main: March 2004 Archives

Oh yes - an alert reader caught that I glibly roped Claude Vivier into a roundup of European composers. Despite his considerable professional presence in Paris, Vivier was, of course, Canadian, and it would be churlish indeed to deprive the perennially underrated Canadian new-music scene of credit for so fine an ornament.

March 26, 2004 11:00 AM | |

My comments about new music in Europe received more resounding validation than I would have ever expected, from a composer in Amsterdam, Renske Vrolijk:

I read your entry about New Music in Old Europe with great interest, since I am one of those "young" composers trying to free ourselves from the Darmstadt liberation. And I am not the only one....

In brief, the landscape looks as follows:

1 - The nomenclature still firmly in the saddle [by which she means, I presume, the postserialists from the Darmstadt era].

2 - The Hague school, especially strong in the Netherlands (If you know Bang On A Can, you know what this is about): Louis Andriessen, Cornelis de Bont (in the US people like David Lang)

3 - The (semi) religious school (followers of Arvo Pärt, like Tuur and Joep Franssens).

4 - The European American school (the cultural U-turn), people like Jacob ter Veldhuis and me.

5 - The spectralists (I've heard about them but haven't investigated them much, yet).

My latest attempt to break the barriers (I did not succeed) was when one of my orchestral compositions was turned down in a competition with the jury telling me my music was too tonal. The funny thing is that after the competition I was invited by the chairman of the jury to his home address. He told me that he found my music refreshing after another bunch of academic works, but he couldn't find a majority in the jury. Mostly avant-garde diehards.

To be honest, it was the domination of the avant-garde that made me quit composing for over six years and do something entirely different. The pressure to compose scores that looked complicated and sounded complicated made my brains melt. I just wanted to compose music that is allowed to sound nice! Music in a traditional way, or pop or whatever, but at least music, not organized sound with a lot of intellectual blah blah to make it easier to swallow.

When I visited Gelbmusik a while ago, I felt the same jitters as when I decided to quit. And don't get me wrong. I enjoyed Le Grande Macabre by Ligeti very much last year in the Komische Oper in Berlin. But it is time for Europe to look ahead again.

Decade after decade, those composers who rail against the conservatism and forced homogeneity of the music scene of their day - Cowell, Varese, Partch, Cage, Reich - have turned out to be the visionaries who opened up a new era. And yet I can already anticipate the kind of carping responses Ms. Vrolijk must get (because I've so often gotten them myself), dismissing her as an unsuccessful malcontent. In music as in politics, those who thrive even moderately under status quo conditions are quick to gun down anyone who points up corruption or timidity in the status quo. But the criterion for how seriously such complaints should be taken is clear. You can apply it by checking out Renske Vrolijk's web page, which opens with the following manifesto:

Who is afraid of tonal music

Many people believe that contemporary music is about putting as many dissonances in a unit of time as possible. Some contemporary composers think that contemporary tonal music is lazy composing.

Both are wrong!

Good contemporary classical music is not about consonance or dissonance but about reaching out and getting a message or feeling across to your public. It has a link to its own time and to society as a whole. And it has the guts to be linked to tradition, to be sentimental, to be consonant and dissonant with meaning and be intellectual at the same time.

Brava! Checking out the MP3 samples of her music, which are admittedly brief excerpts, I find her work original, gripping, and quite unlike anything else I hear from Europe - a cultural U-turn indeed, but not in the American neoromantic sense. When an artist can back up her tirades against the status quo with good music, they demand to be taken seriously.

March 26, 2004 9:37 AM | |
On a boat going up the Spree River in Berlin, Tom Johnson introduced me to Wolfgang Heisig. Heisig punches player piano rolls and writes music for player piano. Naturally, he has a strong interest in the music of Conlon Nancarrow, and we agreed to trade MIDI files of my own music for computerized piano, his music, and Nancarrow’s. Wolfgang doesn’t speak English, and I don’t speak German, but we managed a warm conversation nevertheless. Afterward, Tom expressed surprise that Wolfgang and I managed to chat for so long. “But Tom,” I replied, “the language we speak is universal: MIDI.”
March 24, 2004 7:07 PM | |
Here’s the difference between Moscow and Berlin: I came back from Moscow with 35 compact discs of new music, one of which I paid for, the rest pressed on me by young composers eager for me to hear them; from Berlin I returned with 15 compact discs, almost none by young composers, for which I paid top-dollar prices. I have long had trouble finding out what the young Western European composers are doing. I picked up some discs by people I’ve been wanting to know more about - Helmut Lachenmann, Claude Vivier, Gerard Grisey, Walter Zimmermann, Tristan Murail - but these composers were all born considerably before me. My impression has been that the European scene has been dominated by the Darmstadt serialist generation of Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Kagel, Berio, and co., and that the students of these Great Men are afraid to venture beyond the stylistic boundaries the Darmstadt serialists set forth. A couple of years ago I had the chance to spend several weeks in London, and I avidly sought out concerts of the newest music. I found a Hans Werner Henze retrospective, and a Mauricio Kagel retrospective. “But those are composers I studied in college,” I told a musicologist friend. “Where’s the stuff that’s going on now?” “That’s what we do here,” he replied with a mixture of apology and surprise.

