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I've been thinking about the style-and-narrative issue from a new angle, and as you know, my blog thinkpieces tend to come in groups of three anyway.


During the semester I rain forth repertoire on my students, and sometimes when I get a free moment I just obsessively need to hear something I don't already know. A Christmas DVD of Cavalli's Calisto, one of my favorite operas, put me in an early Baroque mood, so I digitized all my Cavalli and Carissimi and Cesti vinyl, and remembered that I had always wanted to be more familiar with Biber, so I discovered his two requiems, which are supremely beautiful, especially the F minor. Then I saw a reference to Nicolas Medtner, literally just his name, and suddenly realized that I had never satisfied my curiosity about the Medtner piano sonatas. They have a cult following, and since I've always hoped my music would acquire a cult following, some band of intrepid enthusiasts to run around claiming that it's not as bad as people think, I'm always on the lookout for models in that respect. So has all the Medtner Sonata scores, and I could listen to them through the Naxos web site that Bard subscribes to, and I approached them the Scorpionic way I approach everything: I listened to all 14 of them back-to-back.

And I love them. I'm a sucker for meandering chromatic piano music anyway. Sometimes I think that as the son of a piano teacher I just find the sound of the instrument comforting, it almost doesn't matter what you play on it. But I've always considered the Scriabin sonatas a little formally timid, and Medtner leaps in where Scriabin fears to tread. His textural details are often quite original, and in his "Night Wind" Sonata Op. 25/2 he has an entire movement in a natural-sounding 15/8 meter, cleverly inflected with hemiolas:


It's great stuff, and I am now officially a card-carrying Medtner cultist. He may suddenly be my favorite Russian ever besides Stravinsky, and I hardly think of Stravinsky as Russian.

At the same time, I can see why Medtner has never gone mainstream, and never will. Except for the rather immature Op. 5, stylistically, those sonatas are much the same. Supposing I want to hear (or play) Medtner, which sonata do I choose? Hearing them all in four and a half hours, they could just as well have been one piece; which movement went with which sonata didn't make much audible difference (and I've given several of them repeat listenings, with and without scores, and played through movements). There are lots of wonderful harmonic sequences, broken by reappearances of dotted-rhythm motifs. Some are stormier than others, some are multi-movement, some long, some short, but it's a 280-minute mass of solid Medtner. The music doesn't breathe much, and no real adagio ever appears. He had a tremendously sophisticated language in which he could sit down any time he wanted and write more Medtner. But with a few exceptions (mostly the early Op. 11 trio of sonatas and the late Sonata-Idylle, I think, and the "Night Wind" has some distinctive material), he didn't have "an idea" for each sonata which differentiated it sharply from the last sonata. Like Bruckner and his symphonies, Medtner pretty much had one sonata in him and wrote it 14 times, and I don't mean to disparage either composer in the least, for I yield to no one in my Bruckner worship. But it does mean, I think, that the listener's attention is drawn more toward Medtner as a style than toward, say, the Sonata Manicciosa as a discrete piece. 

Let's go back to this blog's default composer Feldman for a moment. Feldman had it all. He had an instantly recognizable style. At the same time, think about how distinct three of his orchestra pieces are from each other: Turfan Fragments, Coptic Light, For Samuel Beckett. No one who knows those pieces would confuse them on a drop-the-needle test. (Kids, dropping the phonograph needle on a record was what we used to do with vinyl, to enliven our cave parties.) Within his well-defined idiom, Feldman could create a striking image for each piece that set it apart from the rest of his output. Or to take a competitor with whom Medtner would have been all too familiar, Beethoven's Sonatas do not dissolve into Beethoven-language. I could be in a mood to hear Op. 111, or Op. 90, in which Op. 53 or Op. 57 would just not fill the bill. It's not true of every Beethoven's sonata, but the best of them each define a small (or large) world. 

It is a trap that some composers fall into (and there are so many of them, aren't there?, traps, I mean) that they can develop a language and then sit around writing pieces in that language. A piece is not simply nine yards of a given composer's language snipped off from the rest - it's a thing with its own bounds and unity and personality. Years ago Boulez made some statement about having "perfected his language," and I wrote an article with the sub-headline, "Pierre Boulez perfects his language - but does he have anything to say?" Music and language are analogous in various respects, and the fallacy that music is only a language is so seductive that it sucks certain people in, letting them forget the fact that much of what we remember and most savor in music are specific sonic images. The composer may have a big impact - but his or her pieces may be individually forgettable. 

