main: May 2004 Archives

Still on a political note but in a very different mode, I pass on, from a friend who alerted me, a link to a timely Eric Idle song, laced with charming obscenity directed at all the right targets, and with particular compliments to the FCC. Be advised of "adult content" in the lyrics, but it'll certainly leave a better aftertaste than the Nick Berg video - unless you don't get the irony in the line, "Save the Great White Males!"

May 29, 2004 9:23 AM | |

All right, it's off-topic, but I'm getting pretty freaked out by the amount of speculation, accompanied by detailed video analysis, that the Nick Berg decapitation video was a fake. At first I thought I had stumbled onto a whacko conspiracy web page (not that I mind, I've rarely heard a conspiracy theory I couldn't believe), but then I Googled the subject, and there seems to be a rapidly growing chorus of doubters. Main points:

1. The editing is sloppy, with unexplainable time lapses.
2. One of the "Arabs" is wearing a gold ring, contrary to religious practice; another is wearing American running shoes.
3. The terrorist who reads the paper has been identified as Musab Al-Zarqawi. But Zarqawi is known to have a prosthetic leg, which the terrorist in the video doesn't; and besides, Zarqawi was announced as having been killed in April, 2003.
4. At one point the ear and apparent military cap of a white man comes slightly into camera view, only visible when the tape is slowed down.
5. Berg is sitting in the same kind of chair visible in Abu Ghraib photos, wearing the same kind of orange prison outfit worn by Abu Ghraib prisoners. The wall is the same color as Abu Ghraib's walls, and Berg's last known job was working on the tower at Abu Ghraib.
6. The famous scream appears to be a woman's voice and is not accurately cued to the video.
7. Medical experts attest (excuse me for saying it) that much more blood would come from a beheaded man than appears in the video, suggesting that Berg, if it is indeed he, was already dead.

Of course, the video softened the public response that was calling for Rumsfeld's resignation after Abu Ghraib, and for some people (not myself) made the Abu Ghraib torture seem tame by comparison - and it appeared oh so conveniently after the Abu Ghraib photos were released, though the beheading supposedly had taken place weeks earlier. I haven't even begun to touch on all the inconsistencies. A few of the many, many web pages are here, by people ranging from liberals to libertarians to "patriotic" Republicans to anti-government survivalists to Arabs to Europeans to Chinese:

Asia Times

Believe it, don't believe it, but it proves beyond doubt how malleable video reality is.

UPDATE: I guess I no longer read my own newspaper religiously enough. It took Jan Herman to point out to me that this week's Village Voice has its own article on the speculations about the Nick Berg video.

FURTHER UPDATE: Harry Shearer discussed the possibility of the Berg video being fake on his NPR news program Le Show on WAMC radio, May 30, the soundfile of which you can find at Under an administration as secretive as Bush/Cheney, conspiracy theories will no longer be limited to the lunatic fringe.

May 27, 2004 4:25 PM | |

I haven't been blogging, and have no better, nor worse, excuse to offer than the euphoria that accompanies the ending of the school year and my annual opportunity to plunge back into composing. But the year-end hysteria prevented me from recording a very interesting concert that took place a couple of weeks ago at Bard, which was quintessentially postclassical if the word has any meaning at all. Student composer Matt Wellins (Mr. New Music of Postclassic fame) brought to campus a Chicago-based quartet I'd never heard of before named Town and Country, consisting of multi-instrument performers Ben Vida, Liz Payne, Josh Abrams, and Jim Dorling. Switching around among violin, upright bass, bass clarinet, squeezebox harmonium, and a plethora of handheld percussion, this quartet has developed its own style of mostly brief minimalist pieces, somewhat improvised, somewhat collectively composed. They were catchy, engaging vignettes with often intricate rhythms, and they metamorphosed as they droned along, the players picking up not only different pitches but different instruments as well. I've been looking for a long time for someone to come up with an improvisation paradigm that is neither jazz nor "free," capable of creating original pieces with a recognizable identity but with plenty of leg room for give and take in performance. Town and Country has done it. To come up with a group improv style grounded in minimalism was no small conceptual feat.