The view from the MaerzMusik festival in Berlin was a little more nuanced. What I’ve been discovering, via the influence of my British musicologist friend Bob Gilmore, is the spectral school, a group of composers, mostly French, who have provided the sole European collective challenge to serialist hegemony. The idea of spectral music, as I understand it from scores and recordings and enthusiastic description, is that the music imitates the microcharacteristics of sound. For instance, spectral composers build up chords using the pitches of the harmonic series, using microtones (usually defined not exactly, but with quarter-tone equivalents where necessary) to accommodate those pitches that don’t fit into the 12-step scale. Beyond that, some spectral composers (notably Tristan Murail, as far as I can tell), have computer-analyzed wave forms of natural sound phenomena (ocean waves, for instance), and compose instrumental music to recreate the envelope shapes and harmonic spectra of natural sounds. The movement was, apparently, a reaction agaubst the arbitrariness of serialism, an attempt to once again ground music in some concept of nature - in this case a rather scientific concept.

Leave aside for the moment that, while everyone hates the attempted description of new American “-isms” like postminimalism and totalism, spectral music is given an unobjectionable free ride as an important new movement. The thing that strikes me even more is that American composers who work in alternative tunings such as just intonation, like Harry Partch, Ben Johnston, Terry Riley, Larry Polansky, David Doty, myself, and many others, have been building up harmonies from the harmonic series for decades. Why American just intonation composers remain only misguided visionaries, while the French spectral composers are urgently ushered into the canon, I have trouble figuring out - especially since we just intonationists get our harmonies perfectly in tune, while the spectral composers merely approximate with quarter-tone and third-tone pitch bends. Perhaps what we just intonationists should study from the spectral composers is their PR, which is certainly more effective than ours.

In any case, it was refreshing to go to a Western European concert and not hear the same old serialism. If Tristan Murail’s Terre d’Ombre wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, at least it didn’t put up the same intellectual pretensions as Boulez and Stockhausen, nor did it repeat the same textural cliches, and it was nice to be challenged by something new. Natures mortes by Georg Friedrich Haas (what an 18th-century-sounding name!) was, if not entirely compelling, at least the first German orchestra work I’ve heard to acknowledge the seductive influence of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.

In the local music store - Gelbmusik, run by the legendary Ursula Block, a store that deliciously caters to only the most avant-garde palate - I laid out some $300 euros, but didn’t succeed in discovering any musical movements I had never heard of. I could have filled up on Wolfgang Rihm, Lachenmann, and the names that float across the Atlantic. But I do get the impression that, if there are composers in Europe who have rebelled against the serialist generation, they don’t have much luck getting recorded, or at least distributed. A veteran American expatriate composer confirmed my impression. That Darmstadt serialist generation, he told me, took control of the concert halls, and nothing radically different is going to be played at major venues as long as they’re in charge.

I did, however, find discs whose existence I was already aware of by my two favorite living European composers: Maria de Alvear and Giancarlo Cardini. Cardini is a Florentine postminimalist with a gorgeous ear for harmony, whose piano music makes me think of minimalist Schumann. De Alvear, half-Spanish, half-German, and living in Cologne, is a fiery composer of immense orchestral canvases, often with herself declaiming impassioned texts. She refuses to notate rhythms, and only writes noteheads, and her music has an indistinct pulsing energy to it. It does seem to me that Europe, as in America, much of the best new music gets buried by the establishment - perhaps even a little more than here.

March 24, 2004 7:04 PM | |
I’ve attended new-music festivals both as participant and as spectator, and I talk to a lot of composers at them. The composer who isn’t included in the festival sits there thinking, “How did that composer get invited to perform? Who did you have to know to get on this festival? What’s this doing for his career? Why isn’t my music ever taken seriously enough?” The composer who’s on the festival sits there thinking, “I knew I wouldn’t get enough rehearsal. They put that composer in a hotel much closer to the performance space than the one they put me in, why does he rate? My piece is on at a rotten time, no one will hear it, everyone will be out to dinner. That person’s piece got more applause than mine because it’s so superficially trendy. The performance was terrible, no one really got an idea of how good my piece is.”

The latter composer tends to complain more loudly, but the difference between the two experiences is considerably smaller than the former imagines.

(Posted from the Pittsburgh airport after a nine-hour flight from Berlin - now that's a serious blogger.)

March 22, 2004 4:58 PM | |
From Daniel Spreadbury, Feature & Documentation Manager at Sibelius, I received some very good news about version backwards-compatability in the new Sibelius 3, in contradiction to what I had said about Sibelius 2:

Sibelius 3 is able to save files in a format that allows them to be opened by Sibelius 2 (and, of course, Sibelius 3 can open files from all previous versions of Sibelius). There were too many radical file format changes between Sibelius 1.x and 2.x to make it possible to retain backwards-compatibility when we were working on Sibelius 2, but we took notice of user feedback following its release and took special steps to ensure we would be able to save as Sibelius 2 in Sibelius 3.