And, from whatever congenital impulse that's hardwired into my amygdala, that's a trap I am more averse to than some of the others. I am driven to make each piece as individual as possible. I hate repeating myself. I have a big bag of quirks, but I don't think I possess "a language." Every major piece I start seems to require a new way of composing from me, which is why I often spin my wheels for awhile when I first get started. I probably overemphasize with my students that they think about what "the idea of the piece" is. It could be called a more "objective" kind of composing, because the entire emphasis is on the object, and I am always willing to abnegate any usual composing tendencies I think of as mine to achieve what the piece needs. And perhaps, avoiding that Scylla, I fall prey to the Charybdis of not having an individual enough composer profile. 


There are historic composers, some among my favorites, like me in this respect. Nancarrow rarely repeated anything. A kind of "Nancarrow style" is imposed on our perception of him by the fact that 51 of his pieces were for the same peculiar instrument, but in my book on him I list 26 good ideas that he used once and never touched again. He could be tonal or atonal, jazzy or abstract, chaotic or elegant, and any permutation of those. Or to take a more directly apposite contrast to Medtner, Ferruccio Busoni is one of the most piece-oriented composers ever. If you've heard of him at all, you know he has a big romantic piano concerto, and some sonatinas, but the concerto is in a complete different idiom from the sonatinas, and the sonatinas hardly match well enough to constitute a set (one atonal, one Bach-like, one based on Carmen for gosh sake), and the string quartets and operas are something else altogether. Busoni is one of my very favorite composers, and even I can't make the Romanto-Moderno-Neoclasso jigsaw puzzle of his output fit into a picture. Each piece has an impact, but Busoni himself has a fuzzy reputation.

Of course, the preferable thing would to be like Beethoven or Feldman or Stravinsky, and write memorable pieces within your own distinctive style. But it doesn't seem that we get to choose where we fall along this continuum, whether it is decided for us at birth by the structure of our neural system or imposed upon us from without by the opportunities we're given. Still, who says that that coveted middle position will make you everyone's favorite composer? Some of us are drawn to artists whose strengths are less obvious. If I'm offered the position as my generation's Busoni, I'll leap at the chance. And I suppose what I'm saying is that there are advantages on both sides. I can listen to Steve Reich and say, "Boy, I wish my music had that clear a profile"; but I can also listen to Medtner - and love every note of it - and still say, "Boy, I'm glad my pieces don't all blend together."

January 6, 2011 3:38 PM | | Comments (0) |
After a dry fall I have two big performances coming up within a week of each other. Steve Bodner, dynamic young conductor who gave the American premiere of my Sunken City, has his annual I/O Festival coming up Jan. 6-8 at Williams College in northwestern Massachusetts. The Saturday afternoon concert of Steve's Opus Zero ensemble, 1:00 on Jan. 8, is an all-astrology concert - Stockhausen's Tierkreis, "Neptune" and "Venus" from my suite The Planets, and three pieces by Sun Ra, including Saturn (1958) and Space Is the Place (1974). I think I heard Sun Ra's group do that second one live in Chicago way back when. Me, Stockhausen, and Sun Ra - there's the historical niche I've been waiting all my life for. I will definitely have to wear my pyramid hat.

And on Friday, Jan. 14, at 8:30 PM, my string quartet The Light Summer Land will be premiered in the Pusey Room at the Memorial Church at Harvard, no less, along with premieres by Thomas L. Read and Arnold Rosner. The performers, Ethan Wood, Megumi Stohs, Sarah Darling, and Josh Packard, aren't an established quartet, but are all members of the Arcturus Ensemble, and have performed together often. Composer extraordinaire Carson Cooman arranged the whole thing, and the piece is dedicated to him. It's my first string quartet performance ever. Rosner's blog at Sequenza 21 is entertaining. 

