PostClassic: September 2009 Archives

Here's a wonderful little piece of music I created by accident, 51 seconds long. Take a listen to it, and then click here to learn what it is.

September 27, 2009 6:10 PM | | Comments (8) |
Lord, am I enjoying wallowing in this wonderful recording of Sarah Cahill playing my transcription of Harold Budd's Children on the Hill from a few weeks ago at the Second International Minimalism Conference. Near the end of the fast part, every key change could signal a return to the A section, and every one that doesn't is a heartbreaking reassurance that the heaven of the piece isn't about to end yet. 

It's been a long teaching week, so I'm not in the mood to discuss why one should never, ever transcribe and recreate a recording of an improvisation; be assured that I know many of you think that, and that I am suitably ashamed of my unconscionable behavior. If you miss the original recording's crying baby, well, right. [UPDATE: Actually, we were afraid Charlemagne Palestine's snoring might be audible.] Please allow me, on a tired Friday night, to enjoy the illusion that I put dozens of hours into a project that pleased me and a few other people and did no one any harm.

September 25, 2009 9:22 PM | | Comments (8) |
As you may know, I love using Sibelius to generate wacky rhythms, but one of my students, Ben Raker, showed me some in a piece of his today (50 minutes long!) that I'd never tried. For some reason I've generally shied away from tuplets-within-tuplets, but Ben had come up (accidentally, he admitted, by punching the tuplet button twice instead of once) with a scheme for a quasi-irrational but actually elegantly geometric acceleration and ritard:


Hear the result here.

I quickly realized you could get more gradual patterns with larger numbers:


Hear the result here.

- not to mention more complex quasi-irrational sequences:


Hear the result here. Looks like it's back to the Disklavier for me. Oh, Henry Cowell, had you only lived to hear this.

September 15, 2009 6:45 PM | | Comments (12) |

In comments, Ernest asks (and I'd rather address this than the article I'm supposed to be writing today):

I was always curious about what a student could do if their professors genuinely dislike the music they create. It seems like a giant imposition on the student to alter his style just to fit his or her teacher's expectation of good music. Is this at least expected of the student in so far as the course is concerned? I don't want to seem like I think this is the norm, but there has to have been overzealous teachers who try to discourage them into writing more traditional pieces, right?

Others will undoubtedly want to weigh in on this. I want to say I've never disliked a work by one of my students, though I have to admit it's not quite true. I've rarely completely liked one, either. When you watch a piece grow from its first inchoate ideas to some sort of performable score, you get, I think, more caught up with the process than the result. This is a strange and mysterious process with two egos involved, and your own is not the important one. I would never, ever tell a student that the overall effect he or she wants to create is of no value. I always feel most satisfied when I can pinpoint localized things in the piece that I think injure the whole shape or progress of the piece, and the student, in response, ignores my proposed solutions but takes the criticism seriously and comes up with his or her own revisions instead. That satisfies my sense of having made a difference, and the student's sense of having come up with every note. And to this extent, liking or disliking the piece, or its style, is beside the point. It may be a little like asking a gynecologist whether his last patient was pretty. 

That said, in my situation, I'm the number 2 or 3 composition teacher at Bard, and so any sensible student who's going to write music in a style I don't care for is much better off studying with Joan Tower, whose tastes are the diametric opposite of mine and who can do much more for him professionally after graduation than I can. Joan seems to send me the students she gets whose music is "too tonal" or too deliberately uneventful. This is why I think it's so crucial that a music department aim for diversity of viewpoint among its faculty, which many refuse to do. I think to find an idiom that neither Joan, George Tsontakis, nor I would be sympathetic to, you'd pretty much have to be a staunch Ferneyhough acolyte, which is not common among undergrads. It's rare, in fact, for our undergrad composers to have much sense of style at all - their music is more often made up (as mine was at that age) of bits of this and that: a harmony they liked in Steve Reich, a melodic tic from George Crumb, some glissandos they heard in Penderecki. Now, I've never taught graduate composition students, and the few who've brought me their music have done so, as you can imagine, because it's in a style that they think is right up my alley (often coming to me because their own professors weren't sympathetic). If an accomplished 24-year-old composer brought me music conditioned by her passionate admiration of, say, Chris Rouse or Harrison Birtwistle, I'd have a quandary I haven't faced yet. I've never regretted teaching in an undergrad-only institution.