Contrary to what those in the industry might assume, this actually makes me willing to upgrade sooner rather than later; I was prepared to wait until the prevalence of version 3 made it absolutely necessary.

March 16, 2004 9:29 AM | |
Frederic Rzewski spoke at my college today, and said something I was pleased to hear (a lot of things, actually). Rzewski is one of the leading composers who's also a fantastic pianist improviser, right? One of the greatest of our time. He said (I'm paraphrasing from memory), "When I was young, I believed in the statement that 'Improvisation is composition in real time.' But as I've gotten older, I've come to realize that improvisation and composition are not only different mental processes, but even opposed to each other. In composing, you've got to remember every detail you write in the piece. But improvisation is just the opposite: you have to constantly forget what you've just done so you're free to do something else."

I'm not an improviser myself and so couldn't speak with as much authority, but, likewise, I've never bought the line that the only difference between improvisation and composition was speed. For me, composition involves loads of revision, and often a kind of backwards way of thinking, whereby you're always changing was you wrote before in light of what follows it. Free improvisation is, by contrast, completely one-directional, because you can't go back and change anything.

Rzewski also said, at the end of the talk, "We're living in a totalitarian society, with the added disadvantage that we don't realize it's totalitarian, we still think it's some kind of democracy. We're controlled by forces that we don't even know are out there."

March 15, 2004 10:31 PM | |
Having returned last night from performing in Santa Fe, I am on my way to Europe. According to my site statistics only a small percentage of my readers come from Europe, but more from the German time zone than elsewhere. If anyone reading this happens to be in Berlin this Friday, I'll be presenting a paper that morning at the Maerzmusik festival. The festival is devoted to Charles Ives, and I'll be talking about Ives' influence on current American composers, with musical examples. It's a little awkward having been asked, because I do believe that I myself am perhaps the most Ives-influenced composer around, and I could spin an entire lecture out of just my debts to him, not to mention my patent imitations. In 1991 Ives appeared to me in the most inspiring dream of my life: I was among a crowd of people waiting in his house to meet him, and he came out and led me to the piano, where either he played for me or I for him or both at the same time, and he gave me his blessing.

While I'm at it, I'd be curious for some input as to what recent composers show a particular debt to Ives. If you know of examples, if you're a composer who's built on his aesthetic, or if you have ideas about Ives' effect on American music, I'd appreciate hearing from you - e-mail address at right of this page.

March 15, 2004 10:47 AM | |
I hope everyone has read William Osborne’s brilliant article on Arts Watch, ”Marketplace of Ideas” - not the first time he’s knocked my socks off with the clarity and multidisciplinary comprehensiveness of his writing. His clear-headed analysis makes the important questions easier to pose: Can we make the argument that, since the neo-liberal policies of supply-side economics, small government and free trade lead inevitably to homogenization and a reduction in diversity and choices (in the name of “efficiency”), they are a disaster for the arts? If so, then rather than try to revamp the arts to fit a rapidly narrowing marketplace, we can insist on their integrity and autonomy, and defend them in all good conscience against economically motivated charges of elitism. I doubt that there are many thinking people in America who consciously want the arts to disappear, or to vanish into a tiny spectrum of mediocrity - but we have to confront the fact that our economic policies are forcing that to happen. Osborne makes that job easier (and, unlike me, manages to make his case without any rancor directed toward the billionaires who are robbing us all blind).

John Ralston Saul, a genius and one of my favorite writers, has long taken issue with the doctrine of “efficiency,” a word that economists and politicians bandy about as an assumed universal good that no one could possibly object to. Efficiency, he points out, is a principle we want applied only to things not important to us. We want our garbage removed efficiently, but anyone who advocated efficient child-rearing - maximum good behavior in return for a minimum of care and affection - would be a monster. To handle the arts efficiently is tantamount to starving them. Also, in the name of efficiency, a city government might eliminate a certain bus route because few people use it. But then those people have to find alternate transportation, which means that the job is more efficient only from the bus company’s point of view - the burden is actually shifted onto the poor people whom local government is no longer providing with transportation. “Efficiency,” as used by economists, usually means maximizing profits for someone on top at the expense of those below. Personally, when I hear the word “efficiency,” I reach for my gun.

March 13, 2004 10:16 AM | |
I thought my blog entry on notation software might raise some passionate response - the relationship between a composer and his/her notation software is an intimate one, alternately exhilarating and maddening. Canadian composer Matthew Whittall wrote from Finland to recommend a new program, “apparently the most flexible thing out there,” called Igor available at (At least they didn’t name it “Stravinsky.”) Being away from home and my ethernet connection, I can’t check it out at the moment, but will try to soon. Whittall continues,

I share your loathing of some of the restrictions the programmers place on composers. In the end, all notation packages end up being glorified pop chart notators that think in bars rather than in time.... I personally started using Finale not too long after it came out, and have pretty much grown up with it, and now know all the tricks for getting it to do things it shouldn't be able to. However, my music is fairly mainstream and doesn't generally require much far-out notation, but this may be what you'd need for the Cowell-based piece you mentioned, as it was designed with classical music (or post-classical, as it were) in mind. It's pretty cheap too, as well as downloadable, and you can try out the full program for a while before buying.