January 5, 2011 12:23 PM | | Comments (1) |

I want to draw attention to Allan Kozinn's thinkpiece about the vagaries of new-music performance in yesterday's Times (tried to post then, got caught in a holding pattern involving site changes), which is pitch-perfect in talking about why, how, and with what expectations performers should undertake the performance of newly composed music. I would add one thing. I would urge new-music performers to look for composers to commission outside the usual roster of composers on the regular chamber-music or orchestra circuit. Many of the best composers are better at composing than they are at networking, and are devoted enough to get their music out that they'll do it by themselves if that's what they're reduced to. That means they may work in some electronic or self-produced idiom which you mistakenly think is all they're interested in, or talented for. You may think they're not really chamber music composers, or couldn't write for piano trio, or something, and you might often be entirely wrong. For instance, no classical chamber group would commission Glenn Branca, right?, since he only writes for electric guitar ensembles - except that Glenn's string quartet is one of his best works, and one of the most beautiful essays in that genre of the last 25 years. (No recording of it exists that I know of, unfortunately, but I once heard it live and reviewed it.) And Carl Stone is an electronic composer, he wouldn't know how to write an acoustic piece - except that the piano pieces Sarah Cahill has commissioned from him are absolutely charming.

Kozinn is exactly right that a new piece needs to get played publicly and played well, and considered for awhile, before we can decide whether it's a keeper. Similarly, composers who show brilliant imagination in one medium need opportunities to branch out into others, and shouldn't be bypassed based on some superficial canard about "proven track record" in a given medium. You might occasionally draw a clunker, just as you can with any Pulitzer prize winner, and it's a risk you have to take. But a composer who's spent his life in solo performance or electronics because it was the only route available might turn out to have a couple of gorgeous string quartets inside him (Ingram Marshall is a classic example).

In an unrelated bit of news, I note that Postclassic remains number 6 on the ranking of classical music blogs. I've been passed up by Nico Muhly as the top single-composer blog. Frankly, I've done so much to reduce and alienate my readership that I'm astonished to still be in the running at all. I rather think of this blog as a book I wrote awhile back that I'm still adding the occasional footnote to - that, and also I've been incredibly overcommitted lately, and am turning down writing jobs left and right. But despite all my most cantankerous efforts, there I remain. Strange indeed.


January 3, 2011 6:04 PM | | Comments (4) |
One of the things I love about Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music is its emphasis on how an evolving public narrative privileges some composers and marginalizes others. For instance, he writes about how when Ligeti came to Darmstadt, because he was Hungarian he had to rewrite (with Erno Lendvai's help) Bartok's reputation from that of a collector of folk music to that of a formalist using golden sections and axis systems. Communist Hungary needed to see Bartok as a champion of he proletariat (Lendvai's decadent-formalist book got him fired from Budapest Conservatory), but at 1950s Darmstadt, a quoter of folk music would have been merely pitiable. Ligeti needed to refurbish Bartok's narrative in order to polish up his own legacy, even to make it palatable. Over and over Taruskin shows how the narrative, created piece-by-piece by composers and musicologists and writers and savants, takes on a life of its own. Phenomena consonant with the narrative enter public consciousness; those that dissonate, no matter how valuable in their own right, fall by the wayside. 

I've finally gotten around to buying and reading Howard Pollack's book on John Alden Carpenter, which I'd fondled in bookstores for years. It's a succinct, engaging, curiosity-satisfying piece of scholarship. Curiously heavy on the critical reception of Carpenter - so much so, in fact, that he spends considerable space on a 1986 review I wrote for Fanfare magazine of Carpenter's piano music. Carpenter is a composer whose tragedy was to watch his reputation soar and then to plummet in later life, to the point of becoming almost a figure of fun to younger composers. 