But when I haven't much liked hearing a piece by one of my students, it's usually with a feeling that "This student isn't much interested in the same things I am" - which is fine, because few of them are. And of course I would never grade them downward for that, because all that interests me grade-wise is how much work they put in - and that work can even be a lot of serious thinking and sketching, with little actual music to show for it. One of the smartest students I ever had used to analyze scores by prize-winning young composers and try to imitate them - certainly not a route I encouraged, but I watched him with amusement and added what suggestions I could. I gather that, in grad school, he eventually found that a dead end, but it wasn't in his interests for me to predict that. My teaching motto is from Blake: "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise."

There are a lot of composers who feel that a student should try out every composition teacher in the department to get a variety of viewpoints, but I was never very sympathetic to that. Some of our students do it, and if they go back to Joan or George (or our excellent jazz composition teacher Erica Lindsay) I wish them well and continue to take an interest in their progress. I was the type of young composer who would not have benefitted from a stylistically adversarial relationship - and didn't, the couple of times it happened. (I had one abominable professor who acted so insulted when I suggested trying another teacher that I was afraid to switch. He was a horse's ass, and should have been fired, but instead made students miserable for several decades.) But I do think that the type of composition teacher who insists on the student writing in his or her own style  - not nearly as common as they used to be in the '60s and '70s, apparently - is very much to be regretted, and I think most composers of my generation have realized the harmful effects of that. Anyone disagree?

And to return the original question to its original context in connection with the minimalism conference: if the musicologists at Bard wanted to hold a serialism or Spectralism conference, or one on the New Romanticism or New Complexity, I would find that interesting rather than threatening, and would probably attend some of it with a curious attitude. My compositional motto comes from Satie: "Show me something new, and I'll start all over again."

September 12, 2009 4:33 PM | | Comments (19) |
Sarah Cahill has finally given me a recording of my political piece War Is Just a Racket, which she premiered last March, and I've posted it to my web site. The program notes, detailing the text by General Smedley Butler and context, are here. Sarah does a beautiful job, as always.

September 12, 2009 11:44 AM | | Comments (2) |
As my co-director David McIntire so aptly said in his opening remarks to the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music, minimalist music has always stressed community - not only in its unison-rhythmed, non-soloistic ensemble style, nor in its tendency to bring an audience together in a kind of mass ecstasy, but in the collective enthusiasm it kindles among its devotees. This was evident in the first conference in 2007, and became even more apparent last week in Kansas City. That group of us who attended both conferences - myself, David, Keith Potter, John Pymm, Pwyll ap Sion, Maarten Bierens, Tim Johnson - developed a deeper sense of camaraderie and common purpose. Those who regretted missing the first conference and loved this one filled us out into a larger circle. The excitement that followed Sarah Cahill's fabulous recital, Charlemagne Palestine's transcendent organ performance, and some of the more thought-provoking papers quickly communicated itself from person to person. Everyone seemed in an excellent mood all week, and in a more ebullient mood from day to day. The best minimalist music does not inspire cautious appraisal or cold analysis, but wide-eyed wonder. Those of us who love it found ourselves at home in Kansas City, and among kindred spirits.

I shouldn't go too far in complimenting elements of a conference I helped plan, but I will make a few evaluative comments that hopefully won't reflect on myself. Sarah's elegantly flowing performance of Harold Budd's Children on the Hill proved to my satisfaction that a transcription of the piece can be played in a spirit virtually indistinguishable from Budd's own. I'll post the recording as soon as I get it. She also reminded me of what a gorgeous piece Meredith Monk's St. Petersburg Waltz is, and she introduced quite a few participants who hadn't heard of it to Hans Otte's scintillating The Book of Sounds, creating quite a stir for the piece. 