Los Angeles composer Art Jarvinen, whom I often end up mentioning here, went to more passionate lengths, chanting the praises of a graphics program called Score, whose only drawbacks are that it 1) was made only for IBM-compatibles, and 2) is no longer upgraded:

The fundamental problem with Sibelius, and probably Finale as well (I have never used that program), is the paradigm on which it is based. Its creators simply seem to have never imagined a world in which you would not need - or at least want - your computer to play back your music for you. Therefore, they built their so-called "music engraving" software on top of a sequencer, which can never - ever - be disconnected from the graphic layer. That's why it's almost impossible to notate the kinds of things you and I routinely do as composers, using those programs. If Sibelius doesn't understand how to play it (bar lines seem to confuse the hell out of it), it won't let you write it, except with the world's most aggravating and ultimately dissatisfying work-arounds.

Therein lies the radiant beauty and ultimate power of Score; it doesn't have to play anything back, so it doesn't care what you write. I have yet to encounter a single notation that I could not implement in Score either 1) very easily, or 2) relatively easily. A real-world example is an interesting tuplet, three over 4 and two-thirds - a big triplet that starts on the last beat of a quarter note triplet in the bar before (my music has often required such rhythmic "pivots" or sudden mid-measure changes of perceived downbeat). And if you think that's just academic bullshit, I can play you recordings of my rock band playing it. It's perfectly logical, not really very difficult to do, and feels a certain way that should be notated properly because that's exactly what it is.

The first time I attempted to use Sibelius for a professional copying job (part of how I have always earned my living), the first measure posed a problem that proved to be insurmountable and I booted up Score. The "problem" immediately vanished.

That's why I have a Pentium II running nothing but DOS and Score; I need real engraving software, not just a sequencer in drag. Unfortunately, Mac heads will never know the pleasures of using Score, as it only works on a PC.

Unfortunately for us PC users, Score's parents have never bothered to bring it along into the modern era, hence my dedicated Score shrine-computer (the last update they offered was lute tablature - pretty exciting in itself I'm sure, if you're a lutenist writing your own charts on a computer - but I would have preferred that they made it more compatible with newer versions of Windows (I also have a 386s with Windows 3.1 as emergency back-up).

In a spirit of fairness I do have to say I compose almost exclusively in Sibelius now, but I think I can only do that satisfactorily because of half a lifetime of experience working the old fashioned way - and because I write mostly surf tunes these days. I do not use Sibelius as an educational tool, nor would I recommend it to students.

In my own spirit of fairness, I had mentioned Sibelius’s limitations, but I didn’t mention the ways in which it has freed me up compositionally. For one thing, its meter numerators may be limited to powers of 2, but its denominators go up to 99. I don’t promise I’ll never use 133/32 meter, but in my Desert Sonata I have a long passage in 41/16 meter, and I sure wish I had had Sibelius when I wrote the piece. Also, a great complexity of tuplets is easy to use in Sibelius, and even tuplets within tuplets, so that I’ve been freed up to write electronic and Disklavier music with all kinds of virtual tempo simultaneities, like 13-against-29, 17-against-20-against-31, and so on. If you have a 17-bar over 17 16th-notes, say, you just click on it and hit “R” for repeat, and you have another one in the next measure. So while there are rhythmic things I’ve quit doing lately because Sibelius doesn’t support them, there are other wild rhythmic avenues I’ve gone into instead because Sibelius makes them very convenient.

In other words, I’m using Sibelius exactly the opposite of the way Jarvinen is: as a virtual sequencer with a million short cuts. After I finish a score in Sibelius I convert it into Digital Performer and finish polishing up the piece there - and it’s a hell of a lot easier than composing the piece in the sequencing program.

March 13, 2004 9:41 AM | |
This month’s Keyboard magazine contains a detailed and very welcome comparison of Sibelius and Finale notation software, called “Notation Nation” by composer Peter Kirn. I’m a Sibelius user myself, currently on version 2.11 (though 3.0 recently became available). Though Finale’s been around several years longer, I never bought it; I was daunted by its reputation of being difficult to learn. For years I used a stupid little program called Encore, and I don’t mean stupid entirely negatively: it would let me get away with things I wanted to do that were too far out for intelligent programs like Sibelius that think they know better than you do what a score should look like and hem you in with defaults. But the three things I love most about Sibelius are 1) its speed, 2) its speed, and 3) its speed. I can write a Sibelius score faster than I can one in pencil, and I often take a piece that one of my students brings in and, in a couple of minutes, key it into the computer so we can hear a MIDI version and experiment around with various changes. Among other things, it’s a great teaching tool.

