PostClassic: June 2009 Archives

My profile of composer Julia Wolfe is out in Chamber Music magazine this week.

June 29, 2009 10:13 PM | | Comments (2) |
Speaking of Robert Ashley, I had a wonderful moment interviewing him a couple of weeks ago. We covered his entire life up to 1979, and then hit Perfect Lives. Of course I think Perfect Lives (then titled Private Parts) was the onset of the spectacular part of Ashley's career, the moment at which he transcended the post-Cage conceptualist movement he was a player in. The piece will get an entire chapter in my upcoming book. And as we discussed it I learned that I had been involved in the world premiere. On October 24, 1979 - I have the poster for the performance in my living room - Ashley and "Blue" Gene Tyranny came to Northwestern University, at the invitation of my composition teacher Peter Gena, to perform Private Parts in its entirety for the first time. I had forgotten, if I knew then, that this was the first complete performance. Bob, as was his wont, needed a bottle of vodka to drink during the performance. As the grad student go-fer in charge, it was my job to drive in a rush to Desplains, Ill. (since Evanston, home of the Women's Temperance Union, was a dry town) and buy the vodka. Vodka was a little heady for my taste at the time - a 1994 trip to Warsaw would change that - so, imitating my hero, I picked up a bottle of wine for myself. Bob was then performing the piece by reading the text from a video monitor. Technology being what it then was, the monitor was connected to a backstage camera, and someone had to hold index cards containing the text in front of the camera. That someone was me. So Bob was onstage drinking vodka, "Blue" was playing the piano in his inimitably gorgeous way, and I was backstage sipping wine while moving cards in front of a video camera. At one point late in the piece I was a little slow, and I heard Bob patiently say, in the middle of the text, "Kyle...." 

Bob had given a talk to the grad composition/theory students that afternoon. Afterward, the chair of the department asked me if I had understood anything Ashley was saying. He clearly hadn't. I said, "Of course!"

Somewhere in the Northwestern library is a tape of the premiere performance of Perfect Lives, personalized, with my name in the middle of it. I looked for it once and couldn't find it, but then I also looked there for one of the famous Julius Eastman tapes that later came out on New World, and couldn't find that because it wasn't labeled, and it eventually turned up. But I didn't realize that Bob had never performed the whole thing before. It was my favorite version of Perfect Lives ever, just Bob and "Blue" with a drone on a background tape, before Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem and a dozen other elements were added in for a kind of information overload. It was still like his "Yellow Album" that came out that year. And, discussing it with Bob last week, I suddenly went from being a historian taking notes to reminiscing about something Ashley and I had done together. What a weird double feeling, like I was part of the history I was writing about.

I'm feeling old lately. I'm only 53, but I seem to be so focused on the past, my own and everyone else's. 

June 29, 2009 9:25 PM | | Comments (2) |
Anyone remember this?


This is the submission under the name "Dennis" in the 1963 book An Anthology edited by La Monte Young and Jackson Mac Low, and of course it's Dennis Johnson. (Sorry, I have an obsessive personality, and right now the latest of many, many obsessions is Dennis Johnson. Next up: Robert Ashley.) You may recall the book as a collection of outrageous avant-garde gestures and essays (I saw a copy on sale at Dia Beacon recently with a hefty price tag), and this letter from Dennis came as a loose piece of paper in an envelope pasted on one of the pages. I bought the book when I was in high school, probably 1970 or '71, and have guarded my copy carefully for four decades. I didn't instantly connect "Dennis" with Johnson, but the all-caps handwriting is identical to that on the score to November. Also, Young mentioned in his semi-famous "Lecture 1960" that Johnson had written him, in response to a famous Cage story, that "THERE'S TOO MUCH WORLD IN THE EVIL," and that line comes from the back of this document. The envelope bears a postmark of March 11, 1960, and Dennis mentions on the back that he's 21, which, assuming it's not a joke, places his birthdate at 1938 or '39 - the first mention I've seen of his age. He doesn't have an entry in Grove, nor even in Wikipedia.

There are other references to Cage. "SOUNDED SO SADWIRROWTLEE" is doubtless a reference to a satire of Japanese poetry Cage included in Silence (1960). In the upper lefthand corner is a rather insulting reference to Stockhausen, and on the back Dennis mentions a desire to spit at Stockhausen ("YOU SEE I'M FULL OF DESIRES"). La Monte went to Darmstadt in 1959, and somewhere he mentions that Johnson was going to accompany him, but caught pneumonia and had to stay in New York with electronic composer Richard Maxfield, so he had already missed getting his wish. In March 1960, Terry Jennings was 19, La Monte 24, and Dennis apparently 21, and their lives clearly revolved around Cage and Stockhausen, with a curious mixture of attraction and antipathy for the two of them. La Monte had written his Trio for Strings in 1958, and, inspired by that, Johnson wrote November the following year. Later in 1960 La Monte started his avant-garde series in Yoko Ono's loft, and Downtown music was born. 

