PostClassic: September 2010 Archives


I've always had a fascination with canons, even long before I wrote a book about a composer (Nancarrow) whose major works were mostly canons. In the late 1980s, when I was in the habit of lecturing on the history of Chicago's new-music scene at the School of the Art Institute and other places, I ran across, in a Chicago used bookstore, a little book called Canonical Studies, by Bernhard Ziehn (1845-1912, pictured). I recognized the name. Ziehn was one of two German composer-theorists who were living in Chicago when Ferruccio Busoni toured through. Busoni was trying to solve the puzzle of how the four fugue subjects fit together in the unfinished fugue from Bach's The Art of Fugue, and Ziehn solved it for him, enabling Busoni to write his Fantasia Contrappuntistica, which has long been one of my very favorite works in the world. His tour over, Busoni wrote an article about Ziehn and his colleague Wilhelm Middelschulte, titled "The Gothics of Chicago," by which term he meant that they were masters and fanatics in the ancient art of counterpoint. Ziehn and Middelschulte taught a lot of the early Chicago composers, including John J. Becker (one of the "American Five"), whose widow I knew in Evanston. So I had multiple connections to Ziehn, and snapped the book up at once.

All but forgotten today (there's a brief entry about him on German Wikipedia, none in the English one, and the second reference that came up on Google was a page of my own), Ziehn was ahead of his time. Books he published in the 1880s anticipated and classified chords (such as those based on the whole-tone scale) that the impressionists and Schoenberg would use considerably later. In the intro to Canonical Studies, Ziehn writes,

A canon is by definition strict. Our greatest authorities assert "strict" canons can be carried out in the Octave of Prime only. The examples given in this book demonstrate that real canons are possible in any interval...

And he gives examples of chord progressions that modulate to every possible interval away from the tonic, showing how one can continue repeating those progressions in ever-moving transposition to write canons not based on the octave or unison.

I was intrigued, and in 1987 wrote what I call a "spiral canon" as the third movement of my violin piece Cyclic Aphorisms, a canon at the major second. Then, more ambitiously, in 1990 I wrote Chicago Spiral, a nine-part triple canon also at the major 2nd, putting a postminimalist spin on Ziehn's idea. A canon is easy to perceive as such at the unison, octave, or even fifth; it's more challenging at a more distantly related interval. A canon is also easier to process aurally if the beat-interval of rhythmic imitation is something symmetrical like 4 or 8 beats, more difficult if it's 13 or 31. One thing I've realized is central to my music is that I love to fuse the simple with the incommensurable, making the listener think it ought to be easy to figure out what's going on, but keeping it just out of reach. My Ziehn-inspired spiral canons ought to be simple to figure out by ear - they're only canons, after all - but the complexity of the imitation intervals, both rhythm and pitch, keep the ear, I think, from ever quite settling into them. I also use the technique as kind of a postminimalist gradual-texture-metamorphosis generator, which is a little beyond what old Ziehn had in mind, I imagine. Paradoxically, the longer the rhythmic interval of imitation, the less gradual the changes can be made.

And now in recent months I've written two more such canons, Hudson Spiral and Concord Spiral, both for string quartet. Along with the middle section of my orchestra piece The Disappearance of All Holy Things from this Once So Promising World, I've produced five spiral canons altogether, at the following rhythmic and pitch intervals:

Cyclic Aphorism 3: 5 beats, major 2nd ascending
Chicago Spiral: 7 beats, major 2nd descending
Disappearance: 17 beats, minor 3rd descending
Hudson Spiral: 83 beats, major 6th ascending
Concord Spiral: 19 beats, minor 7th descending

The major 6th and minor 7th are the optimal intervals for a string quartet canon; using a major 6th, the cello can play down to its low E-flat (echoed by the viola's low C string and second violin's low A), and the first violin can play down to the F# above middle C, whereas with the 7th the cello can descend to D and the first violin only to A-flat in the treble clef. Concord Spiral generated some nice passages of what sounds like tonal Webern:


The scores are on my web site if you're interested, and no performances are yet forthcoming. Spiral Canons and Snake Dances are the two personal genres I feel I've invented for myself, along with my more generic tuning studies and Disklavier studies. And I hope Ziehn would have been happy to know that, 98 years after his death, his idea is still out there making the rounds.