No one seems to be monitoring the impact of notation software on composing, and it is sure to be vast - and homogenizing, for I can say from experience how reluctant one becomes to notate something that the software won’t do easily. (I’ll give examples below.) The worst pitfall of composing on a computer is, you never get to look at a whole piece of music at once while you’re working on it. At some point in composing, I like to take all my pages and spread them out, or hang them around the wall, so I can see the entire piece at once. Of course you can print everything out, but it was easier when I was writing on large, 40-line score paper. Inevitably, composing on notation software results in waxing creative while only seeing three or four measures at a time, like trying to acclimate yourself to a pitch-dark room with a narrow-beam flashlight. I compose first on paper when I have time, but I feel like a lifetime’s worth of having done so makes it possible for me to compose directly on the computer when I have to and still keep a good overall sense of the piece. I do urge students to start out with that trusty old composing machine, the pencil.

Still, notation software offers composers ENORMOUS savings in time and money. It used to be that a composer’s commission money for an orchestra piece was largely if not entirely eaten up by the cost of copying parts. My students, writing orchestra works, would spend four to eight weeks before the deadline copying out all the parts by hand. Sibelius (and I assume Finale too) can churn out all the parts to a decent-sized orchestra piece in half an hour or less, all perfectly correlated to the final score. The $300 (academic) price tag may seem steep at first, but the first time you write a piece with parts it far more than pays for itself. Whatever subtle disadvantage notation software turns out to have, the patent advantages easily seem to outweigh.

Kirn’s readable analysis pretty much confirms the usual Sibelius and Finale reputations. Sibelius, he says, is easier to learn, has a simpler interface, and takes fewer keystrokes to get things done. Finale is better graphically, for getting a score exactly the way you want it to look. Sibelius is more like word processing, while tool-based Finale is more of a graphics program, though as he also points out, their recent upgrades imitate each other, narrowing the gulf between them. On one hand, Sibelius likes to look a certain way, and I do feel that I give in to a lamentable impulse to avoid notations that Sibelius won’t handle easily. On the other, some of my students use Finale, and despite watching them operate it for years, I still can’t even manage to figure out how to so much as sharp a note in the program myself: I just don’t find it intuitively user-friendly.

For the record, here’s what I used to be able to do in Encore that I can’t in Sibelius: Henry Cowell, in his masterful 1930 book New Musical Resources, suggested that “tuplets,” as they’re now called in computerese (and we needed a word for that), don’t necessarily need to come in groups. For instance, say you have five quintuplet 8th-notes and three triplet quarter-notes in a 4/4 bar. Why not have two of the quintuplet 8th-notes, then one of the triplet quarter-notes, then another quintuplet 8th-note, and so on? Very difficult for humans to sort out, but the computer plays them beautifully. I wrote a 1999 piece called Folk Dance for Henry Cowell based on the idea, and I can’t renotate it into Sibelius, because too-smart-for-my-own-good Sibelius won’t let me insert a note from another tuplet in-between quarter-note triplets. Pokey-looking little Encore didn’t realize I was doing anything unusual, and didn’t raise any fuss. (Encore, of course, which went out of production years ago, didn’t work well with Mac OS9, and won’t print at all in OS X.)

A related issue: a few composers, myself included, have occasionally used meters in which the denominator is not a power of 2, and Cowell anticipated these as well. For example, a measure consisting of four triplet quarter-notes (and nothing else) would be 4/6 meter, since there are six quarter-note triplets to a 4/4 measure, therefore a triplet quarter-note can be called (pace Cowell) a 1/6th-note. In “Mars” from my The Planets I use 17/24 meter at one point, which is a measure the length of 17 triplet 16th-notes. Can’t do this in Sibelius, nor Finale as far as I know, at least with accurate playback: you can, with some trouble, move mountains to get it to look right. I’ve begged Sibelius representatives to change the program to allow such rhythmic oddities, but they only look at me as though I just stepped off a UFO. But there are similar examples in pieces as famous as Boulez’s Le Marteau san maitre, and Ives uses meters like 4-and-a-half/4.

Plus, no music software will let you write different meters or tempos at the same time without an incredible hassle. Too bad Cowell wasn't around to be a consultant for notation and sequencing software companies.

The other pain-in-the-neck with Sibelius (aside from the eternal ambiguity they’ve created by taking over the name of one of my favorite composers) is their greed. They refuse to retrofit versions so that, say, version 1 will open version 2 files, nor will version 2 save files as version 1. This meant that, when my students started bringing in 2.0 files, I couldn’t open them on my computer, which means that when a new version appears, pretty much everyone on the planet is forced to upgrade all at once. I know music copyists are especially bothered by this, since they sometimes need to give a score back to a client in an earlier version, and can’t. Sibelius’s tech support also used to be snobbishly condescending and arrogant at times (and their manual is a joke), but lately their help pages at have been greatly improved, and I’m finally impressed by the ease with which I’ve been able to solve problems using them. I won’t cavil too much about a software that has improved my quality of life so much - but I may quietly root for the next competitive notation software company to give Sibelius a good run for its money.

Kirn's article also lists, with prices and commentary, every notation software out there currently available. It's a good resource.

