main: October 2003 Archives

I've been remiss in blogging this week, but it was out of my hands. I've overcompensated at New Music Box - if you go there you'll find my 17,000-word essay on political music, Making Marx in the Music. But that was mostly written in August. I wish I could say I've been caught up in some wild project that I'll soon tell you about, but truthfully, I've had the familiar academic experience of being up to my neck in committee work. I'm "evaluating" my fellow but untenured professors, and find myself every day now in some new and unfamiliar world. One writes about post-Stonewall strategies for gay self-identification. Another is a leading expert on typologies of citizenship throughout the European Union. Another wrote an enlightening article about "Stereoselective oxidative addition of methyl iodide to chiral cyclometallated platinum(II) compounds derived from (R)-(+)-1-(1-naphthylethylamine)." At least I assume it enlightened someone - I can only deal with such texts by reading them for word rhythm, and imagining how they'd sound set to music.

I'm a conservatory product of the ultraliberal, no-course-requirements 1970s, and I can't say I had a very broad education. I took almost as much philosophy as music, several dead languages, one poetry class (which, like the languages, was mainly for finding texts to compose music to), and fencing. That's it. My last science class was in 11th grade in 1971 - I think the periodic table was up to aluminum - and from hearing too many lousy pieces of new music based on scientific models, I've developed a possibly unfortunate bias that science has nothing to offer art. As I walked across the stage with my doctoral diploma in 1983, postmodernism, deconstructionism, and structuralism were just getting off the boat at Ellis Island, with unsuspected plans to invade. So I've had a lot of opportunity this week, recalling the Thoreavian motto with which I began this blog, to "remember well my ignorance, which my growth requires." But mostly I've thought, "Gee, these guys get to teach all this neat, complicated, real-life stuff, and I spend my days explaining the dominant seventh chord."

I'm sure my colleagues have their own gripes - the chemistry prof must smack his forehead every time a sophomore forgets the valence of radium, and the poli sci prof may get tired of pointing out that Slovakia and Romania don't share a border (or do they? and when did Slovakia get on the map?). But people expect chemistry to be difficult and dry, and are sometimes delighted when it's more fun than they realized. Music is in the nearly unique dilemma of being a "sexy," hip, creative, fun-sounding course of study that, when you start to examine it, turns out to be a mass of numbers and precise terms. "I feel like I need to bring a calculator to this class," whined one freshman in Fundamentals of Music. I hear myself tell the class about a "six, five-six-of-five, five-four-two, one-six progression with a chromatic neighbor note," and think to myself, "who invented this idiot system, anyway?" Actually, I've been know to say it out loud. How can something as soulfully emotional as music demand such intricate number systems? And the necessity and slowness of imparting such complicated basics prevents us from teaching music as a humanistic discipline, related to other collegiate subjects, as often as we'd like.

It would feel so collegiate to teach symphonic narratives the way lit profs do novels, and offer thematic courses with titles like "Images of 'The Other' in Instrumental Music from Haydn to Steve Reich." Certainly lots of musicologists at larger institutions started doing such things in the 1980s, under pressure to keep pace with the other interpretive disciplines. But for music majors, understanding the details of, say, gamelan influence on Debussy requires some solid foundation in the theoretical basics, and the pressure we feel to turn out technically equipped young musicians leaves us with little time to reflect on what music tells the world about itself. I did have the opportunity, this morning, to let freshmen figure out, with guidance but somewhat on their own, what the correct chords are for the Beatles' song "Yesterday," and it did seem to elicit in some a sudden epiphany that "one, seven-seven-half-diminished, five-seven-of-six, six" packs a certain kind of emotional wallop capable of thrilling the world (and earning the number-cruncher a shitload of money). How long before all those wacky numbers recede into their subconscious where they belong? In time for graduation? In time for me to enjoy the resulting philosophical insights?

Of course, I do also get to teach pitch-set analysis of The Rite of Spring, tempo charts of Nancarrow and Stockhausen, and even (thanks to being at a highly liberal institution where faculty judgment is given free rein) a very popular course in microtonality. As my friends and I often note, it's a lot easier to teach the advanced stuff than the basics, and twelve-tone technique isn't nearly as mysterious or hard to convey as the more necessary dominant seventh. But in 1875, John Knowles Paine convinced Harvard to hire him as America's first professor of music, over the objections of faculty members who protested that music wasn't a proper area of university study. And I have had many opportunities, over the years, to reflect that Paine might have been wrong, and the protesting Harvard faculty just might have been right.

October 31, 2003 8:50 PM | |

Is it really necessary for a string quartet to be six hours long? Of course not - it would be an easy matter for someone to take a pair of scissors to Morton Feldman's String Quartet No. 2 and cut it down to a far more efficient, concise, nonredundant piece of three hours or less. But one of the points Feldman made with his usual breathtaking eloquence is that art is one of those areas of human life in which efficiency is not an asset. As author John Ralston Saul has argued, efficiency is not a good thing in itself, but something we should apply only to aspects of life we don't care about. It's the opposite of love. We want our garbage taken out efficiently, we want our driver's license renewed efficiently, but someone who advocated efficient child-rearing - eliciting maximum good behavior in return for a minimum of parental attention - would be a heartless brute. Likewise, it would be brutish to want efficiency in our artistic experience, and Feldman's panoramic quartet is a celebration of inefficiency, of what art could become had we only world enough and time.

Just in case you've missed out on the last 25 years of contemporary music - and I could hardly blame you, so little attention is drawn to it - Morton Feldman was the greatest composer of the late 20th century. Or at least he looks that way. More significant than the accuracy or prematurity of the assessment is the fact that a remarkable percentage of young composers would concur with it. In the current Babel of musical styles, Feldman is almost the only composer (another might be Nancarrow, whose mechanical methods of writing for player piano, however, have not been as widely assimilated) whose music appeals across stylistic boundaries, among minimalists, postserialists, 12-tone holdouts, electronic composers, academics, Downtowners, MAX programmers, DJ artists, and other miscellaneous wastrels. His cross-cultural appeal comes from the fact that he created a postmodern sense of form - long, slow musical continua played in uniformly quiet dynamics - while holding onto the basic modernist pitch vocabulary of dissonant intervals. In other words, he deftly sidestepped the crisis of ever-increasing modernist complexity without giving in to what was seen as the vapid anti-intellectualism of minimalist consonance and tonality. Even more than that, by writing in his late years works of a continuous 90 minutes, three hours, four hours, even six hours in length, he reclaimed for the disspirited modern composer a sustainable measure of magnificent ambition, a pride in occupying an audience's time. Quietly but vehemently he asserted for all of us that new music is worth sitting still for, practicalities be damned. In addition to which, as his friend John Cage said, his music is "almost too beautiful."