Yet Carpenter remains a famous name. When I was young, he was one of the first "modern" composers I heard of. And what pieces did I read about? Skyscrapers and Krazy Kat. Why? Because Carpenter lived in Chicago in the jazzy 1920s. He was part of the age of skyscrapers and newspaper comics and heavy machinery, and his music betokened the point at which exploding urbanization still seemed sexy. Skyscrapers and Krazy Kat fit his narrative. He also wrote a tone poem called Sea Drift that Pollack and others consider a better piece. But Sea Drift? Number one, Chicago is a long way from any sea. Two, that's a Walt Whitman reference, and Whitman was an East-Coaster, and besides, Sea Drift is Vaughan Williams and Delius territory, part of the maudlin British transatlantic experience, not material for the jazzy and urbane Carpenter, wealthy heir to a manufacturing fortune. Sea Drift may be a better-written piece than Krazy Kat (not so I'm convinced of that, actually), but it had never entered my consciousness, even though I've had the Abany Symphony recording since it was on vinyl. It didn't fit my narrative of Carpenter. The fact that he wrote a sentimental tone poem on Whitman is a cognitive dissonance with my image of him, magnum opus notwithstanding. 

(For the record, and before I get to my main point, going deeper into Carpenters's music has convinced me that he is rather woefully underrecognized. He never should have written that damn Perambulator piece, it trivialized his reputation. It's true that even his symphonies have a kind of unfocused, balletic quality that sounds like film music today, but the music is always graceful and "debonair" - to repeat the aptest term it habitually elicited. And fairly often, as particularly in his 1927 String Quartet, it achieves an enchanting vigor and rhythmic surprise. Look up that string quartet, it's a forgotten classic.)

To be absorbed into the public dialogue requires a narrative. To not project a narrative is to have no career at all. Only a few dozen musicians, or if you're lucky a few hundred, will ever take a close enough look to see what you've actually accomplished. The rest of the musical public will inevitably receive a caricature of you, because that's all they have time or attention or insight for. That's the veil of Maya, of illusion, the conventional wisdom that we can look down our nose at but whose influence we can never escape. The public can take in Carpenter = Krazy Kat because it makes sense, but Krazy Kat plus Sea Drift is too complex, too nuanced, for even the peripheral imagination of a scholar like myself, and only now have I gotten around to more than a peripheral look. I ignored Sea Drift as an almost painful reality, because it took some effort to factor into the image of a composer I didn't yet have the incentive to focus on. 

Common sense and self-interest would dictate that composers would play to their narrative, but most of us shrink from it in disdain. Take me. I've made a big deal about microtonality, and I find myself almost universally described as a microtonal composer, even though some 2/3 to 3/4 of my output so far is in the good old 12-tone scale. Custer and Sitting Bull is probably my best-known piece, or the piece with which I'm most associated. And for good reason - it combines microtonality with my Texas roots and my interest in American Indian music. It fuses well with my bull-in-a-china-shop personality, my 6'2" stature, and my southern accent. Were I a short, Jewish New Yorker, this piece would never have gotten off the ground. Had I been attentive to my narrative, I would have followed it up with, say, a microtonal opera about Jesse James, or a song cycle on the letters of Calamity Jane (which Ben Johnston actually beat me to). I could have become the "microtonal wild-west-history composer." Instead, I wrote a chamber quartet called Kierkegaard, Walking, with 12 pitches to the octave. I think it's one of my best works. But what was I, a Texan transplanted to New York, doing having a fascination with Kierkegaard? How much of my life has taken place in Denmark? Four days. Kierkegaard, Walking may be my Sea Drift, a piece so incongruent with my image, my narrative, that no one wants to notice it. In fact, my personal image includes an affection for 19th-century writers, including Emerson, Kierkegaard, Thoreau, Jones Very, and even Custer (as memoirist) and Sitting Bull (as orator). But that's both a little complex for a narrative and not terribly distinctive in terms of distinguishing me from other composers. 

We can all name a few composers who do seem to assiduously sculpt their narrative. I recently had a chance to examine the scores of Steve Reich's Sextet and Double Sextet, and nearly slapped my forehead when I saw how similar, how identical in notation and gesture, they are to Six Pianos, Music for 18 Musicians, and all those much older other pieces. I had the presumably common thought that I could write my own Steve Reich piece at this point, and hardly needed Reich to do it for me. He's been unbendingly faithful to his brand. He sells a ton of records because he's predictable - or the kinder word would be reliable. 

