on this blog! - although, if you limit it to the last eight months that we've had ads (as I should), I'm really making just over $2 per entry. I'm going to call that pretty damn good for now, considering I started this without a thought of making any money at all. 

I suppose plans for making the internet yield money are slowly creeping into place. I note that it costs about $13 a month to subscribe to the Times on my new Kindle (yes, after reading Paul Krugman's paean to the thing, I requested one for Christmas - more on that another time), and I'm told that reading the Times on Safari will eventually cost something again too. If I could duplicate my academic salary by what I make from blogging, I'd be writing these blog entries faster than you can read them, which I'm afraid I could probably do. Those who occasionally wonder how I do so much work can console themselves with the realization that my writing has a compulsive quality - it sometimes take me more effort to refrain from writing than it would take most musicians to write. (I've never in my life experienced writer's block as a writer. I used to get it as a composer, but not in the last 15 years.) In any case, thanks to all those who've clicked on the ads, and know that your clicks are adding up.

March 10, 2009 11:48 PM | | Comments (2) |
"We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war," said Martin Luther King in his Nobel Lecture. Pianist Sarah Cahill took the phrase "A Sweeter Music" for her project of 18 anti-war (or pro-peace) works that she's premiering this year. I'm happy to say that one concert in that series will take place this Thursday evening, March 12, at 8 at Merkin Hall in New York City, and that it will include the world premiere of my War Is Just a Racket. It's an odd piece for me, written for a pianist speaking a text while playing, and I hope it works. Sarah's husband John Sanborn has made video to accompany all the pieces; you'll recognize the name as the artist who does all of Bob Ashley's video, and I'm honored to have a connection to his work. The concert is part of Jon Schaefer's New Sounds Live series, so I guess you'll be able to hear it on radio as well. The whole program is:

Preben Antonsen (b. 1991): Dar al-Harb: House of War
Kyle Gann (fl. 1440s): War Is Just a Racket
Frederic Rzewski: Peace Dances
Jerome Kitzke: There is a Field
Phil Kline: The Long Winter
The Residents: drum no fife: Why We Need War
Terry Riley: Be Kind to One Another (Rag)

This is the penultimate of the clump of seven commissions I had in 2007-8. The final one to be played will be The Planets, written for the Relache Ensemble, of which they had to delay both the performance and recording of by a year due to budget difficulties. I'm told the world premiere of the new movements will come this May 28 in Philadelphia, the full set in September, and the recording over the summer. Details later.

UPDATE: I heard Sarah play the piece today, and she makes it work. I'm astonished. I didn't even intend the piece to sound as good as she makes it sound. She also played me Riley's rag, which is one of his best keyboard works yet, fun, bouncy in his personal way, and really tight and well-shaped.

March 9, 2009 10:29 AM | | Comments (2) |
To teach undergraduate music theory is to recount over and over and over, year after year without variation, facts, terminology, and principles that haven't changed since well before I was born. But Wednesday I managed to teach something new, and got a real kick out of it: Neo-Riemannian theory (named for the German musicologist Hugo Riemann, 1849-1919). I had never heard of the subject until the 2007 Minimalism conference in Wales, where Scott Alexander Cook applied the methodology to the music of Gavin Bryars (PDF). The idea is that relationships between triads can be characterized by variously close or distant pitch replacements, categorized by the three functions P (parallel), L (leading tone), and R (relative). The P function moves the third of a triad to change it from major to minor, or vice versa:


The L function lowers the root of a major triad a half-step, or raises the fifth of a minor triad a half-step, creating a new triad of the opposite modality in either case. The R function raises the fifth of a major triad a whole-step to produce the triad of the relative minor, or lowers the root of a minor triad a whole-step. And there are some other derived functions, such as D, which does from a triad to its dominant, or vice versa. And functions can be combined, so you get PL, RP, LPL, and so on. If I'm oversimplifying or getting it wrong, some kind reader will correct me.