The Second Quartet, dating from 1983, is a vast musical quilt of recurring sonic objects - ostinatos (repeating melodic snippets) of four chromatic notes over and over; brief, returning atonal melodies; rotating progressions of three chords with a waltz-like feel; Webernesqe motives that cancel each other out in quiet arguments; quick, rustling pizzicato textures; even one extended moment of jazzy syncopation. The work was given a truncated, hurried runthrough by the Kronos Quartet at New Music America in Miami in 1988 (the full piece was beyond their physical stamina), but received its real full-scale premiere in recent years from Manhattan's fearless Flux Quartet, who were brought back to recap the achievement in Zankel Hall October 25 as part of the festival "When Morty Met John" (as in Feldman and Cage). The instantaneous standing ovation and outburst of bravos that greeted the Flux players after six hours of pianissimo intensity was as rousing a recognition of heroism as I've ever heard at a concert. Violinists Tom Chiu and Jesse Mills, violist Max Mandel, and cellist Dave Eggar played from 6:12 to 12:05 without any but the most momentary break, yet if they were any more tired during the last hour than during the first there was no audible sign of it, just an occasional neck or shoulder stretch. Hour after hour they played harmonies and little fragments of counterpoint in exact rhythmic unison, as with one heart, and with the extraordinarily sustained tension that Feldman's music requires. Through this and other recent feats, the Flux - if they can only keep their personnel together - have proved themselves an American Arditti Quartet: not as hip, pop, or vernacular as the quartet Ethel, perhaps, but the people you need to bring in when someone's given the quartet repertoire a particularly difficult nut to crack.

A couple years ago I wrote an article about the String Quartet II for the New York Times - about the best thing I've ever written for them, I think - which can be found here (for a small charge via Qpass), and I refer the reader to that for a fuller description of the piece. (Also, Chris Villars maintains a fantastically helpful Morton Feldman home page, including a list of works that as far as I know isn't published elsewhere.) What interests me more today, finally having heard the Second Quartet live, is the strange social situation of being psychically trapped in a hall with dozens of other audience members and a six-hour sonic boa constrictor. Before beginning, cellist Eggar invited the audience to move around, and even to come up onstage and occupy the rugs and extra chairs that had been provided. When he was done, an audience member shouted "Good luck!," and Eggar responded, "Good luck to you too. You have to work as hard as we do, or it isn't fair." There were those (besides the quartet, I mean) who sat in one place for the whole 353 minutes, but most seemed to enjoy the freedom to move, and as soon as someone left a position on those rugs, it was quickly filled again. I doubt that anyone scoped out more acoustic vantage points than Times critic John Rockwell, who's had a long history with the piece (he tried to bring the Kronos to play it at Lincoln Center, and they reneged), and who checked out Zankel Hall from every angle. Me, I value comfort over acoustics, and I moved only once, to a side seat that offered leg room.

You enter into any concert with some expectation of when you'll be getting up again, but there's a special kind of crisis in knowing that the music is going to last six hours, nonstop. Such music mandates more informality than the general classical concert: the fact that I could have laid down was comforting, even if I didn't avail myself of it. At any given moment a few audience members were in motion, but everyone was as quiet and reverent as a room of typically clumsy homo sapiens could possibly be. For me the most difficult point was around 8 PM, the point at which a normal concert would have ended. I took a restroom break, and a longer one around 9:45. At 9 I counted the audience members: there were 149, not counting the people I couldn't see in the balcony above me, in a hall that seated (I was told) 750. That was a slightly smaller crowd than we had started with, I think, though in the evening's final two hours it appeared to me that we didn't lose a soul. Everyone in that hall knew what they had come for, and even for the one or two people who read the Times and Village Voice while listening, staying to the end was patently a badge of honor. (Not at all like the New York premiere of the hour-long Feldman First Quartet in 1979, which, according to Sandow's Voice review, lost much of its audience.) I really wasn't bothered by Zankel Hall's soft rumble of subway trains that's been so widely written about - I'm used to that from lots of New York venues - but there was one bad, long moment in which a booming bass line from the Emmylou Harris concert upstairs imposed a tonality on Feldman's texture that he never intended. I like Emmylou Harris as much as anyone (that's a bald-faced lie, actually), but "no C&W during Feldman festivals" might be a sane policy for Carnegie to pursue.

By 10:30 something interesting had definitely happened to the audience. Fidgeting stopped, and focus had palpably increased. Sleepiness was very little in evidence; my only bout with it came in the first half-hour, I having just finished dinner. In that last 90 minutes the audience was reduced, or elevated, to a kind of religious awe, or freed from the usual need for action, as if resigned to some fate. Musical ideas repeated, but there was no way to keep track of chronology. Was that melody one from the beginning ot the work, or had it only occurred a few moments ago? Like walking though a vast, undulating prairie landscape, we had only the vaguest and contradictory notion about where we were - until about 11:55, when suddenly the music switched to quiet chords that had an indistinct air of finality about them. Intermittent silences grew longer, and finally one arrived that seemed endless, until we broke it with a fortississimo of applause.

Unlike Feldman's music for piano, percussion, voices, and other things (For Philip Guston, Three Voices, Triadic Memories, Palais de Mari, Why Patterns?, Crippled Symmetry), his music for string quartet isn't pretty - it's grainy, rough, scratchy with harmonics and occasionally even harsh. It's phenomenal how little his conception of string quartet changed over a lifetime: so many passages in String Quartet II echo images from Structures, the repetitive little quartet he wrote in 1951 and which establishes his claim as a precursor of the minimalists. There are early passages in SQII that just wave back and forth on a whole-step for many seconds at a time, and several times in the first couple of hours I couldn't concentrate well, and started wondering what I was doing trapped in Zankel Hall on a lovely, crisp evening. But by that final two hours I was, however, not exactly caught up in the music, but surrounded by it, subdued by it, quelled. If I could have the magical experience of that final two hours without going through the first four, I would, but how would that be possible? The music's effect is cumulative, creeping into your soul as it hardly deigns to notice you exist. And by the time those final chords come, filling you with an unexpected panic that the music is about to end, the sonic images you remember have become - almost too beautiful... almost too beautiful.

October 26, 2003 8:35 PM | |

With reference to my blog entry about composers writing specifically for recordings:

Art Jarvinen - a crazily creative Los Angeles composer whose music you would do well to check out - tells me about a late friend of his, Michael McCandless, who was part of a group of young composers at SUNY Buffalo who were writing pieces longer than 90 mintutes each. The reason was, not to imitate Morton Feldman as one might assume, but explicitly because 90 minutes couldn't fit on a CD. It was their way, Jarvinen attests, of rejecting the commodification of music-as-CD, and insisting on the live experience. Jarvinen himself has a 24-hour piano piece (though he is releasing a one-disc version of it).