September 26, 2010 5:14 PM | | Comments (1) |
My article on Nancarrow for IRCAM's contemporary music documentation archive is now online - in French, of course. I couldn't write it in French, but I did brush up enough of my high-school French (three years) to carry on the relevant correspondence in that language. Amusingly, the archive is called BRAHMS, which musicologist Nicolas Donin tells me was originally derived from something like "Base de données Relationnelles Hypermédia sur la Musique de notre Siècle" - though no one now remembers for sure, and it's now called something else, but the nickname stuck. Book or no book, I'm surprised IRCAM entrusted it to little old Downtown me, just as I'm surprised when prestigious music schools that I assume would never consider hiring me ask me to be an outside tenure evaluator for their professors, as occasionally happens.

September 20, 2010 9:55 AM | | Comments (1) |
One of the most striking things Morton Feldman said when I worked with him briefly in 1975 was, "In the '60s, my students were all using a tempo marking of quarter-note = 60. Now my students are all using 72." That was a revelation to me: that even something as neutral as a tempo marking might be a cliché, a learned behavior, an unconscious imitation, a hint of groupthink. Ever since then, for 35 years, every time I've put down a tempo marking, I've thought, is this really the tempo I want? Did I see another piece with this tempo lately? Am I using 104 because it's on the metronome, when I really want 103? Feldman taught me to question whether I was using even the most quotidian devices out of reflex, or whether I was really conceiving the piece as a unique whole.

Now, I could have reacted differently. I could have attacked Feldman: "How many of your students are using 72?! I know lots of young composers who are writing at tempos other than 72! Which ones are you talking about? And what's wrong with 72?" But I didn't. Instead I learned a whole life attitude from Feldman's subtle and quick ability to detect clichés and imitative, inauthentic behavior.

It was in this same spirit that I recently mentioned that I hear a lot of young composers using devices inherited from John Adams - I might particularly mention the affectation of hammering repeated notes. Did I say that all young composers sound like John Adams now? Of course not - go back and read it again if you think I did, and if you can't see the difference, you're not literate. Since I benefitted so much from Feldman pointing out to me clichés to avoid, I've always thought younger composers might appreciate taking advantage of similar perceptions. Of course there's nothing wrong with putting hammering repeated notes in your music, but so many people are doing it right at the moment that a composer might want to stop and think, Do I really need these to fully express the idea of my piece, or am I unconsciously picking up something I heard that was really effective in someone else's piece?

For this altruistic, generously intended, and avuncular bit of advice (which I further softened with a self-effacing anecdote about my own borrowings), some composers are attacking me in the same way I mention that I could have attacked Feldman in the second paragraph above - not because I set out to disparage anyone, but because, since my opinions are rather visible, I am a convenient hook for other composers' projections of their own negativity.

September 14, 2010 10:17 AM | |
In response to my writing on the subject, my attention has been drawn to an article, "The Cowell-Ives Relationship: A New Look at Cowell's Prison Years," by Leta Miller and Rob Collins, in an issue of the excellent journal American Music (Vol. 23, No. 4 (Winter, 2005), pp. 473-492) - don't know how I missed it, since I receive the journal. The story has always been that, once Cowell was imprisoned in San Quentin from 1936 to 1940 on a homosexual morals charge, Ives was disgusted to learn about Cowell's homosexuality, and cut off all contact with him. But at the 1997 Cowell Centennial conference in New York, a letter was exhibited, from Ives to Cowell in jail (in Ives's own hand, which was exceptional for the time), expressing his warmest wishes and sympathy. Miller and Collins provide strong evidence to support what some of us suspected at the time: that it was Ives's wife Harmony who was unsympathetic, not Ives. Since Ives's health was so poor that Harmony handled all of his correspondence, coming and going, the story always got filtered through her statements to friends. In fact, however, on May 29, 1937, Cowell received a letter from Ives saying,

I've started to write you a few times or more, but didn't because I didn't know what to write or say or what to think or do - and I don't now - so I'll shut up! At least I can do all I can & I will to help New M[usic] Editions keep going as well as possible and as you would want...
I do hope you can keep well & that things will go well in the future.