No quantity of listening to Charlemagne Palestine CDs could have prepared one for the mammoth presence of his organ performance Schlingen-Blängen, a piece he first played in 1965 but had never played in the U.S. before outside Los Angeles. (In fact he'd never visited the Midwest before.) As we entered Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, a perfect fifth was already ringing on the organ. Little by little Charlemagne added notes, held down with little wooden splints, and pulled out additional organ stops to thicken the roar of sound. Finally he plunged onto the keyboard with both forearms, and, with overtones at maximum ferment - pulled the plug. The sound died in a swooping glissando, came back on, and did so twice more, in a powerfully dramatic effect. There was an audible bass line running through much of the piece, and after the organ finally died away for the last time, Charlemagne rang a drone on the rim of a cognac glass and sang the bass line in falsetto - it was the final ostinato melody from Stravinsky's Firebird, not recognizable as such in the melee of drones. Here are Scott Unrein's photos of the church as it looked to us, with the organ in the background and Tom Johnson's ghost arising from the time exposure:


and Scott's portrait of Charlemagne in action:


Despite his recent book on Terry Riley's In C, Robert Carl's own music is not noticeably postminimalist, and so he may have seemed like an odd choice for keynote speaker, but he was pitch-perfect. He first dismissed the facile platitude that minimalism might have been nature's way of clearing the decks from serialism and making it possible to return to the relative "normalcy" of orchestral music like that of John Adams; instead, he said (and I'm paraphrasing from memory after a hectic teaching week), the radicalness of early minimalism was no mere aberration but a continuing and essential feature of the style. He then went on, as only an outsider to the movement could have, to detail what he thought minimalism had contributed to early 21st-century music in terms of flow and transparency. It was a moving tribute, and I told Robert afterward how much better he does public sincerity than I do. 


As I've said, I had hoped that the conference would bring about some potent distinctions between minimalism and postminimalism. Galen Brown's brilliant paper "Process as Means and End in Minimalist and Postminimalist Music" achieved a climax in that respect, widely noted as such. For Galen, minimalist music cared about process as a means regardless of what the sonic result was; postminimalist music uses process only to the extent that it achieves the sound the composer hears in his head. It was an admirably clear formulation, and I haven't yet found a loophole in it. That paper, along with two others by Kevin Lewis and Andy Bliss, provided a remarkably rounded view of David Lang's aesthetic, showing how willing he is to derive materials from processes that the listener can't necessarily hear, yet disrupts his own processes sporadically to make his music more human. Scott Unrein drew out the sensitive subjectivity in Jim Fox's music, and introduced that name to many present. 

I'm disappointed that we didn't get any of composer Paul Epstein's music on the concerts, but his paper gave an absorbing account of the compositional structures he's derived in the technique called "interleaving" that he took from Reich's Piano Phase, which he's developed into a surprisingly wide-ranging postminimalist technique. A paraphrase of his paper could make an entire chapter in this Music After Minimalism book I'm allegedly working on. Sumanth Gopinath and Gretchen Horlacher offered analyses of, respectively, Reich's Different Trains and Tehillim that made me realize that my listening to Reich has become one-dimensional, as though I only hear what I've already come to expect. Sumanth in particular drew resemblances to tropes from various popular musics, and made me hear the music anew.

As for Dennis Johnson's November, which Sarah and I gave the world re-premiere of, our rendition took four and a half hours, switching pianists every hour. The experience showed me a few things I still want to refine in my version of the piece. Luckily Sarah got the more melodic sections and made them heavenly. I realized that my own rusty piano technique was barely adequate even at November's leisurely tempo, but afterward Neely Bruce - a dynamite pianist himself - described my playing to me in detail in a way that made me feel good about it. I certainly loved doing it, and it's the first time since the mid-1980s that I've performed, in a professional setting, anyone's music except my own. Several conference participants had to leave to catch planes during the interim, but the 19 who managed to hang on to the end gave us a standing ovation, which in my case I took more as a compliment to my hard work and endurance than to my pianism. (Photo by Robert Carl) 


I got home Tuesday at 1 AM and faced an eager Renaissance counterpoint class nine hours later. My luggage followed on Wednesday afternoon.