I can believe it. Anti-commercialism is a little-acknowledged motivation running through certain strands of music of the last 50 years. This was one not-too-widely-trumpeted impetus behind serialist music of the 1950s, or so Adorno fervently believed and Boulez seemed to confirm. Boulez championed a music so complex, so devoid of redundancy, that it defeated any attempt to hold on to it in memory, and Adorno took this as a rejection of the commercialisation, the "fetishism" of classical music, that had so vastly increased with the advent of recordings and piped-in background music. One aim of all that massive serialist complexity was to create a music that bourgeois music-lovers couldn't smugly listen to on their home stereos the way they did Tchaikovsky. By 1955 (!), however, Adorno was already complaining that serialists had turned their back on this purity and were writing "masterpieces" ready for the culture museum.

The attitude persists in Downtown Manhattan today. Many composers resist labels and categorization of their music as a "cheap marketing ploy" - with the implication that wrapping up one's music for public consumption is in itself a bad thing. We complain about the lack of commercial success for contemporary music, but a large swath of contemporary music has always pushed public success away with both hands - and in that respect, has been phenomenally successful.

October 24, 2003 7:07 PM | |

As somehow who knows how difficult it is to balance the conflicting roles of artist and scholar, I've long thought of Charles Rosen as a hero and a model. He's not a favorite pianist of my pianist friends, but for me the structural sense he brings to Bach and Beethoven etches their works in granite, rendering his powerful interpretations indelible - I don't share the common opinion that he is scholar first, artist second. As scholar, I've always admired his refusal to rely on second-hand information, his relentless efforts to scour an entire repertoire, no matter how obscure, to back up his irrefutable pronouncements.

That makes it feel all the more like a betrayal, then, that he can be so casually mendacious when it comes to the 20th century. In the penultimate chapter of Piano Notes he goes through the history of composing for piano and, brilliantly as usual, details the contributions of each composer who had an impact on piano technique: Beethoven, Chopin, Schuman, Liszt, Debussy. But then, when he gets to American music, aside from his predictable paean to Elliott Carter, he sums up the entire field in these words:

[Speaking of the 1920s, after discussing Bartok and Stravinsky:] The experiments with clusters and polytonal effects by Charles Ives's music for piano began to be obscurely known in these years, but found real understanding only later. The new ideas in the use of tone color on the piano developed by Olivier Messiaen in the 1930s remained hidden from the general public until the early 1950s. By that time, several composers, John Cage in particular [italics mine], had experimented with prepared pianos, placing different kinds of material on the strings of the piano to make unusual sounds. These experiments have not survived very well, nor did the novel technique of requiring the pianist to stand up and reach into the piano to strum the strings have much of a future. As I have remarked, it is significant that no purely mechanical attempts to make the sound of a piano more varied and more picturesque have survived except for the soft pedal.

At the end of the 1940s, however, the sonatas of Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, and Samuel Barber once again called for the sonority of the grand piano. Composers began to invent novel contributions to piano technique, principally Pierre Boulez and Karl-Heinz [sic] Stockhausen....

Excuse me? Let's start with a name conspicuous in its absence, the name famous in the 1920s for having introduced more novel ways to play a piano than anyone since, arguably, Franz Liszt: Henry Cowell. Cowell's kaleidoscopic array of tone cluster types - with the fist, with the forearm, with the fingers, all black keys, all white keys, all chromatic, sometimes with a top note brought out melodically, sometimes accompanying a left-hand melody in parallel - are mentioned only once, early in the book, lumped as "Cowell's tone clusters" into a list of percussive effects (not all clusters are percussive), and then utterly ignored in this detailed resume of piano technique. Cowell's equally colorful variety of inside-the-piano effects (muting, plucking, harmonics, lengthwise stroking) are anonymously dismissed as "strumming," something that "doesn't have much of a future" (no matter how many composers have imitated it since, most notably George Crumb, Stefan Wolpe, Annea Lockwood, and Frederic Rzewski). Cowell's cluster notation alone has become universal, changing the very look of piano music. No less a figure than Bartok wrote to Cowell to ask permission to use tone clusters.

Then let's take that glib reference to Charles Ives: it seems to promise that more will be said, but the name never reappears; the Concord Sonata gained national fame in 1939 and was recorded in the 1940s, but Rosen hasn't yet had time to assimilate the achievement (despite waxing eloquent for pages about how every pianist should acquaint themselves with the entire repertoire). First, Ives anticipated Cowell in not only the wild effect of playing with fists, but also in using a felt-covered stick of wood to delicately press down a couple dozen keys at once to let the overtones swirl around. Then - to do for Ives what Rosen does for Chopin and Schumann - there's the Ivesian mega-chord, so humongous and polytonal that it feels slapped onto the piano in a frantic arpeggio; the use of quiet dissonant "overtones" above fortissimo chords; the use of contrasted dynamics to distinguish different layers of music played at the same time; and the practice of different layers of music at different tempos. Rosen credits these latter two innovations to Elliott Carter, someone who - surprise! - spent his impressionable years visiting Charles Ives and becoming more familiar with Ives's innovations than just about anyone of his generation. Of course, Carter has notoriously done his best to smash Ives's reputation as an innovator, and his friend Rosen is happy to help out. (Rosen also calls Carter "perhaps the only major composer of his time who has never written a single twelve-tone piece." But neither did Conlon Nancarrow or Henry Brant - and "perhaps" they're major composers, too.)

And while one might conceivably write off Cowell and Ives off as isolated cases, there were similar effects being paraded by Leo Ornstein, George Antheil, and, to a lesser extent, Dane Rudhyar. What we're discussing is the new pianistic techniques of an entire American generation, and one whose work has remained continuously influential.

And then there are those "several composers" who used prepared piano, John Cage in particular. Forget that the story of Cage's invention of the prepared piano in 1940 to accompany a dance at the Cornish Institute, where he didn't have room for a percussion orchestra, is well known and widely printed. The experiment "hasn't survived very well," of course, despite the fact that currently lists 17 full or partial recordings of Cage's Sonatas and Interludes (as opposed to only 8 recordings of any of the precious Boulez Sonatas), in addition to the recordings now out of print, in addition to all the myriad recordings of Cage's other works for prepared piano, in addition to works for prepared piano by other composers, including most recently John Adams. Is Rosen even aware of the choreographic piano technique required by Cage's Etudes Australes? I have to doubt it. And how about all the new pianistic discoveries of John Adams, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Frederic Rzewski, all of whom have written works now considerable as standard rep, let alone what's become possible when one retunes a piano, as Ben Johnston and La Monte Young have proved? (I won't even go into the expansions of piano technique and sonority spearheaded by Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans; since they weren't writing scores for other pianists to perform, Rosen can justifiably consider them outside his territory, but an admission of deficient familiarity would have been gracious.)