And they weren't even the top bill! Minimalist violin pioneer Tony Conrad performed with them, and also gave a one-hour slice of his "Early Minimalism," playing violin raspily over loud, prerecorded string drones. Conrad's maintaining the style of performance I first saw him with at New Music America in Miami in 1988, playing behind a curtain kept in constant motion by electric fans, with a lamp projecting his silhouette on the curtain. (Don't worry, the music is more than loud enough to completely drown out the fans.) Within this theatrically evocative setting you could hear 11th, 13th, even 17th harmonics over the drones, although Conrad believes in a roiling mercuriality rather than harmonic precision. I keep waiting for Conrad to develop his shtick to the next step, but the students (and faculty) who hadn't heard him before got a bracing close-up glimpse of history.

Town and Country have a new recording out, called simply 5, on Thrill Jockey, and you can read more about it in this Prefix magaine article about them. They're well worth checking out.

May 27, 2004 12:13 PM | |

Another thought on Ives, if you can stand it, from reader Jacob Smullyan:

[W]hile the attempt to characterize Ives as fraudulent should be condemned outright, a related thesis is worth considering seriously, namely, that his later revisions may not be entirely satisfactory. He had grown distant from the roots of his inspiration, and wanting to get re-involved, gilded the lily a bit (perhaps gold is too trite a mineral -- mica?). Some of the thickenings (I'm thinking of Concord here) are inspired, and some are merely uniformly thick. I liked Kirkpatrick's way of picking and choosing those variants. I think of the 1947 Concord as being a bit like Wordsworth's rewrite of The Prelude; each line is strengthened, and the whole is weakened (although 1947 Ives is a lot better than 1805 Wordsworth).

There's a lot of sense to this. One of the satisfying but perhaps dangerous things about being a composer is that, while you can't change notes in Mozart, you can change notes in your own music whenever you want. I've been inputting into computer notation music I wrote 20, 25 years ago, and I can rarely resist the temptation to change a few notes here and there to accord with my present taste. If I make a major change I'll mark it "revised version," but otherwise I'll leave it. And I would hate to think of some student whom I've trustingly taken under my wing watching me make these changes and later putting the most malevolent possible construction on them, implying that I was trying to lie about my place in history - as Elliott Carter did to the man who helped him get into Harvard, Charles Ives. Many interconnected and contradictory impulses, good and bad, go into revising a piece of music, and it shows a paucity of psycholgical insight to isolate just one and claim it's THE one. Nor, as Smullyan notes, did even Ives' revisions always improve. I've always wanted to hear one recording of Ives' Second Symphony without the final Bronx cheer, the closing 12-pitch chord, that Ives added decades later as a way of expressing disdain for his own work for being too conservative. That's a noble, if fun, work, and it deserves to end unironically.

May 27, 2004 11:25 AM | |

Happy Erik Satie's birthday, by the way. Seems like that should be something of a holiday in postclassical music circles.

May 17, 2004 11:36 AM | |

My posts on Charles Ives brought a response from one of the Ives-haters who takes seriously Maynard Solomon's claims that Ives covertly back-dated his scores to establish his priority as an innovator. I issued him a challenge, and I'll issue it to the world.

The charge that Ives was trying to establish his priority as an innovator does not square with the picture we get of him from his writings. In all of Ives's writings that I've ever read, which by my count is 100 percent some four or five times at least, Ives presents himself as generally insecure and self-effacing about his "good or bad music," as he calls it, admitting that his "ears may be on wrong," and that he likes all these discordant sounds that no one else seems to like. He disparages some of his greatest works, calling his own Third Symphony "technically suppressed," and saying little more in defense of his own compositions than, "last time I heard it, it seemed like a good piece." In short, in both his public and private communications, he strikes one as remarkably modest. He was, however, publicly accused by music critics of having "learned Schoenberg's lessons well," and of having been influenced by Stravinsky, and, when falsely described, he could get angry; he defended himself in his Memos by saying he had never heard Schoenberg's or Stravinsky's music during the years he was composing. That, of course, was his right, as it would be anyone's. If you accuse me of having been influenced by Michael Dougherty's Metropolis Symphony and I've never heard the work, I have a right to say so; if the work of mine being referred to predates the Metropolis Symphony, I have the right to mention the fact as supporting my statement - but to therefore accuse me of trying to buttress my claim as a historical innovator is a leap of logic that can only seem to indicate some underlying malicious intent.