In addition, Ives, not being able to satisfactorily communicate through Harmony, sent Cowell other supportive messages through mutual friends. Miller and Collins also quote a statement by Lou Harrison, who was openly gay during the years (1936-1950) he did musical work for Ives:

The problem of whether you were gay or not didn't arise among the people that I was with. Ives was repressed but nonetheless he was a married man. [Yet] there was no problem. In fact that was the point I think that Ives made at the one luncheon I attended [with him]. Harmony was there and he, sitting off from the table, told me that when he was growing up, if you had anything to do with musicians it meant you were a sissy. Then he looked thoughtful and a little worried and said, "But all that seems to have changed now." 

I'm glad to know that Ives's letter and messages are finally in the scholarly literature (thanks to Joe Barron for alerting me), and I hope we can now consider the story that Ives abandoned Cowell out of homophobia thoroughly debunked.

September 13, 2010 3:37 PM | | Comments (3) |
On our recent trip to Concord, we took a side trip to Salem, where my friends Jim Dalton and Maggi Smith-Dalton, microtonal composers and early-American-music experts, took me to the grave of Jones Very (1813-1880), the temporarily-mad Emerson poet protégé whose ecstatic sonnets I set to music in my Transcendental Sonnets. (Jim's an isolated, Johnstonian just-intonationist in the officially 72-tet Boston crowd.) Very's tomb is in the Old South Cemetery, founded in 1689, and quite visible from a fairly busy street. Just one member in a family grave, like Thoreau and Kierkegaard, but I was thrilled to track down old Jones at last:


I've got more about Very here, including some poems.

September 12, 2010 4:15 PM | | Comments (0) |
Ineresting evening, we had tonight. We had a meeting of all the Bard composers, faculty and students. In the course of it a student challenged me, Joan Tower, and George Tsontakis to name the Schoenberg pieces we really like. I don't think Joan and George will begrudge me reporting the meager results. Joan and I basically agreed on the Op. 11 piano pieces, especially the second one. George and I agreed that Moses und Aron is "great" - the two acts that he wrote. I'll never forgive Arnold for not finishing his magnum opus just because he couldn't get a Guggenheim. George suggested Pierrot Lunaire, but neither Joan nor I care for it. I suggested Herzgewächse and the Six Songs, Op. 8, but Joan isn't fond of vocal music. We all agreed that the Op. 25 and Op. 33 piano pieces are a mess, and that the Violin Phantasy is really ugly. We had all once loved the First Chamber Symphony and grown to dislike it. Altogether, we couldn't come up with much 12-tone Schoenberg that any of us ever wanted to hear again. Anything Joan, George, and I agree on from our disparate and non-overlapping perspectives must contain a degree of objective truth. Face it: Arnold Schoenberg is O. V. E. R. R. A. T. E. D. He deserves maybe two, three paragraphs in a comprehensive music history text. There are so many 12-tone composers I prefer to Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg: Rochberg, Sessions, Stravinsky, Dallapiccola, Hauer, Stockhausen, Nono, Berio, Maderna, even Babbitt. And there are many atonal composers I love who aren't 12-tone: Shapey, Ruggles, Wolpe, Feldman. Positing the "Second Vienna School" as some kind of counterpoise to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven was, in retrospect, a stunning musicological fiction. Write in and name your favorite Schoenberg pieces if it'll make you feel better, but if he can't win fans among composers as deeply, and diversely, invested in modernism as the three of us are are, he just wasn't all that. We can't defend his exalted reputation to our students. And it's high time the composing profession faced up to the non-unanimity of even expert opinion about him.