Coming from some Rachmaninoff-playing piano hack at a third-rate college, I'd shrug this off as regrettable ignorance, but Rosen is famous for backing up his sweeping generalizations with encyclopedic experience. Yet he leapfrogs over Ives, Cowell, Antheil, Ornstein, Cage, and others to nuzzle up to Boulez and Carter, friends of his whose music he's played, and who in his universe appear to have written the only worthwhile music to really, I mean really, use the piano in the last 80 years. There are so many ways he could have ameliorated the horrible bias of this impression: admit that American music isn't his thing, that he never got into Ives, that he doesn't enjoy playing Cowell?s Tides of Mananaun or Tiger, that he found Cage bewlidering or a charlatan, that he hasn't studied the 20th century in the same amount of detail as former eras. Instead, he presents his history of piano technique as complete and definitive, off-handedly leaving the Americans out. And why not? His high-falutin', Europhile friends in academia and the classical music world feel the same way he does, and will either not notice the omissions and dismissals, or grin in silent complicity. The truth is, Rosen is one of the most amazing scholars on 18th- and 19th-century European music in the world today - in addition to which he has played a lot of Schoenberg, Boulez, and Carter. But when he pretends to be a 20th-century scholar as well, he signs his name to an elitist lie that consigns many of the best-loved and most influential American composers (the Europhilic Carter always excepted) to the margins of history. As one of the biggest Charles Rosen fans around, I feel I had a right to expect better.

October 21, 2003 9:58 AM | | Comments (0) |

I have an article today in New York Newsday (slightly mis-) titled Rescuing Classical Music, arguing that the emotional rhetoric of 19th-century music may be too distant from the experience of today's young people for them to relate to it - although they still find modernist and minimalist music compelling. It's not where you'd think to look for me - in fact, an editor there asked me to write the op-ed piece based on a response I had written to Sandow in his column at New Music Box, so by bringing it back here I close the circle in a way - me and Greg battling throughout the music journalism world the 12-degree divergence in our viewpoints. Or is it a little larger than that?

The problem with daily papers, of course, is that, even in a generous full-page space like Newsday gave me, something always gets cut. I'm not complaining - my editor presumably knows Newsday's audience infinitely better than I do, and perhaps found some of my points less colorful than I had hoped. Clearly the interest was due to what was seen as a provocative viewpoint on my part. And so a few sentences that I considered crucial were cut from the last three paragraphs, which would have given the piece a perhaps slightly softer landing. Therefore - what's a blog for? - I give the original ending here, with the omitted sentences italicized:

I consider Josquin Des Prez (1440-1521) and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) composers as great as Beethoven, and how often do we hear their music these days? Sadly, the time is bound to come when we hear Beethoven no more often than that. But the fact that young people are abandoning what we call "classical" music reassures us that music is not meaningless, not just a succession of pretty sounds. Pretty sounds remain pretty; meaning grows more distant, more difficult to unravel.

Of course, I'm just speculating. We don't really know why listening patterns change from one generation to the next, but change they do, and this generation's change threatens a system of major cultural institutions. I don't mean to minimize the crisis. But it is a crisis that one could have seen coming long ago, and that many in fact warned about. Classical music should have remained a living, evolving art form, rather than lapse into a lazy repertoire museum. (Jazz organizations, take heed.)

Moreover, the death of "classical music," as defined by the eponymous section at Tower Records, is not the death of music, nor is it even the death of instrumental music, lengthy music, serious music, non-pop music, nor even great music. Music will continue to be an important artform, and perhaps a great tradition will grow in the new sunlight that had been blocked by Beethoven's shade. And this music will speak to us in our own language. In fact, it already is.

October 19, 2003 9:45 AM | |

The alternate tuning world is abuzz with the news that John Adams has gone microtonal. (Well, OK - that means Joe Pehrson put a notice on the tuning@yahoogroups list and a couple of people responded. But there aren't many of us, and we're pretty easy to get buzzed up.) Adams' new orchestral work The Dharma at Big Sur, being premiered October 23 or 24 depending on whether you believe Adams' web page or the Boosey and Hawkes press release (I couldn't find the info listed on the LA Philharmonic site), is reportedly written in a system of pure tuning known as just intonation, with more pitches to the octave and more resonant chords than you'll find on the piano. (If you're curious, I have a crash course in just intonation on my web site.) It's the first large piece opening the new Frank Gehry-designed Disney Center, and the piece features a solo for a six-string violin (the bottom two strings being C and F), played by Tracy Silverman.

For Adams, currently our most successful orchestra composer, to embrace just intonation is sort of like, if Madonna made a political video endorsing Dennis Kucinich - it brings a level of publicity that we long-time advocates couldn't possibly generate on our own. But it raises a lot of questions, too. Just intonation takes some getting used to, and requires a lot of theorizing. How long has Adams been experimenting in this area? Is he simply tuning fifths pure for Pythagorean tuning, or has he ventured up the harmonic series for more exotic overtones? He's certainly been close to the musics of Lou Harrison and Terry Riley, two of the most prominent JI composers, but generally when people are used to only the standard 12 pitches for decades, their first attempt to engage a completely different harmonic system is pretty rickety. From the other side, just intonation harmonies are notoriously difficult for orchestra. Most string players hate having to relinquish the precise left-hand finger positions that they've worked so hard to perfect. Brass players can easily switch to the harmonic series of their instrument as long as that's all they're called on to do, but the more idiosyncratic woodwinds have to deal with all kinds of different fingerings, which can even vary from one clarinet to another. It's why there's very little orchestral music written in JI, more often reserved for adventurous string quartets, retuned pianos and harpsichords, homemade instruments (like Harry Partch's), and tunable synthesizers.

Does Adams know what he's doing? Can the LA Phil pull it off? Will just intonation suddenly become a household word in orchestral circles? Will every hot-shot orchestra composer now write his token, inept JI piece while those of us who've been doing it our entire lives remain on the sidelines? Or - hell, I can be optimistic just for a moment - will this lead to the breakthrough we've been waiting for, and a new era of appreciation for, and experimentation with, all the myriad ways music can be tuned? Adams' music has grown so conservative in recent years that the circles I'm in greet most news of his premieres with yawns, but there will be plenty of extra reason to keep a close ear on this one - not least of which is, that the sonorities of just intonation are really gorgeous, and that's why we make so many ridiculous sacrifices to achieve them.