The occasion of my bringing this up was my biennial analysis of a gorgeous passage from Liszt's Années de Pelerinage, the beginning of "Sposalizio," which is hardly complicated, but notoriously recalcitrant to Roman numeral analysis:


Now instead of calling that i-VI in E minor and wondering where in hell the B-flat major came from, I could label the sequence L, RLRL (or DD, since C to B-flat is two dominant jumps), PR, D, PR. It doesn't really explain the music - though the PR does make clear the equivalent jumps from B-flat to D-flat and A-flat to B, which the enharmonic pitch notation hides - it just gives me a way to label Liszt's key jumps, more radical in their unconcern for tonality than Chopin's or Schumann's. And I think the students enjoyed learning a theoretical technique that wasn't from the musty, immemorial past, but evolved during their lifetimes.

The even greater interest for me is the potential application to my own music. In 1983, I switched over, with some trepidation, to writing in a triadic style, though not at all functionally tonal. I had been studying Bruckner and taking tips from passages like this wonderful one from his Eighth Symphony:


(Interestingly, in the immediate repeat of this passage Bruckner replaces the RP with a PR, and ends up in D major instead of A-flat.) I soon found myself rather obsessed with what I now learn are called LPL and RPR transformations (the latter yielding a tritone transposition). Here's Baptism, from 1983:


The chord changes, if I have parsed them correctly with my amateur notions of Neo-Riemannian terminology, are PLP, RPR, LPL, RPR, LPL, LPL, RPRP, LPL. Note that no chord change requires fewer than three transformations - that was my conscious discipline for the piece, but of course I wasn't thinking of it in Neo-Riemannian terms, which hadn't been invented yet. This was pretty much my default harmonic language from Baptism of 1983 to my "Last Chance" Sonata of 1999. In 2000 I studied jazz harmony with John Esposito, and switched over to bebop chords. My microtonal music uses a process of micro-interval voice-leading that Harry Partch called "Tonality Flux," related to Neo-Riemannian transformations, but of course not reducible to them. However, the large-scale tonal structure of my 2002 microtonal chamber opera Cinderella's Bad Magic consists of a chain of simple Riemannian pitch shifts, all tuned to pure triads and evolving from E-flat major to C double-sharp minor, through single note-shifts R P R P L P R P L: 


These Neo-Riemannian labels neither explain nor justify my music, but they do give me simple ways to refer to my voice-leading methods as classes of harmonic transforms. And, as papers at the last minimalism conference proved, Gavin Bryars and John Adams were using a similar kind of non-functional harmonic consistency from the early 1980s on as well. This terminology can make it easier to point out how the harmonic practices of Liszt, Bruckner, and Reger returned, following the period of widespread atonality, to form a new common practice in minimalist and especially postminimalist music - starting, I think we'd have to say, with Einstein on the Beach, whose "Spaceship" scene may succumb to only this kind of analysis. Neo-Riemannian theory may fill in some cracks in our analysis of Romantic music, when dealing with composers who couldn't abide within the Germanic idea of a centralized tonality. For postminimalism, it may prove to be the analytical technique that fits the music like a glove.

March 6, 2009 10:44 AM | | Comments (10) |
Here is the recording of Robert Carl's Symphony No. 4 (2009) that I promised you, with Christopher Zimmerman conducting the Hartt School Orchestra. The opening is very quiet. I'll play it for my "20th-century" Orchestral Repertoire class this week - I just love giving them as much of the 21st century as possible.

UPDATE: Wow - it sounds so much like a real symphony that I keep having to remind myself I know the guy who wrote it. There is a sense of space in Robert's orchestral music, a sense of allowing things to happen rather than trying to fill up the page, that makes his music "speak" with more authority than the glop by other composers that mostly passes for new American orchestra music these days. I think that comes through abundantly even in the mp3 (which I compressed a little to sound more present on your computer).

March 1, 2009 11:14 PM | | Comments (6) |

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