This silly letter has stuck in my mind since I was younger than the brash avant-gardist who penned it, and it's funny to think that 40 years later I would become so involved with the work of this irreverent youngster. I'm in love with November; I'm in the process of making my own four-hour recording of it, so I've been listening to it at home as music, and not just as a tape-hissy historical document with a dog barking in the background. (My dog Gita, named for the woman who taught Cage about Indian philosophy, responds in kind whenever the dog appears.) Forgive me for being so coy with the results, but I don't want to steal too much thunder from our premiere at the minimalism conference. Give me a couple of months, and you'll hear more about November, and the guy who wrote the above letter, than you ever thought you'd learn. Meanwhile, I'm all caught up in the mindset in which minimalism was born: not the Famous Four minimalists, but the pre-famous three from California, Johnson, Jennings, and Young.

June 29, 2009 7:41 PM | | Comments (1) |
I've come up with what I think is a comfortable performance notation for Dennis Johnson's November. It's all noteheads in a pulseless continuum, but I needed to preserve his motivically significant phrasing without imposing any kind of rhythmic grid. So I made a Sibelius score of 5/4 measures, each lasting ten seconds at 8th-note = 60, and within that placed each note where its attack point comes on the tape, to the nearest 16th-note. Then I went through and deleted all rests, stems, and bar lines, reducing the music to stemless noteheads. The result is pretty much in proportional notation; Sibelius shifts the rhythmic spacing for readability, but I used small-value rests throughout to squeeze the music into relative space-time uniformity, certainly close enough, I think, for intuitive performance purposes. (If there's a way to make Sibelius absolutely proportional, I'd love to hear it.) Hoping you can read it squeezed into this space, here's a sample of the result (each system represents one minute):


And here's an mp3 of this passage in the original 1962 recording so you can compare. (I suppose you might have to reopen Postclassic in an additional browser window to listen and follow along at once.) This is one of my favorite moments in the performance, where the relatively dense (by '50s minimalism standards) section on the dominant of G# minor gives way to a kind of beatific deceptive cadence and much slower material. Each section of the piece, each tonality, has its own atmosphere and tempo that seems drawn from the intervals played around with.

And that's the problem: you can't gather that from the original notation. The first three systems above are all drawn from this little bit of Johnson's score labeled IIIa and IIIb:


Wherever this material recurs, it's the fastest part of the piece, with a kind of anxious melody leading down from F# to D# to C#. In some notes he apparently made later in the 1980s, Johnson singles this material out to try to figure out what his logical process was, which was a kind of ABACABACDCDB, and so on, among closely related figures. The E major material that follows, on the other hand, doesn't appear in the manuscript score at all. The piece is intended to be improvised from the scores, and needn't duplicate the tape; in fact, an alleged four hours is missing from the tape. So neither the score nor the tape is sufficient to construct a performance. Using the score, a pianist could play the work, but only after considerable study of the available 112 minutes on the tape, to find out how Johnson moved from one section to another and how he characterized the material in each section. It's a peculiarly hybrid form of improvisation, in which you're limited to what's on the page, but the page isn't enough. Hopefully my transcription will yield up enough analytical insight to resurrect some version of the whole thing.

June 27, 2009 1:38 PM | | Comments (8) |
I'm almost done transcribing and analyzing Dennis Johnson's November, the ostensively six-hour 1959 piano piece that La Monte Young says inspired him to embark on The Well-Tuned Piano. I've listed some of November's innovations elsewhere. If it was indeed the first multi-hour continuous minimalist piece, the first tonal very slow work, the piece that pioneered additive process - and it may have been all that - those in themselves are enough to make it worth reviving and getting into the history books. But beyond that, I've become more and more impressed with its internal logic, which is almost mathematical (and Johnson left music to become a mathematician). The piece is organized into families of motifs based on the same pitches, which can proceed improvisatorily to other families of motifs at specified points. Johnson begins each new pitch field additively, bringing in one note or chord, then another, then another until they're all present. But the overall formal concept is not simply additive but more like a series of circles, as each pitch field has a point of entry and exit, and within each section one can go back and forth among the motifs in that field. It's really elegant, and in its glacial way makes a certain large-scale sense to the ear. Feldman's wonderful masterpiece Triadic Memories (a much later work, 1981) is similar in its reminiscent effects and equally intuitive, but November is generally diatonic rather than chromatic, and its logic lies a little closer to the surface. I thought that in September Sarah Cahill and I would be re-premiering a kind of crazy, off-beat experiment of the late '50s; instead I'm thinking we'll be unveiling a whole new formal paradigm that deserved to have more of an after-history than it's had. 