October 18, 2003 2:12 PM | |

More thoughts on recording from Charles Rosen's Piano Notes:

A record of classical music is supposed to be a reproduction. Like all reproductions it is a substitute for something else, and as a substitute it is thought to be inferior to the real thing, the live performance... However, this view carries with it a number of confusions and some obscure paradoxes.

A record of rock music is not a reproduction, but a creation. The realization of a new sound obtainable only by the machinery of recording is a constant ideal in this form of popular music. We may even say that a rock concert is generally a reproduction of a record, and often an inadequate reproduction at that. There is no aesthetic stigma attached in pop music to the use of multiple tracks, echo chambers, splicing, and all possible engineering sleight of hand....

The classical record, however, aspires to be something it is not: a recital, a concert, or a private intimate live performance. Whatever calculation was necessary to make the record is supposed to be concealed, not flaunted....

It has always struck me as a little odd, a little anachronistic on the part of the late 20th-century composer that an entirely different composing technique never arose for recordings different from that intended for live performance. Henry Cowell urged this in the journal Modern Music as early as 1931: just as he felt the player piano should give birth to a new kind of music that couldn't be played by human hands (in which he was later obliged by Conlon Nancarrow), Cowell also felt that the medium of recording demanded a new kind of music specifically written for it. "A record of a violin tone," he explained, "is not exactly the same as the real violin; a new and beautiful tone quality results."

In the 1960s, there were some attempts to make music specifically for records, sometimes incited by record producers rather than composers. Nonesuch elicited such works from Morton Subotnick, which he called "a kind of chamber music 20th-century style: - Sliver Apples of the Moon (1967), The Wild Bull (1968), Touch (1969), Sidewinder (1971), Four Butterflies (1973), Until Spring (1975), and A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur (1978). Charles Wuorinen wrote an electronic piece for a record, Time's Encomium (1968-9), which won him what I felt was one of the more questionable Pulitzer Prizes. In general, however (and I'll mention some exceptions in a minute), these were experiments that didn't significantly alter the thrust of new composing modes.

In the arena of live-performed music, the music that seemed ready to usher in a new era of "classical" music for recordings (or perhaps that should be postclassical, by definition) was minimalism. Recordings, after all, are rarely listened to straight through with continuous attention. One puts on a CD, answers the door, gets the incoming guest a drink, and returns having missed a moment or two. The early long works of Reich, Riley, and Glass were perfect for this listening mode: they went on for a quarter-hour or more at a time with only gradual changes in texture or harmony, and in concert the audience was even encouraged to come and go. (Of course, Uptown composers and critics find this diffuseness in minimalist music hilariously indicative of feeble-mindedness, because they insist on classical concert listening as the only valid paradigm - but why can't our modes of listening evolve as our technology and social mores do, and why shouldn't new music be written for new modes of listening, just as has always happened through the centuries?) With Reich's Drumming (1974), Glass's Music in Twelve Parts (1975), Riley's Shri Camel (1978), new music had, we thought, entered the era of the perfect record.

The conundrum for me has been how few composers born after the 1930s, no matter how impressed and influenced by the minimalists, have continued that minimalist listening mode. After 1980 the younger generation went right back to writing detailed, intricate works clearly meant for the concert hall and only indifferently transferable to record. It's as true of me as anyone else. Bill Duckworth's Time Curve Preludes are lovely pieces, and I enjoy Neely Bruce's recording of them immensely, but the latter feels like a document of a performance, not made for record in the way that, say, Glass's Koyaanisqatsi seems to be. (Duckworth's Cathedral, an ongoing internet composition, is a little different story, but still with emphasis on its live components.) Since the mid-1980s, even Reich (City Life, Proverb), Glass (Symphony No. 5), and Riley (Chanting the Light of Foresight) have pulled back toward reproducing the concert-hall event.

My contemporaries, such as the Common Sense composers (Dan Becker, Belinda Reynolds, Carolyn Yarnell, John Halle, and others), the Bang on a Can composers (Julia Wolfe, David Lang, Michael Gordon, Steve Martland, Evan Ziporyn), the Downtown chamber music composers (Nick Didkovsky, Beth Anderson, Bernadette Speach, Elodie Lauten), are by and large writing concert music, documentable on recordings but not made specifically with that purpose in mind. And that's a peculiar thing given the fact that mine was the generation that grew up with Sgt. Pepper and the first wildly influential pop concept albums. Why did that vinyl sensibility remain ensconced in the popular world and so rarely bleed over into new music? If Cowell could see in 1931 that recordings necessitated a new approach to composition, why, 72 years later, are composers no older than myself still composing as though we're expecting our next gig will be Carnegie Hall?

The exceptions, predictably enough, are mostly electronic. Paul Lansky, I feel, has an exquisite sense for what kind of music to make for a CD - breathy, atmospheric, pieces interestingly interrelated to each other, rich and full of detail, but not structured in a linear way that requires continuous listening. Carl Stone's sampler pieces are a little more linear in structure, but always feel comfortable heard through living-room loudspeakers. Outside that electronic realm, Robert Ashley's magnificent operas will always be, for me, records - so much so that his concert performances of them in recent years at Brooklyn Academy and the Kitchen seem, as Rosen says of rock concerts, like slightly inadequate attempts to reproduce the recording. (Of course, they're meant for video, and lack of funding has prevented us from seeing them in the form Ashley imagined them.) Then again, Ashley is of that Reich-Riley-Glass generation, and in so many ways has out-envisioned composers younger than he is by decades.

Morton Feldman's two- to six-hour works, on the other hand, I find very ambiguous in this regard. As much as I love the recordings of For Philip Guston and the String Quartet No. 2 (each six hours), I find that I don't listen to them as often as I generally intend to. They have the same sense of scale and nonlinearity as minimalism, but in the background they are too disturbing, too intrusively philosophical, and beg to be listened to closely even as they dare you to try. Nevetheless, one could imagine a music similar to Feldman's, being made for the recording medium, as CDs and with little idea of live performance. Is someone out there doing it?

October 17, 2003 2:40 AM | |

On studio recording techniques, from Charles Rosen's Piano Notes:

There used to be a prejudice that music of different styles needed different sorts of resonance - [for instance,] a contemporary piece should have a drier and more acid sound than the standard Romantic works. I experienced the results of this nonsense once with two days of recording for French radio. On the first day I played almost an hour of Schumann, and the quality of the recording seemed reasonable. On the second day, I played Schoenberg's opp. 19 and 25, and listening to the first take I was astonished at the ugly sound, although it was the same studio and the same instrument. "This is the microphone setup for contemporary music," the engineer assured me, but I insisted that the placement of the previous day be restored. I was reminded of Schoenberg's remark, "My music is not modern, just badly played." There was a policy of recording it badly as well....

Hmmm... explains a few things, particularly those harsh early recordings of Webern.