So if Ives's detractors are right, that he secretly conspired to shore up his historical reputation by deceiving the world into thinking he had used certain innovations earlier than he did, then there ought to be, somewhere in his writings, some claim of precedence advanced. Certainly such claims of precedence are not uncommon among 20th-century composers - Hauer vociferously claimed credit for the 12-tone row, Cowell for tone clusters (before he learned that Ives had beat him to them, whereupon he dropped his claim), Julian Carrillo claimed credit for "the thirteenth tone," i.e. for having extended the scale beyond 12 steps to the octave. The day in 1921 when Schoenberg wrote his first 12-tone row, he wrote in his diary, "What I have discovered today will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years." So, similarly, someone quote for me, please, a passage in Ives's Essays Before a Sonata, his Memos, his Postlude to 114 Songs, his letters, his remembered conversations, or anywhere else where he declared, "I was the first to use tone clusters," "I came up with the 12-tone idea before Schoenberg," "I was the first to have different tempos going at the same time!" Find us the passage that proves Ives's modesty was a calculating facade, lay this issue to rest, and I'll stop defending his character.

Of course, my correspondent admits that he doesn't like Ives's music, finds it undeveloped and unfinished sounding. And I have yet to find anyone who believes the Maynard Solomon charges who does like Ives's music. Some people who find Ives not to their taste use Solomon's false controversy as a vehicle for Schadenfreude, and don't seem to see anything wrong with impugning a man's moral character as a way to get his music out of the concert hall; either that, or they imagine that we don't play Ives's music because we love it, but simply because he did everything first. There are certainly composers whose music I don't care for - Shostakovich, for instance - but I don't go around trying to prove that Shostakovich was somehow less than human, not a legitimate composer, that his music was a kind of fraud. Even if someone figured out that some of Shostakovich's music was ghostwritten, I wouldn't write articles shouting, "AHA! I KNEW it! The swine, his music should never be played again!" Many composers whose music I love - Wagner and Stravinsky, for instance - have accurately been accused of mendacity and worse, but I don't love their music any less for it. Stravinsky's book The Poetics of Music is still reverently read despite the well-documented fact that it was ghostwritten; and he tried to cover up Le Sacre's indebtedness to Russian folksongs, which was later exposed. By the analogous logic of the Ives case, shouldn't we retire Le Sacre to the ash-heap of history? If not, doesn't that prove that there is something more, or perhaps less, than objective scholarly judgement involved in the treatment of Ives's reputation?

For those of us who love Ives's music, the Solomon charges do not ring true (and have, in fact, been discredited by a small army of Ives scholars that no one seems to listen to). Even were they true, they seem incredibly irrelevant. Maybe Ives added dissonances to the Concord Sonata his entire life (and if he did, how would you prove mendacious intent?), but its amount of dissonance is not why I love the piece (and if it was, so what?). I love the piece for its interplay of themes and its amazing stream-of-consciousness form - and no one has ever charged that Ives added those in decades later, nor would such a charge make any sense. For that matter, if musicological reconstruction managed to prove that the Concord Sonata was written in 1949 by John Kirkpatrick, with Schoenberg sitting by his shoulder giving him advice about the harmony, I would still love the piece and listen to it, still prefer it to anything Schoenberg ever wrote, still consider it amazing and visionary and original. What power do musicologists possess to affect our perception of the music we love?

May 17, 2004 10:23 AM | |

Wow - thinking about Ives and his accusers, what a beautiful statement from composer and loyal respondent Art Jarvinen:

About that conception that Ives went back and "updated" his scores, to make it appear that he was ahead of his time or whatever: When I was reading the Swafford bio on Ives it struck me that he was probably just a lot like Frank Zappa.