The vast majority of us, I think, resist this. We don't want to be "pigeonholed" (an overused word, and what does it mean?). We want to show off our range, our versatility. I wrote once that Bill Duckworth was the Schumann-like modern master of multi-movement form, and his next piece was Blue Rhythm, in one extended movement. I noticed publicly that Joan Tower uses the motive of a minor third expanding to a major third in virtually every piece, and in her next work, the Third Quartet, that figure was conspicuously absent. Most of us are embarrassed at being caught repeating ourselves, even in our virtues. We want to prove we can master both collages and drone pieces, adagios and scherzos, tonality and atonality. Or else we simply get bored replicating earlier achievements, and having done one kind of thing well, now want to succeed at another. Or we fancy ourselves above the usual forces of history, fancy that the inherent power of our art will break through the veil of illusion and move listeners in no matter what genre, in pursuit of no matter what subject matter. This might have been more likely 200 years ago when the competition was less voluminous. Yet even so, there are Beethoven works, like his early choral music and those Irish folk songs he was so painfully proud of, that we can't bear to look in the face. Even Beethoven has his Sea Drifts

To so reflexively resist the call of the narrative seems, actually, counter-productive in a career sense, almost self-destructive. Poor Carpenter, had he not wanted to slide out of the scene, should doubtless have followed up Krazy Kat and Skyscrapers with a Machine Symphony, a ballet called Streetcar, a tone poem about Wall Street. Having cornered a certain market, he should have churned out more of what the public believed he could do best. Instead, he wanted to prove his soulful, Brahmsian earnestness with a respectable Piano Quintet and a Violin Concerto (which, amazingly, seems never to have been recorded, and Pollack makes it sound intriguing). As a result he slid into semi-oblivion. We composers, we are all John Alden Carpenters, and, however much prized by specialists, will enter public consciousness only, if at all, through the narrow tunnel of the available narratives, which are only partly susceptible to our own shaping. And so, with the loftiest intentions, we embrace obscurity rather than be so confined and only incompletely understood. It's peculiar.

And with that thought, merry Christmas.

December 24, 2010 11:41 AM | | Comments (15) |
OK, you really do have to watch the video of Cage Against the Machine recording 4'33". Its good-natured absurdity would have made a joyful climax to my book, had I not already finished it.

December 20, 2010 11:30 AM | | Comments (2) |
The semester is over, and so is my 12-tone analysis class, which made me work harder than any class I've ever taught. I added about 18 works to my analytical repertoire, including behemoths like Mantra, Sinfonia, Le Marteau, and Threni. Even having analyzed most of the music over the summer, I still spent most weekends checking rows and poring over dense JSTOR articles. And aside from me having wanted to learn all that stuff anyway, it was a continually rewarding class. I especially enjoyed showing the row matrix from Ben Johnston's String Quartet No. 6, with a row consisting of six harmonics of D- plus six undertones of D#, comprising, if I counted right, 69 63 61 different pitches in his Just-Intonation notation:


That 11th pitch in the third row, by the way, is called F-double-sharp-down-arrow-upside-down-seven-plus. It's the 77th subharmonic of the perfect fifth above D#. But you knew that.

Babbitt was really fun to teach (which explains, I guess, why so many theory professors teach him). I demonstrated how there are 16 ways to make a rhythmic pattern within a half-note using only eighth-notes, and then showed how Babbitt assembled those 16 possibilities into a rhythmic row that covers the first eight measures of his jazz band piece All Set and then reappears elsewhere in the work, now augmented, now in the percussion - and I heard a voice major, who'd had no prior interest in 12-tone music and was only taking the class to get a theory credit, whisper under her breath, "That's incredible!" She ended up doing a final paper on Babbitt's Du, which I took as one of those rare personal triumphs a professor gets only every few years. Still, overall the students remained a little dubious about the whole 12-tone thing, which is good - interested, curious, but only intermittently convinced. The last day I played, following the scores, some pieces I love without analyzing them, including Maderna's Aura, Zimmermann's Monologe, Ligeti's Monument-Selbstportrait-Bewegung, and Xenakis's Mists, to show them where 12-tone music had led in Europe. The most recent work I played was Mikel Rouse's Quick Thrust (1983) for rock quartet which uses only one form of the row amid elegantly serialized rhythms. In playing Le Marteau I noted that my birth was historically closer to Rhapsody in Blue than the students' was to Le Marteau. The 12-tone era is now just another historical period, to which we could bring a historical perspective, and I taught it that way. The music was too old and too ensconced to engender the slightest controversy, and too distant to embody any mandate for the present. It is what it was, only now immune to partisanship in either direction.