Per our group deliberations, the Third International Conference on Minimalist Music will take place - [drum roll, please] - in mid-October of 2011 at the University of Leuven in Belgium, a medieval university town 15 minutes from Brussels by train, under the leadership of Maarten Bierens. I already can't wait. There was copious discussion of what institution in the U.S. might pick up the Fourth conference in 2013, but the story in every case was the same: at each representative's school we considered, the musicology faculty would welcome the opportunity, but the resident composition professors would shout it down. That UMKC showed us such hospitality has made it one of the handful of schools I now recommend my student composers to consider for graduate studies. Musicology is the field through which minimalism is making its way into academia, and it is remarkable how many young minimalist-oriented composers, several of them in attendance in Kansas City, are getting their degrees in musicology as a way of bypassing the hidebound stodginess of the academic composing world. This conference is a confederacy of (mostly) young composers and musicologists allied to break the grip of modernism's stranglehold on American academic composition departments. Our success in that venture is only a matter of time. God bless the musicologists for their exuberantly erudite support.

UPDATE: Pardon me, but I like this photo of me, by Robert Carl, explaining November:


September 10, 2009 6:51 PM | | Comments (17) |
Well, the idea of a conference being blogged daily by the co-director of same conference has pretty much been derailed. I'll have to wrap it up when I get back. Let me leave you for now with another group photo, taken remotely by Scott Unrein on the roof of his apartment building. This followed Sarah Cahill's absolutely dynamite recital, in which the revival of Harold Budd's Children on the Hill rang out perfectly; as Scott said, close your eyes and that was Budd up there playing. Sarah closed with Terry Riley's sophisticatedly jaunty "Be Kind to One Another" Rag - another improvised piece, which Terry wrote down after improvising it for Sarah to play. Here we are - Charlemagne Palestine, Sarah, me, Kerry O'Brien, Scott and his wife Judy, David McIntire and his wife Michelle, Andrew Granade, Galen Brown, Andy Lee, Jedd Schneider, Andy Bliss, Sumanth Gopinath, Rachel McIntire, and Kansas City:


September 5, 2009 8:21 AM | | Comments (5) |
Here in Missouri I saw a car festooned with the most virulent anti-Obama bumper stickers, plus one that read: "I'll be as gracious to your president as you were to mine." That settles something I'd wondered about: a lot of the anti-Obama vitriol, I feel certain, is little more than revenge for decent peoples' justified anger over things W. Bush actually did, and for the Right's embarrassment for having supported a moron, while we have a nice, well-spoken, dignified president.

September 4, 2009 8:54 AM | | Comments (1) |
The big minimalist event today was maximalist indeed - a celebrity dinner party at Arthur Bryant's, just about the most famous barbecue place in the world. The photo below just postdated Mikel Rouse's departure, but still we had Rachel McIntire (David's daughter, video-documenting the conference); composers Paul Epstein, Charlemagne Palestine, and Scott Unrein; pianist Sarah Cahill; and musicologists Keith Potter, Dragana Stojanovic-Novicic, and Pwyll ap Sion: 


For over a decade I had pictured Arthur Bryant as some really plush, elegant place, but it's just kind of a barbecue shed in a desolate part of town:


But the sauce was pungent, the meat fell apart at the touch of a fork, and it didn't take Charlemagne to get me to finish my dinner:


I'm getting too busy to attend all the papers, especially since I gave my own Dennis Johnson paper today. But we had a lovely panel on Julius Eastman. Ellie Hisama has been interviewing Julius's family, and fleshed out a long overdue biographical picture. Andrew Hanson-Dvoracek surprised me with a hardcore pitch analysis of Eastman's Gay Guerilla, finding some meticulous structures I hadn't noticed when I coached a performance of the piece; and even suggesting, startlingly if not illogically, that he was aiming for some rapprochement between Uptown and Downtown methods. Jeremy Grimshaw, author of an upcoming book on La Monte Young, and I traded stories, and David McCarthy gave a concise analysis of Young's "The Black Album" that I was glad to have someone else take off my hands. Among the hours and hours of Steve Reich papers, Kerry O'Brien detailed a little-known history of Reich's performances from 1967 to '69 to show that his brief flirtation with electronics, which he rather hushed up in his subsequent writings, paralleled the cybernetics fad that faded in the '70s into a post-Vietnam disillusionment with technology. 