March 12, 2004 12:23 AM | |
Alert reader Marc Weidenbaum (web site here) found the PDF files of the Beethoven piano sonatas for me here at the Sheet Music Archive. This excellent little site also contains music by:

Albeniz / Bach / Bach (C.P.E.) / Balakirev / Bartok / Beethoven / Bellini / Bizet / Boccherini / Borodin / Brahms / Chabrier / Chaminade / Chopin / Clementi / Couperin / Czerny / Debussy / Dvorak / Elgar / Faure / Field / Franck / Glazunov / Gottschalk / Granados / Grieg / Griffes / Handel / Hanon / Haydn / Henselt / Joplin / Kalinnikov / Liadov / Liapunov / Liszt / Macdowell / Mendelssohn / Moszkowski / Moussorgsky / Mozart / Paderewski / Paganini / Ponchielli / Prokofiev / Purcell / Rachmaninoff / Raff / Rameau / Ravel / Rossini / Rubinstein / Saint-Saens / Satie / Scarlatti / Scharwenka / Schubert / Schumann / Scriabin / Sinding / Stravinsky / Tschaikovsky / Verdi / von Weber / Wagner / Widor


How about a Postclassical such site?: imagine someplace where you could download scores by Mikel Rouse, Rhys Chatham, Eve Beglarian, Janice Giteck, Glenn Branca, William Duckworth, Maria de Alvear, Elodie Lauten, Bernadette Speach, Art Jarvinen, Kyle Gann....

March 9, 2004 10:53 PM | |

As a rare token Downtown composer in academia, and at a Northeastern college with strong classical music connections, no less, I inhabit a strange, slim intersection between different worlds. Sometimes I suddenly find myself thrust into the world of "Uptown" composers, the "mainstream" and arguably successful composers who live on the fringes of the orchestra circuit. It happened again recently, and while institutional secrecy prevents me from detailing the circumstances - I'll leave you to speculate what panel or award I was involved with - I'm still free to describe the experience.

And what a different experience it was from my get-togethers with the composers in my usual circles! These were composers who actually live off their orchestral commissions. They traded gossip about who had been nominated for the Academy of Arts and Letters; who was up for the Ives Award (no one Ives would have respected, certainly); who had kept whom out of the Century Club; how long it had been since various colleagues received Guggenheims; who was trying to get on the board of what artists' colonies. Every person mentioned was a composer, but what different lives these people live from those of the composers I know! It was clear that they spend their careers clicking off a series of expected honors and awards, pre-ordained notches in a composer's belt. You've apparently got to get in there early, studying with a big name in grad school, and starting to apply to artists' colonies in your 30s, or you'll miss the boat. To their credit, the colleagues with whom I was dealing expressed some self-conscious embarrassment over attaching such importance to such external signs of a composer's success, many of them won, by their own admission, more through politicking than through the observable high quality of anyone's music. They expressed disdain for a number of composers who allegedly feel themselves entitled to such honors, who canvas for them incessantly and become furious when passed over. (As Milton Babbitt lamented when Bill Duckworth interviewed him: "Where's my Guggenheim?")

It's a very different life than the one the Downtown composers I know lead, the experimental composers who work in postminimalism, conceptualism, electronics, and improvisation. I think I know one Downtown composer who's actually been to the MacDowell Colony, none who've been to Yaddo, none in the Academy of Arts and Letters, none who's ever taught at the Aspen festival, none who's had a premiere at Tanglewood, none who's won the Prix de Rome, none who's won a Guggenheim. (Generally speaking, only three major awards are open to Downtown, or experimental, composers, and none of them can be applied for, you have to be anonymously nominated: the Herb Alpert Award in California, the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts in New York, and the MacArthur "Genius" Award.) The Uptown composers barely know that my world exists, and they exhibit no curiosity about it. They've never heard any of Robert Ashley's operas, speak slightingly of Alvin Lucier's "boring" music, yet are aware that an occasional Downtowner like Morton Feldman or Steve Reich rises to a popular success beyond their wildest dreams. That seems to bother them, but they don't think about it much.

Save for the sole fact that the rewards of that life enable composers to spend somewhat more of their time composing than my friends and I can, I don't envy it - it seems so much more about prizes than about art. Some of the honors, like the Prix de Rome, entail long residencies, so that those composers' lives seem to get swallowed up in the obligations the honors bring. The amount and level of politicking required would turn my stomach. Many of the Uptown composers are excellent musicians, but it seems to me that their music often gets warped at some point along the way, it becomes so little focused on personal artistic necessity or audience reaction and so focused instead on the opinions of fellow professionals. And ultimately it seems like a class thing: you become a composer so you can live in the beau monde of famous orchestra conductors, society matrons, people with enough money to commission a $200,000 opera here and there, so you can drink martinis at Tanglewood with Leonard Slatkin or whomever. I'm happy to be, instead, in the poverty-stricken, overlooked, little Downtown music scene where instead of enviously whispering to each other about who got what award, and plotting to get the next one ourselves, we go on with our work uninfluenced by prizes we have no chance of winning anyway, and argue, over inexpensive red wine, about where music itself should be heading.