The biggest problem was finding good examples of 12-tone analysis to serve as models. Most of the books and articles are written as though to exclude outsiders from a secret club. If you don't already understand, you can't read them. Especially irritating are the digressions into meta-analytical issues, meant to create some kind of general 12-tone theory rather than to address the piece at hand. For instance, is it ever necessary to launch into a discussion of first-, second-, third-, and fourth-order combinatoriality? Sure it determines what rows are available to combine polyphonically, but who gives a shit? The best article I found by far was Richard Toop's analysis of Mantra in his "Lectures on Stockhausen" - perhaps because they were lectures rather than articles, he was the only writer who seemed to really care that his readers got drawn into the analysis, and truly understood. As I've said before, I used the Osgood-Smith book on Sinfonia, which was thorough if indifferently lucid, and Wayne Wentzel's "Dynamic and Attack Associations in Boulez's Le marteau" (Perspectives) went a long way toward clarifying Lev Koblyakov's impenetrable Boulez book, possibly the worst-written music book in history. I regretted throwing in the towel on Sessions's Third Sonata, but I asked George Tsontakis, a Sessions protégé, and he said, "Oh, don't analyze that piece, it's like two pieces happening at once"; and the published analyses were little help. 

Most of all, the class meant to me - and this conditioned what it meant to them - a chance to go back through a repertoire that had seemed numinous when I was a teenager. That's the music I loved before minimalism came along and seduced me away, seeming fresher and more full of possibility. I remember clearly what it sounded like in 1971, and I needed to find out how I'd react to it now. I was bringing up demons from my youth to exorcise, and I hope I didn't often sound like Captain Ahab chasing his personal white whale. But I was told that some appreciated learning that repertoire from someone who didn't insist that they pledge allegiance to it. Now that I've gone through all that analysis and kept records of it, I may well teach it again someday.

December 17, 2010 5:54 PM | | Comments (11) |
For hundreds of years people believed that water contracts when it freezes. Why? Because Aristotle said so, and Aristotle was an unimpeachable authority. During hundreds of winters someone could have learned the truth and refuted the great man by leaving a bottle of water outside on a frosty night, but the force of authority overruled experience.

Wikipedia operates by the same medieval principle. When I was researching Stockhausen's Mantra for my 12-tone class, I finally turned in some desperation to the Wikipedia page on the piece. It contains some true statements, but it says that there are 13 sections in the piece, the beginning of each one marked by a stroke on the crotales (antique cymbals) outlining the 13-tone row on which the piece is based. This statement is apparently based on Stockhausen replying "Exactly" to an interviewer who asked him if this was the case. But if you start looking at Mantra, the first thing you notice is that the crotales go through the row not once but twice, the second time in inversion, and so (since the rows are linked by one note) there are actually 25 crotales gestures in the course of the piece (or really 23, since in each row two of the notes are combined in quick alternation). This misinformation had cost me some waste of time, so I wrote correcting the error on the article's talk page. No matter: since Stockhausen said "Exactly," the statement must stand. I was told: "we can't just go filling up the article with 'facts' that we 'know to be true.'" For me to count the crotales strokes was "original research," and violated the Wikipedia principle, "Who ya gonna believe, us or your lying eyes?" (For the record, I am now aware that Richard Toop's "Lectures on Stockhausen" contains a different explanation of the crotales strokes that fits the phenomena.)

I'm reminded of years ago when I taught a graduate 20th-century analysis class at Columbia, and brought in an electric keyboard to demonstrate Harry Partch's 43-tone scale. Some Great White Hope who's now probably teaching set theory analysis somewhere raised his hand and asked, "Have there been any studies done to see whether we can actually perceive these intervals?" I played a sequence of them for him and said, "Can you hear this one? Can you hear this one? Can you hear this one? What do you need to read a study for?"