This evening the newEar Ensemble presented a near-marathon concert. My favorite was a gorgeous little work for piano and cello by the Serbian Vladimir Tosic that seemed to melt away onstage, and also the gently rippling Sun on Snow by Barbara Benary, violinist for the original Phil Glass Ensemble and an underrated composer. The final work by Tom Johnson, Narayana's Cows, applied a speciously simple mathematical problem to the creation of a progressively expanding melody, charming the ear while making the brain work overtime. More tomorrow, I hope; I'm exhausted.

September 4, 2009 12:50 AM | | Comments (3) |
What an amazing first day of the 2nd International Conference on Minimalist Music. Maarten Bierens from Belgium demonstrated how Louis Andriessen's subtly subversive use of quotations gave his music a dialectical significance quite foreign to American minimalism; Pwyll ap Sion detailed the amazing range of self-quotation in Michael Nyman's output. But what blew me away were three papers on Phill Niblock by Keith Potter, Richard Glover, and Rich Housh, who had gotten access to Phill's files and could exhibit the varied ways he shapes his slowly moving drones. Apparently, Phill's music has taken on a new life since he started working directly in ProTools, which gives him greater control over the out-of-tuneness of his pitch clusters. As UMKC musicologist Andrew Granade remarked to me, we've each known maybe three people in academia before now who had even heard of Niblock, and suddenly the room was full of Niblock aficionados, shouting answers to each other's questions and deconstructing his music as matter-of-factly as if it was Mahler and we all had the Kalmus scores. Suddenly, "drone minimalism" is a topic that can hold its own against repetitive minimalism, as though it had been all along. What a feeling, sitting there and watching the official history of music reel, switch trajectory, and transform itself around you!

Mikel Rouse joined us to present his music/film Funding, and so here is musicological documentation of the first night's festivities. First, me and Mikel with UMKC doctoral student, Michael Gordon expert, and conference superman Jedd Schneider looking on:

(photo by Dragana Stojanovic-Novicic)

Four Musical Minimalists author Keith Potter, postminimalist composer Galen Brown, and Nancarrow scholar Dragana Stojanovic-Novicic:


Musicologist Maarten Bierens (on account of whom rumors are flying of the next conference possibly taking place in Belgium) and Welsh former conference director Pwyll ap Sion:


September 3, 2009 12:55 AM | | Comments (3) |
David McIntire and I had been wanting to visit the grave of Virgil Thomson, and came up with a minimalism conference as the simplest way to create the opportunity. So early this morning four of us headed off for Slater, Missouri (pop. 2083), the town Thomson was born in. Only we found the town more willing to take credit for a different favorite son:


This led to my idea for my paper for the next conference: "The Great Escape and The Mother of Us All: Slater's Impact on Modernism." But I digress. We (that is, Scott Unrein, Andrew Granade, myself, and David) found Virgil between his parents and the sister who died in infancy, on a wind-swept plain between two cornfields:


After paying our respects, we stopped back through Lee's Summit (home of Pat Metheny, similarly state-uncredited) for just about the best barbecue I've ever had, and certainly the hottest barbecue sauce, at an establishment called the Filling Station, which could only have been named for the ballet by Thomson:


For desert the place sold a rotund little candy bar called the Cherry Mash, which used to be my favorite sweet in the 1960s; I hadn't had one in four decades, and couldn't resist. For a few minutes I felt that maraschino paste on my tongue again and stepped back into the world of junior high school. It was horrifying.

Yesterday I got to hear sneak previews of a couple of conference papers. Andy Lee, UMKC doctoral student and pianist of postminimalism, in a paper analyzing David Borden's two-piano piece Double Portrait, cited Jonathan Kramer's distinction between vertical and horizontal time, vertical denoting a timeless stasis in which music seems to have no forward motion, horizontal indicating the more usual classical narrative of beginning, middle, and end. While minimalist composers are usually concerned with vertical time, postminimalist composers, Andy noted, are often ambiguous, concerned in some respects and times with the vertical, and in other respects and moments with the horizontal. I nearly leaped from my seat shouting "I confess, I confess!" and threw myself at his mercy, but he didn't seem to hold the ambiguity against us. That's one of those hidden-in-plain-sight truths that postminimalist composers tend to skirt around gingerly, but since several other papers deal with the postminimal, I look forward to the distinction being squarely faced and unraveled further throughout the week.

September 1, 2009 4:51 PM | | Comments (3) |

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by PostClassic in September 2009.

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