March 7, 2004 1:30 PM | |

Have I mentioned lately that I love the internet? Writing an article and needing a citation from Charles Ives' Essays Before a Sonata, I put the phrase "the nearer we get to mere expression of emotion" into Google, and it took me straight to the online publication of Ives's Essays by Project Gutenberg. I'm so happy to have it as a text file on my computer: I'm always quoting it, and having to search for the phrase I want. And carrying it around on my laptop, I remember again the vernacular yet mystical prose style that so thrilled me as a teenager, putting its mark forever on my writing:

On the other hand is not all music, program-music, - is not pure music, so called, representative in its essence? Is it not program-music raised to the nth power or rather reduced to the minus nth power? Where is the line to be drawn between the expression of subjective and objective emotion? It is easier to know what each is than when each becomes what it is. The "Separateness of Art" theory--that art is not life but a reflection of it--"that art is not vital to life but that life is vital to it," does not help us. Nor does Thoreau who says not that "life is art," but that "life is an art," which of course is a different thing than the foregoing. Tolstoi is even more helpless to himself and to us, for he eliminates further. From his definition of art we may learn little more than that a kick in the back is a work of art, and Beethoven's 9th Symphony is not. Experiences are passed on from one man to another. Abel knew that. And now we know it. But where is the bridge placed? - at the end of the road or only at the end of our vision? Is it all a bridge?--or is there no bridge because there is no gulf? Suppose that a composer writes a piece of music conscious that he is inspired, say, by witnessing an act of great self-sacrifice--another piece by the contemplation of a certain trait of nobility he perceives in a friend's character--and another by the sight of a mountain lake under moonlight. The first two, from an inspirational standpoint would naturally seem to come under the subjective and the last under the objective, yet the chances are, there is something of the quality of both in all. There may have been in the first instance physical action so intense or so dramatic in character that the remembrance of it aroused a great deal more objective emotion than the composer was conscious of while writing the music. In the third instance, the music may have been influenced strongly though subconsciously by a vague remembrance of certain thoughts and feelings, perhaps of a deep religious or spiritual nature, which suddenly came to him upon realizing the beauty of the scene and which overpowered the first sensuous pleasure--perhaps some such feeling as of the conviction of immortality, that Thoreau experienced and tells about in Walden. "I penetrated to those meadows...when the wild river and the woods were bathed in so pure and bright a light as would have waked the dead IF they had been slumbering in their graves as some suppose. There needs no stronger proof of immortality." Enthusiasm must permeate it, but what it is that inspires an art-effort is not easily determined much less classified. The word "inspire" is used here in the sense of cause rather than effect. A critic may say that a certain movement is not inspired. But that may be a matter of taste--perhaps the most inspired music sounds the least so--to the critic. A true inspiration may lack a true expression unless it is assumed that if an inspiration is not true enough to produce a true expression--(if there be anyone who can definitely determine what a true expression is)--it is not an inspiration at all.

Those words, the words of a true artist-philosopher with an insurance salesman's knack for persuasion, knock my socks off today as they did when I was 15. How vague, how rambling, how colloquial, how erudite, how deeply thoughtful!

And while we're at it, I have a query for the masses. A few months ago, I similarly did a search for Beethoven's piano sonatas, and found all 32 as free PDF files on the internet. Lately I've looked again, and they're gone! All I find is a few million sites trying to sell me scores and recordings. What happened to that wonderful PDF site, where you could refresh your memory about a Beethoven passage from any internet connection? Surely there wasn't a copyright problem? Does anyone know where it is, or what happened to it?

March 5, 2004 11:47 PM | |

In case anyone out there in blog land is within driving distance of Santa Fe, NM, I'll be performing there next weekend. Friday March 12 and Saturday March 13 at 8 PM I'll be at the Center for Contemporary Arts, 1050 Old Pecos Trail. The box office is at (505) 982-1338. I'll perform my one-man microtonal music theater piece Custer and Sitting Bull along with a couple of microtonal synthesizer pieces and several of my Disklavier pieces, including the world premier of Petty Larceny - a piece made entirely of quotations from the Beethoven piano sonatas, tempo-shifted so that their harmonies fit together. Come see if my music is as batty as my opinions. (It's even worse!)

March 5, 2004 9:14 AM | |

On the second page of Cardew's Stockhausen Serves Imperialism are words that, had they been listened to earlier, would have derailed many pointless arguments of my youth: is clearly impossible to bring work with a decidedly socialist or revolutionary content to bear on a mass audience. Access to this audience (the artist's real means of production) is controlled by the state.

"Access to the mass audience is controlled by the state." And by "the state" it is now obvious that we mean, not the U.S. Government, but the corporations that own the U.S. Government and the TV stations, newspapers, and radio stations. The corporate state owns access to mass audiences. Why would they freely give that prize over to... living composers? Why would they give it to classical musicians at all? What's their incentive? The state grants mass-audience access to those who promise to make money for it, to those who will put making money as their top priority, and to those who promise not to contradict the ideology that keeps the corporate state in power. (Howard Stern, a big money-maker in radio, was just yanked from all Clear Channel radio stations for his obscenity - just days after he turned against the Bush administration. Interesting?)