December 16, 2010 8:07 AM | | Comments (7) |
I suppose that people will keep e-mailing me until I acknowledge the "Cage Against the Machine" campaign in England, whereby musicians are trying to make a recording of 4'33" the hit single at Christmas time in order to irritate or otherwise inconvenience someone named Simon Cowell. I admire the wordplay, and am just hip enough to get the reference. On the chance that it might positively affect sales of my book, I hope they succeed. I presume Simon is no descendant of Henry. Otherwise, this falls into the same category as all the incessant Facebook demands that I "like" something, or that a photo of me had been "tagged" (and if I take the bait and click on the link, no photo ever seems forthcoming). It's a little over my head, and I suspect that raising my head will involve me in some distraction from things I'd rather be doing. Best of luck to all well-intended parties.

December 16, 2010 7:47 AM | | Comments (3) |
This Thursday, December 9, at 7 PM, I'll be giving a talk, "The Silences of John Cage," based on my 4'33" book, at the Unsound Lounge, presented by the Goethe Institute, 5 East 3rd St. between Bowery and 2nd Ave. in New York City. Hope to see some of you there. 

December 6, 2010 10:54 AM | | Comments (5) |
I had an interesting conversation with composer John Halle at a party last night. We were talking about how difficult it is to get information from books and articles about how certain serialist works were written. In European writings on the subject, and certain American academic writings as well, we agreed, it seems to be almost bad taste to state flatly how the rows are derived, what the rhythmic processes are, how the music is actually written. One is expected to know such matters but be coy in expressing them, and to talk more about the implications of the process than the process itself. Personally, I am far more pragmatic: in my book on Nancarrow I gave as much information as I could ferret out about how the pieces were written, exposing every process to public scrutiny. And I was told by a third party that György Ligeti considered my Nancarrow book "too American." Lately I've been trying to get information, for my 12-tone class, about how Stockhausen mapped the row of Mantra onto various "synthetic" scales, and all I find is a quote from Stockhausen about how he dislikes explanation because it "takes away the mystery." Well, taking away the mystery is precisely what I'm trying to do, to empower my young composers and show them that there are no secrets out there that they can't use. Mystery exalts the composer, and raises him above mere mortals, who are left to their own creative devices. Every time I write a microtonal piece I put the scale and the MIDI score on the internet, to make sure I withhold no secrets from those who might be interested. Perhaps it's a foolish career move. But for me the power of the music is in the sound itself, not in the mystification one creates by keeping the generative processes of inscrutable music secret.

I will add that for Berio's Sinfonia I used David Osmond-Smith's Playing on Words: A Guide to  Luciano Berio's Sinfonia. It's a little ponderously written, but ultimately fairly clear, with charts that explain everything that happens in that wonderful piece. Best of all, it identifies every musical quotation in the third movement by measure and instrument. Such forthright accounts for this repertoire are rare. And why? Afraid the hoi polloi might get in on the action?

December 5, 2010 10:36 PM | | Comments (8) |

Sites To See

Postclassic Radio! - Kyle Gann's internet radio station that accompanies the blog; see the playlist at

American Mavericks - the Minnesota Public radio program about American music (scripted by Kyle Gann with Tom Voegeli)

Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar - a cornucopia of music, interviews, information by, with, and on hundreds of intriguing composers who are not the Usual Suspects

Iridian Radio - an intelligently mellow new-music station

New Music Box - the premiere site for keeping up with what American composers are doing and thinking

The Rest Is Noise - The fine blog of critic Alex Ross

William Duckworth's Cathedral - the first interactive web composition and home page of a great postminimalist composer

Mikel Rouse's Home Page - the greatest opera composer of my generation

Eve Beglarian's Home Page - great Downtown composer

Just Intonation Network - a meeting place for people interested in alternative tunings

Erling Wold's Web Site - a fine San Francisco composer of deceptively simple-seeming music, and a model web site

The Dane Rudhyar Archive - the complete site for the music, poetry, painting, and ideas of a greatly underrated composer who became America's greatest astrologer

Utopian Turtletop, John Shaw's thoughtful blog about new music and other issues

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Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
State of the Art
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
The Unanswered Question
Joe Horowitz on music

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
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