October 14, 2003 1:20 PM | |

Speaking of self-indulgence, which no one has ever accused me of being immune to, one of the perks of this blog is that I can log onto a site that breaks down my readership according to statistics. Don't worry, I don't learn any names, just how many people a day, average visit length (1:22 - lots of speed-readers are also new-music buffs), and how many are on Mindspring, Earthlink, etc. Sometimes I can see when people from certain universities are reading. But the most fun page, I've just found, is a breakdown of my total readership by time zone. 45 percent of my readers so far, it turns out, have been from the time zone which includes the U.S. East Coast, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela. Unfortunately, I can't get much of a sense how many of those are from New York versus how many from Santiago or Bogota. 18 percent seem to be West Coast or western Canada, with another 14 percent from the Midwest and a distinct falling off around the Rockies. Central Europe and Western Africa account for 6 percent - I enjoy a certain vogue in Germany - and a measly 1 percent from the time zone that includes England and France. France, you'll note, is where Pierre Boulez has a lot of influence, so that explains that. More worrisome, I seem to have no appeal to the Icelandic population whatever, have never gotten a hit from the Middle East (didn't quite mean to put it that way), and I am making no inroads at all into that crucial Siberian time zone. But I know I have a friend reading me in Alaska, and I'm not showng any Alaskan hits either. When you click on me, John, give that return button a good thump so it registers.

COMING SOON: The latest new music from Reykjavik!

October 13, 2003 9:17 AM | |

Charles Rosen's Piano Notes, a compendium of everything he's learned about the piano in a lifetime, is a light, self-indulgent book, the kind of book you write at the end of your life when you no longer want to do research but flatter yourself that people still want to hear what you have to say. Luckily, he's brilliant enough, and his knowledge of music encyclopedic enough (up to Boulez, that is, and no further), that enjoying his self-indulgence vicariously is sufficient pleasure. Best point in the first half:

The unthinking, unplanned performance - and this is an incontrovertible fact of modern concert life - is generally far less spontaneous, much more the prisoner of habit, than one that questions the traditional point of view, in which the performer questions his own instincts. The musician who has surrendered his will to tradition has abandoned the possibility of keeping the tradition alive.

October 12, 2003 7:43 PM | |

I was highly gratified by what Nicholas Thompson, the subway-station musician and Washington Times editor, had to say (linked here on Arts Journal) about the failures of the recording industry. In particular, what he said that was relevant to the new music I follow was this:

The music industry tends to divide both bands and audiences into broad, set formats: alt-music, hip-hop, and modern country. There is an obvious reality to these categories, but in truth, they exist largely for the benefit of record companies, which can then narrow and target their promotion efforts. Unfortunately, most bands and artists can't get to first base unless their music fits one of these formats, and there are many other bands and other types of music - like mine - that don't fit into any set genres. Many people's tastes stretch well beyond formats, and they might want to buy some of this music if they heard it. Indeed, it's almost guaranteed that somewhere between these formats, the next big thing in music is brewing. But figuring out how to profitably micro-market heterogeneous bands to scattered audiences is something the music industry has not yet figured out how to do.

Said more concisely here than I've probably said it, this nevertheless overlaps with a general point I'm been making for many years. One of the explicit aims of composers of my generation has been to close up the huge gulf between classical and popular music, to recreate the possibility of music having as much foot-tapping energy as rock, but also the theoretical interest and structural weight of experimental music. The greatest emphasis of musical creativity in the last 20 years has been on working between genres, specifically on work that is not "contemporary music" in the good old classical sense, but that belongs in some third section at Tower Records in between pop and classical.

For instance, William Duckworth's Time Curve Preludes for piano - much of this hour-long work transfers bluegrass patterns to the piano, adding in the piano style of John Lee Hooker, yet also threading in Gregorian chant and Eric Satie quotations in rhythms structured according to the Fibonacci series. This is absolutely enchanting music on first listening, and interesting to analyze, too. I've never played this disc for anyone (Lovely Music, with Neely Bruce on piano) without the person going out and buying it.

Or how about Pamela Z? Her song with the Qube Chix, "Bald Boyfriend" (Ishtar/Dice Records) is pretty strange, three voices with only clarinet, drums, and an electric razor for accompaniment, yet it causes riots of laughter when I play it in classes, and everyone wants a copy:

I want a bald boyfriend!
I want a bald boyfriend!
I want a guy who's well-behaved,
Who's neat and clean, whose head is shaved!
I want a man who's on the move,
Who's charming, smart, whose dome is smoooooth.

But where would you classify it? It's absolutely not commercial pop, but it's thoughtful, funny, smart, and too much fun to stick in the classical music bin, and the same is true of Pamela's music in general.

Or, even more explicitly, Carl Stone's Hop Ken, an electronic piece that samples a recording of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, but repackages it in pounding rock rhythms laced with Celtic folk (EAM Discs).

Or Mikel Rouse's opera Dennis Cleveland (New World). This well-known opera in the form of a talk show, with characters singing and speaking from the audience, revived last year at Lincoln Center, is entirely in a pop beat with pop-style lyrics. Yet the scenes are around 10 minutes each in length, and the form so sophisticated that passages recur superimposed over each other in different tempos and keys at once, without ever becoming unintelligible. At its 1996 premiere, it was the first show at the Kitchen in New York to ever attract scalpers.

I could multiply examples all week; this music is my life. My generation has produced an enormous body of in-between music, inventive in its structures and techniques, but fun and foot-tappingly infectious. And it officially doesn't exist because it's too much trouble for the record companies to invent a new category for it. Which leads to endless speculations for me and my composer friends: Is there really no audience for in-between music, what I've called music of the excluded middle? Are pop fans completely happy with pop conventions are they are, violently resistant to all innovation, and do classical fans really only want notated acoustic music with an orchestral or chamber-music style of rhythm? If so, why do audiences react with so much enthusiasm when I play this music?

Or is it simply that the recording industry kills new genres, or music between genres, because they can't efficiently market it and make money off of it? I've long felt that what we have here is a huge body of lively music, the most important and characteristic music of our time in fact, artificially separated from its potential audience by narrow-minded, bottom-line-oriented corporate thinking - and composers punished explicitly for trying to heal a disastrous breach between the art and entertainment worlds that should never have been allowed to calcify in the first place. The recording industry has made tons of money from shoring up our cultural neuroses. And if they're finding that cash cow impossible to sustain, under the pressure of musical energy seeping through the infinitely porous internet - well, maybe that's the best thing that could have happened. Down with the big music corporations, down with classical music as an empty, iron-clad category - and up with a healthy music scene that sees no reason to honor categories!