The performance notation has been a big problem. Johnson's own manuscript:


is kind of a wonderful mess, full of arrows, cross-outs, and hesitant verbal directions sometimes taken back with the afterthought "No!" Still, the piece can be played from the ms. - if you've studied the recording closely and know how it works. (The recording contains only 100 minutes of the piece, marked by enigmatic discontinuities.) Renotating the piece to reflect the performance practice is perhaps the toughest musicological nut I've ever tried to crack. The piece can all be written in stemless noteheads, and should be, so that the performer isn't lulled into observing some underlying pulse that isn't there. And yet, the rhythm isn't unimportant, because Johnson's motifs fall into coherent and rhythmically characteristic phrases, and without those intuitive note groupings, the form won't make any sense. I had to start with the tedious process of notating not only the pitches but the time placement of every note. My first method was to take a 5/4 measure, 8th-note = 60, and put the notes in ten-second measures grouped by sixes into minutes:


Still, this is an unnecessarily complicated notation for the pianist to read, and would result, I think, in a stilted performance. Plus, it doesn't do anything for the four hours of the piece omitted from the recording. So I think what I'm going to do is finish writing it all out this laborious way, and then transfer all the notes by hand, as stemless noteheads, into proportional notation. Then Sarah and I (who will be alternating at the keyboard) will have the intuitive groupings to follow on the page. I'm also mapping motifs from the manuscript to the recording, so I can extrapolate to create some kind of performance score for the remaining four hours. The re-creation should preserve the recorded passages almost exactly, and if I do it right, the listener shouldn't be able to tell when we switch from the re-creation of the recording to the improvised remainder of the score. I didn't expect this to be one of the most rewarding things I've ever done.

In fact, as with my Harold Budd transcription, I'm looking forward to stealing some ideas for my own music. I've worked with a kind of terraced or altered additive process myself. My "Jupiter" movement from The Planets uses a slowly shifting additive form: AB, ABC, ABCD, BCD, BCDE, DEF, EFG, and so on. November is similar, but more circular and less linear in its process, and offers a methodology for building a much longer and more recurrent structure. So, say, instead of A, B, and C, you have A, A', A'', A''', and A'''' leading back to A, then B, B', B'', and so on. But F''' might have a couple of pitches in common with B', so that from here you have a portal back into the B material - large, formal reminiscences. How tragic it is that it's taken almost half a century to rediscover all this - but how lucky I feel to get to do it!

Here's a few minutes from the middle of the 1962 recording, to whet your appetite and show you what I'm up against.

June 20, 2009 3:05 PM | | Comments (10) |
I'm back from a job interview in England, which was an exciting and peculiar event. I'll suppress the details, but I'm told by my British friends that my experience was entirely typical of UK academia, albeit startlingly different from the typical American process. British schools, it seems, interview all their candidates on the same day. So the four other hopefuls and I spent the day in the faculty lounge chatting, each of us dragged out one by one for our one 20-minute presentation and 30-minute interview. Only one faculty member did I talk to more than to exchange pleasantries with for a minute, and he wasn't on the search committee - he'd just wandered in to check his mail and I glommed onto him. The interview consisted of seven professors and administrators asking one question each; one wanted a follow-up question and was told there wasn't time! I spoke to no students except one from Georgia (the American Georgia) who came up and introduced himself because my accent intrigued him. Ironically, the only people I got to know were the other candidates, one of whom I hit it off with and hope to meet again. 

I was told that the committee pretty much had to make a decision that day, and by the time I flew back I already had a "thanks but no thanks" e-mail waiting. It came as a relief: not because I didn't want the job, nor because anything had made a sour impression on me, but because I would have had to make one of the most momentous decisions of my life with almost no evidence to base it on. It's like they see teaching jobs as interchangeable posts and expect professors to glide thoughtlessly from school to school as advantage dictates, without homes, families, or roots to put down (and it was explicitly a senior position). One might speculate that the committee spent little time with the candidates because, as happens occasionally at schools everywhere, they already knew who they wanted to hire, and were just going through the motions. If so, however, it would have been wasteful of them to pay to fly me across the Atlantic for a charade; and at one point they were forced to redefine and relist the position, and they asked me to reapply, so I feel certain I was a serious contender.