And so all those years of new-music hand-wringing and soul-searching seem silly now. "Why are audiences turning away from classical music?" "Why does no one like our music?" "What can we do to reach out to audiences? Add a backbeat, maybe?" It wasn't that audiences were turning away: it was that the State was taking over control, an enormous hand slowly turning off the spigot. What seemed like contentious Marxist theory in Cardew's writings 30 years ago seems like only too obvious fact now.

Benito Mussolini said (and he should know), "Fascism should properly be called corporatism, since it is the merger of State and corporate power." Ever wonder what it was like to live in a Fascist state? Wonder no longer.

March 2, 2004 10:22 AM | |

Maybe the Web is even God: it does answer prayers. UbuWeb, the fearless site for the history of radical new music, has published as a PDF Cornelius Cardew's rabble-rousing little 1974 book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, his Maoist/Marxist, over-the-top, but sometimes dead-on critique of the avant-garde. You can get it here, and you should. Just weeks ago I was moaning because I don't have a copy, and a moment ago I downloaded it onto my computer. (UbuWeb also includes, as introduction, the article I wrote about Cardew for New Music Box, which I don't think I recall giving them permission for, but never mind: they've more than paid me back.)

March 1, 2004 10:33 PM | |

David Patrick Stearns follows the Master Narrative in his piece on minimalism linked from Arts Journal. Minimalism is a dead style. Never mind that it started evolving into something else in the late 1970s. Never mind that hundreds of composers from Alaska to Florida and from Maine to Mexico have been heavily influenced by it and continue to write music evolved from it. Never mind that several generations of composers now have cited Riley's In C and Reich's Come Out as the pieces that first sparked their desire to become composers. Minimalism's just dead, having left no trace behind, aside from the occasional pathetic wretch who hasn't heard the news and it still writing it. It is, in fact, the first publicly successful musical style in history to have vanished after only 20 years without leaving the slightest residue. Apparently. According to the Master Narrative.

March 1, 2004 1:43 PM | |

In response to my "Master Narrative" entry of February 23, Steven Ledbetter sends the following story from his student years in the 1960s, a little long but worth reading to the end. It's about studying with Gustave Reese, an important scholar who wrote massive standard reference works like Music in the Middle Ages and Music in the Renaissance:

Gustave Reese was my dissertation adviser and, though he was most famous of course for his books on Medieval and Renaissance music, he was always interested in new music as well, and I ran into him more than once at a concert of recent music.

At one point in class, when the discussion came around to recent trends in music (this was about the time of Carter's Double Concerto, for example), someone asked him where he thought music was heading.

Reese made the point that the history of music, from at least the 14th century on, has consisted of a series of waves of development in which the style reaches a level of complexity beyond which it seems impossible to go (perhaps for reasons of apparent limits in human perception on the listener's side or of technical ability on the performers'), and that this "crisis" leads to a radical simplification in one or more elements of music, after which the process begins again.

He was referring (for the late 14th century) to the so-called French "mannerist" composers who made music so rhythmically complex that even modern performers found it challenged them enormously. The reaction to that was the more flowing rhythms of the early Renaissance, and a greater emphasis on the sonority of the "contenance angloise."

Then during the course of the 15th and 16th centuries, the interaction of more and more polyphonic lines reached a level of complexity such that textures often sounded indifferentiatedly dense, so that one piece ran the risk of sounding like all the others.

The radical change came about with the development of the basso continuo, which allowed virtually all of the contrapuntal lines to be subsumed in a harmonic context over which one or two (normally) melodic lines could be the primary expressive interest, colored by the bass line and harmony.

Another such re-simplification, in this view, occurs in the middle of the 18th century, and leads to the "high classical period" with its balanced phrase structures and architectonic use of harmonic shape.

So when put to the specific question in class about what would happen next in contemporary music, Reese responded, "I have no idea, but I'm sure that it will involve some dramatic simplification, because we seem to have gone about as far as we can on the current track."

When I first encounted Terry Riley's "In C," for example, I though immediately of Reese's prediction, and I still think that his version of the Master Narrative makes a lot of sense.

Here, from Gustave Reese no less, comes validation for what I've been saying for years, and not only about minimalism being a logical next step in the progress of history. If the only music history you know is that from Haydn through Stockhausen, then the death of the orchestra [assuming it is indeed happening, questionable] looks like the end of everything, a mammoth tragedy, a Götterdammerung. But if you know the history of European music from the 11th century on as Reese did (and medieval music was my secondary area of specialization in grad school as well), then you know that there have been many deaths of classical music, many rises and falls of musical institutions, each death preparing the ground for the rise of a new practice. As Nietzsche said, "What is falling, that one should also push." I'm pleased to learn from Mr. Ledbetter that the world looked much the same to Gustave Reese as it does to me.

That Reese could see the logical necessity of a drastic simplification of music in the 1960s, while a thousand academic composers and music professors continue to rail against it, shows up how little music history most composers know.

March 1, 2004 12:10 PM | |

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