October 10, 2003 5:56 PM | |

I was slow to start blogging this week. For one thing, I had to finish up a lengthy "hyperhistory" on music and politics for New Music Box, which will debut Nov. 1, so watch for it. More pertinently at the moment, I also moved my web site to a larger virtual space, from to Those of you who've checked know you've always been able to find me at; there was an automatic redirect to my free space at Earthlink. But that space wasn't large enough to store MP3s, and I've now opened a new web site (though it looks the same, for now) to accomodate recordings of my music. My excitement will be attributed to the egotism of getting my music out to the public, but it has at least as much to do with my overcoming of what seemed to be incredible technical hurdles. I do business through Earthlink, but I had registered the domain at Yahoo, and I didn't dream how much trouble I'd have when I decided to conflate the two. I had to get a "registry key" from Yahoo (and to be honest it was so long ago I didn't even remember whom I had registered with), and it took three weeks and many, many phone calls, e-mails, and tech support chat lines to get everything transferred. Be careful who you register a domain with - they may make it difficult to swap. Back then (just two years ago) it seemed so self-aggrandizing to name a web site after oneself - I remember Roger Reynolds telling me apologetically about his dotcom - but now everybody and his grandmother can be found at

But I will self-indulge a few words about my MP3s. I spent 1977-86 in Chicago, and then from 1986 to 1991 I endured a near-hiatus in my composing life. For one thing, I had risen from Midwestern obscurity to my job at the Village Voice, and felt under a lot of public pressure. For another, I had discovered just intonation - an alternate approach to tuning using potentially many more than 12 pitches to the octave - in 1984, and for seven years I filled entire notebooks with grids of fractions, trying to rethink music from the ground up. Having been introduced to just intonation by my teacher Ben Johnston, it took me until 1991 to finally write a piece (Superparticular Woman) that could make sense only in that tuning system. Between the unaccustomed spotlight of the Voice job and my obsessive theoretical explorations, I wrote only a handful of brief studies in the late 1980s, and didn't really accelerate back to full speed until 1994.

And so the music I wrote before 1986 lies on the other side of a divide - performed in Chicago and then forgotten. Some of the pieces now up as MP3s haven't been heard publicly since 1983, and I'm pleased to have the means to expose them again. Heavily under Brian Eno's influence from his Music for Airports on, I made my experiments with improvisation and ambient music in those years, and while I abandoned improvisation due to the difficulty of getting my intentions across to improvising musicians, I always meant to return to the ambient thread. (I'll be really impressed if anyone can find the quote from a relatively obscure Eno album in my MP3s.) I remember in 1982 meeting Steve Reich and describing my music to him as a cross between Morton Feldman and Harold Budd - that ceased to be true, and my music became rhythmically energetic under additional Native American influences. As any artist will tell you, work produced that long ago feels as though made by another person, and I have a distanced affection for some of these pieces similar to what I might have for a Roy Harris symphony or Morton Feldman chamber piece that hasn't yet been given its due. One's own opinion of early works goes up and down with time as well, and right now I think much more highly of my early '80s pieces than I did a few years ago. I wish now I could recreate the outpouring of continuous contrapuntal melody that I did in Baptism (1983), and I've always meant to return to the ambient, unsynchronized feel of Long Night (1980-81), and have just never gotten around to it.

As Emerson so beautifully says, "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." Not that they're works of genius, but that's how I sometimes react to my early music, reproached by anticipations of directions I had intended to go in.

Of course, I also have MP3s of recent music up, and if I can get performers' permissions, I'll put more. I'm augmenting my CD collection by downloading and burning to disc the music of composers I can follow only on the internet, and I'm happy for others to do the same with me. I trust that the RIAA won't come snooping around a bunch of aging new-music composers trying to trade soundfiles so someone can hear their music - not when there are so many 12-year-old Brittany Spears fans with parents ready to make cash settlements.

October 8, 2003 10:38 PM | |

Speaking, as I was in the Erling Wold entry, of trying to get information about new music in the '70s, I remember once I was confused about something that composer Henri Pousseur had written in an article in Die Reihe, the then-awe-inspiring journal of the Darmstadt crowd. My friends and I, feeling entitled to some clarification, stayed up half the night trying to find a long-distance operator in Liege who spoke English, trying to get Mr. Pousseur's home number from information. Today, we'd be able to go to and send him an e-mail. Once, at the June in Buffalo festival, a bunch of us tried to get Stockhausen on the phone, too.

October 8, 2003 10:29 PM | |

Lately I'm fawning over the internet to an extent that worries me. Yesterday I was talking to Matt Wellins (Mr. New Music at Bard), and, ransacking my brain for references he might not already know, I suddenly asked him if he was familiar with the music of San Francisco composer Erling Wold. The name rang a bell, and I mentioned that I hadn't heard any new music from Wold in years, and wondered what he was up to. No sooner did the thought occur to me, of course, than I whirled around to the computer, pulled up Google, and there I was at Wold's got a superbly simple but well-designed web site (like his music), and to my delight had not only mp3s of most of his music, but PDFs of the scores. I went to a piano piece titled Veracity, clicked a couple of times and hit Apple-P, and less than five minutes after his name had popped into my head, I was holding the sheet music to a new Erling Wold piano piece.

Now I realize that to anyone under 30 the delight I take in this makes me sound like an addlepated old man. But sonny, (HACK HACK, SPIT) let me tell ya about the old days. I remember my friends and I in college, when we were avidly searching out the latest musical news, which in those days had to do with Xenakis, Feldman, Berio, combing through music stores for the occasional C.F. Peters piano piece or Universal orchestral score that would set us back 50 bucks or more, hanging out at big-city record stores with import sections, spending all available time and cash to keep up some feeling of being conversant with the latest thing going on. Decades pass: "import sections" at record stores become a dim memory (HACK), European labels quit marketing new music to dull-witted America, music stores where scores are sold go out of business a half-dozen at a time, record distributors throw out new-music labels like moldy vegetables. If I managed to stay current in the 1990s, it was largely because I knew personally the composers whose work I was trying to follow, and could hound them for CDRs and Xeroxed scores myself. The feeling that there was a musical cutting edge to follow was getting difficult to sustain, and it felt like the culture was closing up shop.

This is a key to many of my attitudes toward new music, toward my own music, music distribution, and so on - the sense of frustration I felt in college over how difficult it was to get information. I declared silent, internal war on Pierre Boulez, for instance, because in On Music Today he revealed almost enough hints to tell us how to analyze his music, but intentionally withheld crucial details. And I swore to commit myself to the free, unimpeded flow of new-music information, to the point that I now put more tuning information about my scores on my own web page than anyone's likely to ever be interested in.