The only sad thing is that I love England and would love to teach there, but if all their interviews are like this, I can't imagine that I would ever gain enough confidence from succeeding at one to sell my beautiful, almost-paid-for house and move tens of thousands of compact discs, not to mention books, scores, grand piano, wife, dog, and two cats, across an ocean. And yet I'm not prepared to claim that the English system is inferior to ours, just that it seems counterintuitive. American schools put tremendous, perhaps quixotic, emphasis on assessing collegiality. The longest interview I ever had, at Bard, lasted two and a half days, and I've heard of others that ran longer. We want to eat with the candidate, watch him teach, watch him drink, plumb his opinions, see him react to provocation, and in the end, what good does it do? Interviewing at one school, once, I was taken to dinner by two music faculty who proceeded to have a shouting fight with each other, in the restaurant, as I looked on in mute astonishment. At another, early in my career, the chair of the search committee took me to lunch privately, and pressed me at uncomfortable length to reveal my sexual orientation, with the unmistakable implication that he favored bisexuals. (And I'd call that only the third most unpleasant academic interview I've ever had.) 

It's always struck me as reasonable that marriages had just as much chance of being successful back in the old days, when they were arranged by astrologers and matchmakers with the bride and groom not meeting each other until the wedding, as they do today. Similarly, perhaps the idea that we can gauge collegiality over a three-day interview and predict future compatibility from a tense private breakfast is no more than a hopeful myth. All comparative experience I've heard of suggests that a music department, any music department, any academic department, anywhere, gets described by its members as the proverbial nest of vipers in which one will find a few allies, but ultimately learn to keep one's head down and teach with hope of nothing better than a comparative absence of interference. So perhaps it's best to get the process of entering one over with as quickly as possible, relying on the most superficial and documentable criteria. Or hell, consult the I Ching for each candidate. As academic interviews go, this one was certainly pleasant and dignified, with no opportunity given for momentary humiliation or discomfort. I have no evidence that the more labor-intensive, touchy-feely American system guarantees more enviable results. But I also feel that, given the exorbitant cost of flying me on short notice to their scepter'd isle, the English faculty were allowed precious little information about me in return.

I do, however, try to discover one new single-malt scotch whenever I visit England, and I came back with a superb 14-year-old Bunnahabhain. (I think the name is Scots dialect for "That's a smart rabbit," or "I'm the bane of that rabbit's existence.") Of it, Jim Murray's 2009 Whisky Bible states, "I thought I noticed it when I tasted it late last year, and earlier this. 'Where's that bracing, mildly tart, eye-watering Bunna that I so adore?' I wondered. Thankfully no sign of the sulphur that caused so many problems for so long. But something, I thought, was missing... I can report there is no shortage of charm and the earliest barley belt on the palate rocks. But the fire has been doused, most probably by caramel." I can see what he means, but I like caramel, and Bunnahabhain is a luxuriously soothing contrast to my usual more demanding Caol Ila. In 2007 dollars the bottle would have cost me $79, but at today's exchange rate I was put out only $49. Such delicious revenge was worth an 18-hour round-trip flight.

UPDATE: I have to compliment one side-effect of the British interview process, though, that seemed extremely civilized. Spending the day with the other candidates humanized them. Usually when some asshole gets a job I applied for I assume he's a Davidovsky protégé who slept with the right grad school teachers and writes music so convoluted that it threatens no one. But here it felt like the five of us were sort of in this together, and I was sincerely happy for the nice guy who was offered the job. That's never happened before.

June 20, 2009 12:56 AM | | Comments (5) |
A couple of years ago, tired of endemic printer problems, I splurged on a big Hewlett Packard Color Laser 2600n. It uses four huge ink cartidges, the black costing $85 and the three color ones $95 each, but I was assured that they held so much ink that they'd last forever and I'd save money in the long run. Now - I print thousands of black-and-white pages a year, and maybe three or four color pages, when I need a Google map. But when the black cartridge runs out on this machine, it seems that I automatically get a message to replace the other ones too, and the machine stops working. So I finally called technical support and got a very nice lady who directed me how to put the machine on "Cartridge Out Override," or something, though she says it will only work for a couple of weeks. And she explained to me that this machine uses a special "in-line technology," by which, whenever a page is counted for the black cartridge, one is similarly counted for the cyan, yellow, and magenta cartridges as well. And so it's built in to the machine, that every time I finish off my black cartridge (or merely every time it clicks off an HP-determined number of allowed pages), I have to go out and pay $370 for four new cartridges. I turned on the "Cartridge Out Override" as she directed, and printed a page in glorious full color: there's plenty of ink left in those color cartridges that the machine is demanding I replace. I don't know what's going to happen after I use the override for two weeks, whether it's going to turn into a pumpkin or something, but I do know that for $370 every few months I could get a pretty damn nice new printer and treat 'em like disposables. 