[RAMBLING ON THE NEXT MORNING:] The interesting thing was that we all knew virtually Schoenberg's complete output. Joan had played most of the music involving piano, including the Webern arrangement of the Chamber Symphony. I wish I knew the outputs of Walton, Milhaud, Martinu, and even Hindemith as well as I do Schoenberg's, I'm sure I'd love a lot more of the music. 

UPDATE: George writes in to add some Schoenberg works that he likes that we didn't discuss the other night, many of them ones also listed by commenters: String Trio, Third Quartet, Book of the Hanging Gardens, Survivor from Warsaw, Serenade, Ode to Napoleon, and Five Pieces for Orchestra. 

September 10, 2010 11:26 PM | | Comments (15) |
ClassicalForm.jpgIn my pedantically wonkish way, I'm excited to be teaching my sonata-form classes with William E. Caplin's book Classical Form (Oxford, 1998), as I have been for several years now. For those who don't know it, Caplin went through the complete sonata-form works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and catalogued everything that happens in all of them - what theme the development starts with, what relative keys get referred to in the codas, and like that. I don't use the book as a textbook: even though Caplin's writing style is admirably clear, it's too dense and dependent on hundreds of examples, and to tell the truth, I've never yet gotten through the whole thing myself. Read four paragraphs and your eyes glaze over from the amount of detailed information you're trying to take in. (I once talked to someone at Oxford about how useful an undergrad-friendly version of the book would be, and she told me one was being contemplated.) But I've outlined chapters for my students as a kind of flowchart for what's possible in sonata form, and it's made it feasible to teach the subject honestly. I think when I was in school I was given some kind of "typical" sonata form chart (if indeed we ever paid any attention to any music before Webern, which I don't specifically recall doing), from which, of course, every sonata we ever looked at - deviated. But Caplin offers a descriptive plan rather than a prescriptive one. So yesterday in class we went through the outline, and then through movement 1 of Beethoven's Op. 2 No. 3 - and every move Beethoven made was one of the possibilities in the Caplin-based flow chart. One student, who had apparently gotten a whiff of the old prescriptive-style training, asked, "Can we look at a typical sonata first, one that follows all the rules?" And I said, "There's no such thing as a typical sonata. Might as well ask me to go out on the street and bring in a typical person." Instead of having to explain why every piece we listen to is an exception to most of the rules, I can teach the whole conception of sonata form as a range of possibilities and, better yet, meanings, some of which get chosen for identifiable logical or expressive reasons. It's nice to have one theoretical subject I can teach without making excuses for the lameness of the pedagogy. (Sometimes we look at Clementi, Dussek, and Hummel, too, and find some possibilities outside Caplin's range.)

I've told the wonderful story before about my late friend Jonathan Kramer who said to a class, "You've all probably been taught the fiction that there are three kinds of minor scale." Student: "If that's the fiction, what's the reality?" Jonathan: "There is no reality." But in sonata class, there's now a reality.

September 9, 2010 9:57 AM | | Comments (5) |
I'm not a critic anymore, and don't want to be one. But I am bothered by a couple of things lately, and hope that a word to the wise won't be resented. (Like anything I say ever goes unresented by a lot of people.) I will, at least, refuse to specify what music I'm talking about.

There is, in general, a problem with postminimalist opera. I keep hearing new operas that, to my ears, all keep making the same mistake. Namely: it sounds like the composer writes the instrumental accompaniment first, and then lays the vocal line over it. The vocal lines, draped on as an afterthought in this way, lack memorability. They tend to be shapeless, often even fragmentary. They seem to follow the harmony, rather than the harmony illuminating the vocal line. I feel that the purpose of an opera, or any piece of music with a text that needs to be understood, is to amplify the words and vastly increase their power, make them vivid. To that end, in every text piece I've written, even theater works like Custer and Sitting Bull and Cinderella's Bad Magic, I've said and sung the words over and over again first, to find a way of delivering each line rhythmically and melodically that seems passionately meant. And then I go back and fashion the accompaniment rhythms around those rhythms, and the harmonic changes to emphasize the right points in the speech. I invariably change the meter to fit the words, I never squeeze the words into a set meter. I try to make the total music a faithful amplification of the words. And I think, and have received some anecdotal evidence, that sentences in my operas are made memorable by their musical setting. I'm saddened, though, that composers whose music I generally love are writing so many operas in which the voices seem more like a distraction than a focus, because the accompaniment was written independently and with its own logic. Postminimalism has turned this into a habit.