So now, as I held in my hand that Erling Wold piano score whose existence I hadn't even suspected moments before, I imagined how I would have felt in 1975 if I could have pushed a button and gotten a free score to, say, Xenakis's Mists, or Berio's Circles, or Feldman's Out of Last Pieces. Not only is there a future to new music, we just might be able to make it infinitely more open, information-wise - and maybe even infinitely less expensive - than the hallowed past.

It added to the sense of heaven that Wold's site is so clearly designed. His mp3s and PDFs pop up instantly. And I appreciate, for him being the hip kind of composer he is, that he is so score-oriented. These days the world sometimes seems divided between two stereotypes: the old-fashioned, modernist composers who write complex, gorgeously notated scores of tedious, unintelligible music that they can't get recorded, and the postmodernists who put out CDs by the bushel but don't bother putting anything readable on paper. Wold writes simple but tonal and rhythmically unusual music, sometimes microtonal, atmospheric yet lyric. I seem to have once called him "the Eric Satie of Berkeley surrealist/minimalist electro-artrock" - I think that's my Village Voice quote he's got on his bio. Not all of his music has scores (the score line in the grid sometimes marked "N/A"), but most of it does. The PDF scores look a little blotchy on my screen, but they print out beautifully, and I've always got people asking me for the latest new piano music - here it is. I'm grateful for Wold's sense that audio files and notes on paper are equally meaningful, and complement each other. And after a couple of centuries of music publishers taking composers to the cleaners, I'm thrilled that the technology exists for Wold to put his paper scores directly into my hands without any intermediary. He didn't make any money on the transaction, but it might lead to a performance or two, and it's better than having his scores sit in boxes in warehouses as a tax write-off for some snobby classical publisher that doesn't give a damn.

I went back today and heard some excerpts from Wold's new opera Sub Pontio Pilato, mystic and thoroughly enjoyable, and printed out another intriguing-looking piano piece called Albrechts Flugel. That solves the mystery of what Erling Wold's been up to these last few years. Only thing left: why don't I yet have any of his last five CDs? I guess I'm still caught in the old critic paradigm, by which I wait for people to send me things. I'll catch up.

October 8, 2003 8:36 AM | |

On the issue of burning playable CDRs, some words to the wise from our wise readers:

William Mericle advises burning CDRs with an Emagic Waveburner, a dedicated mastering software package, and claims that the resulting cds are more reliably played than when burned on I-tunes. Michael Robinson, an extremely prolific Los Angeles composer with massive experience in CDR burning, highly recommends Mitsui Gold inkjet printable CDRs (not Mitsui silver!, he adds) as being the best in terms of sound quality, compatibility, and longevity. He also strongly recommends recording at 1X speed, claiming that the result is warmer and less digital than at faster speeds. He learned all this through being entrusted to commit rare ethnological recordings to CD for the UCLA ethnomusicology department, and found that musicians could tell the differences in quality in blindfold situations. I'm willing to try it.

October 4, 2003 1:55 PM | |

Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) has long been one of my favorite artists. His cartoonish figures, often etched in thick paint and as if drawn by a child, with a child's exaggeration of identifying anatomical features, have an archetypal immediacy, yet also betray sophistication in their uniform covering of the entire canvas. (Yikes! Now I see why art critics write the way they do.) As examples of two of his characteristic styles, for those who may be unfamiliar with him, I link you to Bustle 1 from the Cleveland Museum, and Gare Montparnesse Portes des Lilas from the Tehran Museum, no less (scroll down to #57).

In 1973 (the year Vietnam ended, Nixon resigned, I entered college, and all things still seemed possible, I remember it well), the Turkish electronic composer Ilhan Mimaroglu (interesting character, whatever happened to him?) released, on his small Finnadar label, a record of musique concrete pieces that Dubuffet had made. Dubuffet had gone into a room with an early Grundig tape recorder and a passel of noisemakers, and, with a friend, proceeded to improvise. "In my music," the liner notes quoted Dubuffet,

I wanted to place myself in the position of a man of fifty thousand years ago, a man who ignores everything about western music and invents a music for himself without any reference, without any discipline, without anything that would prevent him to express himself freely and for his own good pleasure. This is what I wanted to do in my painting too, only with this difference that painting, I know it - western painting of the last few centuries, I know it perfectly well - and I want to deliberately forget all about it.... But I do not know music, and this gave me a certain advantage in my musical experiences....

Putting aside a certain philosophical sleight-of-hand - How would a man of 50,000 years ago ignore western music, since it wasn't there to ignore? How could anyone, let alone a primitive man, invent a music without any reference? How would a prehistoric man have arrived at the idea of music as organized sound, divorced from meaning or ritual? - Dubuffet's concrete pieces live up to his description beautifully. They are noisy, pure, crazy, exuberant, yet also focused and inventive. Dubuffet creates an impression of frenetically playful improvisation, yet each piece has a strong concept, and even a form. As with his paintings, background and foreground seem reversed, the shape of each piece etched into a thick layer of scruffy noises.

In the liner notes, Mimaroglu noted that the eight pieces on his record were selected from 20 that were issued on six limited-edition LPs; he added that 11 other pieces were released on four more LPs in 1960-61 (he didn't note what year the first set appeared). So the record contains eight wonderful, amazing, totally original pieces out of an alleged 31 - where are the other 23? Does anyone still own those recordings? Can they be released?

In the process of transferring the old Finnadar disc to CD, I got curious once again and searched the internet. There, on the fantastic site for all kinds of crazy new music, Ubuweb, I found 9 of the tapes, including three I already had and six new ones. Ubuweb is a huge, wonderful site with hours and hours of concrete poetry, tape pieces, Fluxus documents, and other oddities of the mid- to late 20th century (including, for instance, Robert Ashley's Wolfman and David Behrman's Wave Train). I should check Ubuweb more often for the obscure underground gems that I need to play for students, or that I've always wanted to hear; somehow I forget it's there. But on their Dubuffet page I found six of the 23 pieces I've been waiting to hear for 30 years. Several of them are as exciting as the ones Mimaroglu had chosen, especially Coq a l'oiel, a frantically rippling piano piece that sounds like late Nancarrow; and Longue Peine, which uses two bassoons and a cello as cowlike drones beneath its continuum of scratching noises. There's also a strange 24-minute piece Le Fleur de Barbe with Dubuffet (or his friend) singing in French over various noises, sounding a little like a drunken revel. At their best, these pieces are just as free, spontaneous, and amazing as Mimaroglu thought they were 30 years ago, with a rough, earthy energy that matches his paintings, and yet a sense of focus that sets them apart from all other musique concrete. I'm thrilled to now have 14 of Dubuffet's tapes out of the 31.

Anyone know the status of the remaining 17?

October 2, 2003 10:26 PM | |

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

About this Archive

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John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
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