The nice tech support lady had to choose her words carefully to avoid admitting that HP's "in-line technology" is a gigantic scam, and the lady where I bought the machine, whom I'd consulted first, also hinted that HP was making me buy new cartridges for no reason, without quite acknowledging that it was a scam. But boy, what a lucrative scam HP is running!

UPDATE: I'm certainly not the first to notice. Turns out there's already a class-action suit against Hewlett Packard for this very practice. Glad to hear it.

June 15, 2009 8:25 AM | | Comments (14) |
Back in Evanston, Illinois, in the early '80s, I used to know Evelyn Becker, the widow of composer John J. Becker. Becker is the member of the "American Five" that you can never think of, unless you also can't remember Wallingford Riegger. Riegger was a Communist, and Mrs. Becker reported that he had scandalized her by writing John letters that began, "Dear Comrade...." "After all," she shuddered, "we were good Catholics!"

In 1933-34, John Cage moved to New York at Henry Cowell's advice, to study with Adolph Weiss - but also found himself playing cards with Weiss and Wallingford Riegger. In 1941, a 15-year-old Morton Feldman studied with Riegger. And later in 1952 or '53, Riegger took a sabbatical replacement position at Manhattan School of Music, where a young Robert Ashley was pursuing his Master's degree. Ashley and Riegger both had apartments on the East Side, and ended up taking the same bus to school every day. Riegger was the first composition teacher Ashley had found sympathetic, and Ashley remembers being the only kid in class interested in the 12-tone techniques Riegger was teaching. Riegger wrote an astonishing Study in Sonority in 1928, more radical to my ears than anything Schoenberg had yet done, and attractive Third and Fourth Symphonies and a Piano Concerto all in a 12-tone idiom, and also a beautifully retro Canon and Fugue in old-fashioned D minor. 

I'm not a real music historian, but I'm a sufficiently enthusiastic fake one to get a kick from knowing and drawing these connections. We don't think, for example, of Cage and Ralph Shapey inhabiting the same scene, but at some point circa 1950 they, along with Feldman, were drawn into the orbit of Stefan Wolpe; and ten years later, we find Wolpe and Cage hobnobbing with Cage's New School student Toshi Ichiyanagi and his new bride Yoko Ono. Someday there will be a book on James Tenney, who studied with Varese, befriended Ruggles, argued with Partch, made psychedelic eletcronic music with Mort Subotnick, played in the ensembles of Steve Reich and Phil Glass, taught alongside Harold Budd, and taught Peter Garland, Larry Polansky, John Luther Adams, and Michael Byron, among many others. Tenney is a line wandering through American musical history, drawing a variety of unexpected connections. The people most central to American music, those who can't be pulled out of the fabric without it unraveling, are not always the household names. 

And so interviewing Ashley (12 hours so far this week) is one of the most exciting things I've ever done. He doesn't like reminiscing about the past - he thinks I should concentrate on his most recent ideas - and doesn't realize how quietly the history of 20th-century music falls into focus as he tells me about all the contacts he made in his youth. (One thing I learned - Luciano Berio was a wealthy man from the beginning. Why? Heir to the Berio olive oil fortune. I think of Berio every time I see that olive oil in the grocery store, but never knew the connection.) Yesterday, Ashley told me:

"The only thing that's interesting to me right now is that, up to me and a couple of other guys, music had always been about the eventfulness: like, when things happened, and if they happened, whether they would be a surprise, or an enjoyment, or something like that... It's about eventfulness. And I was never interested in eventfulness. I was only interested in sound. I mean, just literally, sound in the Morton Feldman sense.... There's a quality in music that is outside of time, that is not related to time. And that has always fascinated me... That's sort of what I'm all about, from the first until the most recent. A lot of people are back into eventfulness. But it's very boring. Eventfulness is really boring."

It reminded me strongly of when, years ago, La Monte Young showed me his early string quartet in which the five movements are all almost identical, and I asked him why, and after a moment's musing he responded, "Contrast is for people who can't write music." When I quote that there are always people who get defensive and agitated about it, but for many of us, that's just our aesthetic. It's not going to replace Mozart, and you'll still get to hear Stravinsky, and there's no reason to think that our saying that is the end of the world, and that we have to be smothered, or stopped, or else we'll bring the whole edifice of culture crashing down. For some of us, eventfulness is boring, contrast is unnecessary, and we're interested in the aspects of music that don't relate to time. And the fact that we moved to that in a single generation from Riegger and Wolpe, and that these important threads can be teased out of history, is a tremendously thoughtful pleasure.