Secondly: I think young composers might want to think about diversifying the composers they base their styles on beyond John Coolidge Adams. Not that there's anything wrong with Adams's style, he's as good a place to start as any. But I get CDs from composers in their 20s and 30s, all very talented, very accomplished - most of them sounding like they're trying to be the next John Adams. Then I get asked for recommendations, and I can't make distinctions among them, because one's as good an Adams epigone as the next. Of course, a lot of them are far more successful than I am, and shouldn't take any career advice from me. But I will hint that I'm waiting to give my best recommendations to someone who breaks away from the pack and sounds unlike John Adams - even if it's to sound like Feldman or Nancarrow or somebody. No offense intended. Enough said?

UPDATE: I can add that I've dealt with my own charges of over-influence. Years ago I submitted my first solo disc Custer's Ghost, containing Custer and Sitting Bull plus five microtonal instrumental pieces, to a new-music label. The record label guy called me up to decline, and, in a tone of exasperation at having to explain something so stultifyingly obvious to me, said, "But Kyle - it sounds just like Robert Ashley!" "Well," I replied, "if Robert Ashley's music were microtonal, and ran through complex meter changes, and had the accompaniment in rhythmic unison with the text, yes, my CD would sound EXACTLY like Robert Ashley!" Actually, I didn't say any of that, because I made a quick decision that the person saying that, who still works in the business, was a blithering moron, and that it was pointless to argue. Silly me, I thought that Ashley had opened up opera to the spoken text, and thought I was actually imitating Mikel Rouse, who was influenced by Ashley, as well as William Walton's wonderful Façade of 1924, which has been one of my favorite pieces since I was a teenager. If I have been guilty of a similar misassumption I apologize profusely, but it does seem to me that I have in recent years received a string of Adams-influenced CDs almost too similar to tell apart.

UPDATE 2: A composer wrote in to identify all the obvious pieces and composers I was referring to here, and got them almost all wrong. But he made me aware that by initially calling the record label "prestigious" (it was prestigious by my standards), I might have inadvertently cast false suspicion on Nonesuch. The idea that I might have such an exalted view of my own commercial viability as to try to get on the Nonesuch roster gave me a good laugh.

September 6, 2010 4:17 PM | | Comments (11) |
I hadn't listened to Schubert's Fifth Symphony in far too long, and I did today. I have a special relationship with that piece - or rather, it has one with me. It was one of the pieces I heard on recording from my first weeks out of the womb. I knew how it went before I could talk. And whenever I play it, I'm transported into feeling like I'm a child hearing music again, as something magical and captivating that I can't figure out. It links me to a preverbal relationship with music, and reminds me, in a way unlike any other work, of how music must sound to people who can't read it. There are other works that I was familiar with as early, such as Mozart's D Minor Piano Concerto and his D Major Piano Sonata K. 576, but those I've analyzed many times with classes, and the spell has been broken. I have intentionally never cracked a score to Schubert's Fifth. I can't quite picture how it's notated - I could figure it out, but don't want to. There are even syncopations in the first movement where I'm not sure where the downbeat is. I hear that flute obligato joining the main theme and I'm instantly in another world, safe and secure, and nothing bad has ever happened. It's an almost entirely right-brain experience (though there are still passages where I can't keep the phrase "flat submediant" from leaping into my left brain). Someday before I die I want to open a score of the Schubert Fifth and break the spell, but I'm in no hurry. I feel like something about still having that experience intact helps keep me honest in my own composing. 

I think the pieces my son must have that relationship with are John Adams's Grand Pianola Music and Steve Reich's Octet. (And incidentally, my son's band Liturgy is opening their European tour in Oslo tonight.) 

September 6, 2010 4:01 PM | | Comments (1) |

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