UPDATE: McLaren points out in comments that Riegger's Study in Sonority isn't currently available in any form. So here it is. 

June 12, 2009 11:31 PM | | Comments (9) |
I'm reading Morton Feldman Says: Selected Interviews and Lectures 1964-1987, edited by Chris Villars. It's not quite as chock-packed with quotable gems as Give My Regards to Eighth Street, but there's a wealth of details I didn't know about Feldman's views, enough to power a whole other blog with. 

For instance, in 1980 Austin Clarkson interviewed Morty about his teacher Stefan Wolpe, and asks him about Ernst Krenek:

MF: Well, you see, what Krenek didn't do, what Stefan did was that he was a competitor. Krenek felt the fact that he had a success when he was young [Jonny Spielt Auf, I assume], and he was married to Schoenberg's daughter [but see comments], that he was given a crown and he could go and fall asleep with his own ideas for the rest of his life. Wolpe was in the midst of a musical revolution in New York. He was in the midst of the rising young, fabulously talented people coming up in Europe, and he knew it. Krenek never knew it. There's not an ounce in Krenek's music, in things that I've heard of his late style... But nothing existed, nothing happened. It's music where nothing happened. It's the kind of music somebody might write some place in Adelaide, Australia. But Wolpe is caught up in world events, musical events, and things happened...

MF: To show you [Wolpe's] identification with the avant-garde, he once balled me out, very strongly, for never playing him in our concerts in the early '50s. The Cage concerts. He balled me out. He was sore. But he did identify with the younger people... which certainly most of his students didn't. Ralph [Shapey] didn't, none of his students around him. I don't know what they identified with. They identified not with Wolpe so much, but the tradition which Wolpe came out of. [p. 107, itals and ellipses in the original]

And, asked about Wolpe's early interest in Satie:

MF: ...I'll tell you what happened to Satie and the whole idea that independents couldn't survive in Europe, just couldn't survive the way they survive here. That some of our strongest people today are independents, where do you put them? Like George Crumb. He was a big influence, and yet he is an independent really. George Crumb couldn't happen in Europe, essentially. With all the European cliques it couldn't happen. And so Wolpe added to the whole category of very strong independent composers in America. I think that the best thing is to push him as an American rather than as a European. That way you'll get a little more mileage, because if you're going to push him as a European, they're going to say, well, what is this in relation to... we have this over here, which is what they say. [pp. 107-8]

And how Feldman met Wolpe:

MF: I'll tell you how I heard about Wolpe. I was just a kid out in Queens. I didn't know anybody. A friend of mine - I'm not going to mention his name, because his name is known to some degree - thought very highly of himself and sent a score of his to [Dmitri] Mitropolous. Mitropolous saw essentially that he was still a student, even though the young man didn't think he was still a student, and suggested that he work with Wolpe. I lost my friend, and I was very close to this friend, because he came back and he told me about a visit he had with Wolpe where they just didn't get along at all, anything that Wolpe had to say. And I listened to this conversation very clinically, and I listened to the things that Wolpe said to my friend, and I gave it a little thought, and three days later I called up Wolpe and asked him if I could come see him. I mean, he sounded to me like a terrific teacher, and I lost a friendship of a young colleague at the time for betraying him. "How could you go to Wolpe after telling how Wolpe insulted me?" But he sounded like a good teacher to me. [laughs] And that was the smartest thing I ever did was to lose that friend and not have that sense of loyalty. [p. 109]

Fascinating and endearing stuff (apologies, though, to any composers in Adelaide). Anyone know who the friend was?

June 5, 2009 1:31 PM | | Comments (11) |
That my readers' defenses of Dvorak are falling on deaf ears says something about my own compositional technique which has been on my mind lately. It's not that I don't find Dvorak's music well crafted, but that his unit of craft is too often the one- or two-measure phrase, bounded by bar-lines. In my own music, I am obsessed with making the bar-line disappear. I don't have a lot of particular things I pick on students about, but a passage like the one I quoted from the New World Symphony, if a student had brought it to me, would drive me nuts. When I see a kid composing in units of measure, measure, measure, with a new impetus, new phrase, new harmony on every downbeat, I start in with my wheedling tone (every experienced composition student will recognize the sound): "How about a triple upbeat to start that melody off a little more gracefully?" "How about we vary the harmonic rhythm here?" "You think the audience can't hear where your bar-lines are if you don't accent every one?" 

Perhaps because it deals with floating bodies, The Planets is, even more than most of my music, about obliterating the bar-line:

I don't think it's often in my music that the listener can feel sure what meter is being used, and I appreciated Daniel Webster's reference in the Inquirer to my "intricate metrical joining." I like nothing better, in fact, than to start off in clear 2/4 or 3/4, and then start throwing in five-beat phrases, or change harmony on odd 8th-notes, or to simply omit rests in the melody that a regular phrasing would imply. In rehearsal last week Douglas Mapp, Relache's bassist, started pointing out "groove-inhibiting factors" in my music, and I picked up the nickname "The Groovebuster." It's not really at all that I don't like regular rhythms, but that I think written music should aim to efface the page, to sound so fluid that the listener forgets that the music is written down, and especially that it springs from obvious formulas like 1 + 2 + 3 + 4-ee-and-a. Of course, Elliott Carter's Double Concerto obliterates the bar-line too, but I do prefer in my music (and this is the essence of Totalism) to have recognizable metrical patterns for the ear to grab onto and follow - I just don't want them slavishly dictated by a recurring bar-line. 

Plenty of great 19th-century music satisfies me in this regard. It's not so much about contradicting the groove as having a meta-metrical sense on a larger level than the measure. The opening of Brahms's First Piano Concerto projects an open-ended hyper-measure, grouping phrases through its descending drone bass-line into a striking accelerando; and then the quiet second theme sustains a dazzling tightrope-walk of metric ambuiguity. The soaring, minute-long opening theme of Bruckner's Seventh lifts you to a meta-metrical height that makes the measure look like a petty unit indeed. In a grad-school Rhythmic Analysis course I chose the Adagio of the Bruckner Seventh to analyze because its rhythm fascinated me; and sure enough, I found its key in phrases that would begin a new tonality in mid-measure, delaying the resolution of rhythmic tension for minutes at a time until, at that big cymbal crash (added later and controversial), the harmonic rhythm and the phrase rhythm finally match up, resolving a subliminal but long-standing metric dissonance. Even in Mozart, I feel, however unconsciously, a satisfaction in the 15- or 17-measure sections he creates by overlapping the last measure of one phrase with the first measure of another, sounding perfectly normal but never quite letting you anticipate. 

I hear these things without trying. I have a long attention span, and I listen to music in slow, spacious units. First time I heard The Well-Tuned Piano live, La Monte ended after six hours and I looked up and thought, "What? Over already?" Music that keeps reminding me of its bar-lines and meters strikes me as fussy, like the composer couldn't stand back far enough from his music to hear it on a multiplicity of levels. I've known all nine Dvorak symphonies since I was a teenager, and they've made all the impression on me they're going to. His scherzos are sometimes rhythmically interesting; I'm fond of that in the Eighth, which falls effortlessly into ten-measure phrases, and exhibits more than his usual variety of large-scale phrasing. As with Tchaikovsky, I think he's freer, more graceful, when he's not struggling with sonata-allegro form. The world will not be altered in any respect by my finding Dvorak fussy, and meanwhile I have Bruckner, Brahms, and Mahler to remind me what glorious arcs of sound can be made by an orchestra playing in common meters. Dvorak will have his revenge, too, for the flip side is that a lot of folks probably can't hear the larger rhythmic level into which I pour the cream of my creativity.

By the way, you want to know the secret to voluminous blogging? Insomnia. I'm up at 4 AM probably because I took some Benadryl, which is supposed to make one sleep, and things that make most people sleep tend to induce insomnia in me. I'm just built different.

June 4, 2009 6:04 AM | | Comments (9) |
A site is now up for the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music that David McIntire and I are directing at the University of Missouri at Kansas City September 2-6. You can register, find out about performances, make housing arrangements, and so on. We'll be adding more details to the site as we firm up the schedule.

June 3, 2009 11:10 AM | | Comments (0) |
I don't care what the airline authorities say, Joe Biden is right. I walked onto the plane in Albany feeling fine, and walked off in Chicago two hours later with a cold. And I heard the guy sneeze behind me, big. Second cold this month, and I always get one when I fly. The dean's office is waiting for my final grades, but it's a beautiful summer day out on my screened-in porch. Which raises the question, how do people without blogs get out of doing the work people are expecting from them? Poor excuse-less schmucks must have to keep their noses to the grindstone, even while sneezing their heads off.

Meanwhile, there's an old, frail copy of an "Analytic Symphony Score" piano reduction of Dvorak's New World Symphony, which I found at a wonderful little used book store in Great Barrington, sitting on my piano, edited by Percy Goetschius, Mus. Doc. I'm a big fan of Percy Goetschius, Mus. Doc. - I've even got the same degree. I collect his theory books, published in the late 19th century (I first found one years ago in Trimpin's library), and love reading them. They're bracingly, menacingly hard-core. The fourth scale degree always resolves to the third, the seventh must rise to the octave, a iii6-4 chord can only follow I, and if you brazenly start a modulation with the I (one) chord of the new key as your pivot - well, may God have mercy on your soul, that's all Percy has to say. In my dreams I imagine teaching a beginning theory class with Percy's The Theory and Practice of Tone-Relations (1892), but the students would feel like they were on a chain gang. Every piece of music they look at would break Percy's iron-clad rules, and I'd have a hell of a time finding suitably strict musical examples. And yet, reading him, the reasons music is the way it is fall into place, and random-looking conventions come to seem inescapably logical. There is a reason, generally, to avoid the I chord as a pivot. Probably 98 percent of iii6-4 chords follow I with passing motion in the bass. The essence of music shines forth, isolated in the tight little net of Percy's mandates. This is a real man's theory, with none of your current-day liberal mollycoddling.

Percy's piano reduction of the New World Symphony makes me wish I had taught the piece in the 19th-century course I just completed (the one whose papers I have yet to grade). I've never taught Dvorak, not having much use for him (I prefer the 5th, 6th, and 8th symphonies to the 9th, at least), but playing through it, I realize that the first movement of the New World is the most pedantically clear Romantic sonata-allegro I know of. Every melodic phrase is four measures. (Percy says every melody is four measures at heart: maybe two if it's slow, or eight if it's fast, and other lengths have to be accounted for by extensions or elisions. It's easy to see why he liked the New World.) Every four-, two- or one-measure unit gets repeated. Sometimes the tune is the same and the harmony changes, sometimes the notes change but the rhythm is repeated, sometimes the rhythm changes but the pitches are retained, but there's a fanatical insistence on leading the ear from measure to measure. No measure comes as a surprise, or almost even a contrast. 


Really not so far from early minimalist practice, only less gradual and with conventional chord teleology. It's a smooth, smooth piece, didactically so; a child could make sense of it on first hearing. Its popularity with audiences couldn't be more explainable. Infinitely inferior to Brahms: one would almost wonder why Brahms so promoted Dvorak's career, except that it is the immemorial habit of composers to champion other composers whose works are in the same general style as their own but not as good. (An entire history of music could be written elucidating that one principle, especially in the post-WWII era when composers came to run the new-music performance scene.) But the New World - little more than a harmonic progression articulated by repetitious motives - would make a wonderful teaching piece, a template for composing large-scale forms by monotonous formula. The subtle continuities of Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler are a little too creative and elevated for undergrads to understand, but the New World is right at their level, and assimilating it would make those other composers shine even more brightly. - Kyle Gann, Mus. Doc.


June 2, 2009 7:16 PM | | Comments (10) |
Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Immunity.jpgA new novel by Lori Andrews called Immunity contains a character named Peter Gena, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who creates computerized programs that turn the DNA sequences of various diseases into pieces of music. Although Peter is not truly fictional: in fact, he was my composition teacher in grad school at Northwestern, and he really does make a wide variety of scintillating pieces for Disklavier and other electronics from DNA sequences. Andrews heard about him through a mutual geneticist friend whom Peter collaborates with, and mentions him twice in the book, on pages 9 and 41. Immunity is a kind of action novel about a sexy geneticist named Alexandra Blake who tries to unravel an epidemic caused by someone infecting drinking water with a toxin that makes people fatally allergic to man-made substances. Blake listens to DNA sequences through Gena's program to try to hear dissonances that alert her to problematic viruses. It's a very fast read that comes off like a would-be film script, with all the characters using the same kind of curt, snappy dialogue. I spent a lovely weekend with Peter the last couple of days, and realized again what a felicitous meeting of minds we were, and how lucky I was to have studied with him. (Among hundreds of happy coincidences: I've been meaning to listen to Saint-Saens's Third Symphony because McLaren recommended it to me in a recent comment. Peter put on a CD to show off his new stereo components. "What is this?," I asked. It was Saint-Saens's Third Symphony.) Thank goodness Peter wasn't merely fictional.

June 1, 2009 7:55 PM | | Comments (3) |
I still feel knocked for a loop whenever I find myself the subject, rather than the author, of a music review, but my The Planets received a nice one from Daniel Webster in the Philadelphia Inquirer. I'm glad there's still a newspaper with a music critic.

June 1, 2009 7:49 PM | | Comments (1) |

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