When I worked for FZ as a copyist one of the things we were working on was the score to 200 Motels, which had long before been "finished", recorded and released. He wanted it all cleaned up and copied beautifully according to the state of the art hand copying methods of the time. It was immediately apparent that the score I was looking at didn't exactly match the record. We were working from a revision.

I also did reductions for two pianos of most of his orchestral works and saw the same thing. Pedro's Dowrey, recorded on Orchestral Favorites, has a lot of changes, and is different still by the time he gets it done by the London Symphony. The entire ending is different in fact. Frank paid me put a band together to play Pedro in my two piano version plus percussion, bass, and trombone, planning to record it. But then the LSO deal fell into place and my version became moot. But he used the band as a testing ground, and had Kent Nagano conduct us through it and replaced our percussionists with his guys. All through the rehearsal he was changing things, and having Chad Wackerman play the drum part with different feels - "Now make it reggae."

The piece he did for the E.A.R. Unit - While You Were Art - came out on Jazz From Hell completely reworked as WYWA II.

What I observed by seeing his music so close up and watching him work was that nothing he did was ever really finished. It was all work in progress, and he changed it every time he went back to it. Records exist, and bands would play a version of a piece for a while, but that's what they were - the versions of that moment.

Ives published his works, but that doesn't mean that in his own mind those were THE definitive versions. I think that if he had an inspiration or learned a new trick or just wanted to see what the effect would be if he did it "this way", he took the liberty to do so. It was his music, to do with as he pleased. No one says Frank Zappa was revising his works because he didn't get them quite right the first time, and I see no reason to think Ives was up to some trickery.

Who says a work of art is finished, and at what point? Exhibition, recording, publication?

I think some artists just work, and the "work" is over when they die. What we may be left with are several versions of the same piece, all equally valid.

Is Frank Zappa hereby discredited? If not, why the musicological glee among those who attempt to discredit Ives?

May 16, 2004 3:32 PM | |

I'm very happy to see Richard Taruskin in the Times today saying that Charles Ives was a great composer not only because of his innovations, but because of the depth of feeling of even his so-called "conservative" music. As he puts it,

Thus was Ives effectively plugged into a powerful discourse that valued artists chiefly in proportion to their technical and formal innovations. It was not necessarily the best vantage point from which to view Ives (or, some might argue, any artist). But the long-frustrated composer bought into it for a while, and it turned the Ives boom into a bubble that might easily be pricked.

I'm especially happy because this is almost precisely what I had earlier said at greater length in my article about Ives's symphonies in this month's Symphony magazine (regrettably unavailable on the web):

[R]ecognition that Ives was a master of melodic and harmonic continuity may defuse some of the pointless controversy over the extent to which he was "first" to do everything. Yes, Ives's Third is "suppressed, technically speaking" [as Ives wrote]. But who ever thought that the technical side of music was the important part? Who thinks the Jupiter Symphony is a great piece because of its invertible counterpoint? Who believes that hemiola is what makes the Schumann Third great, or that the contrapuntal superimposition of two themes is the ultimate point of Bruckner's Fifth? And yet when it comes to Ives, suddenly we get all musicological, and his greatness is entirely credited to a pack of musical card tricks no one had thought of before. And Ives, in the Memos, nods his head in agreement! Ergo, if you cast doubt on those card tricks - prove that some of the dissonance was added later, that maybe the complexity wasn't complex as early as someone said (none of which has been proven) - then the whole Ives edifice comes tumbling down.

See? And I consider Taruskin brilliant, so those who come up with the same insights he does must be... well, you get the idea.

May 16, 2004 10:23 AM | |

A fine postclassical composer whom I inadvertently left off my postclassical piano list (I have since added him on) writes to ask in some confusion what my criteria for postclassical music are. Ah! That is the question, isn't it? I have intentionally been avoiding specifying what postclassical music is, exactly, and perhaps my lists are an attempt to show what it is by dozens of examples, without setting up a definition.

Quite essentially, I don't know how to define postclassical music any better than anyone else, but I know it when I hear it. I wouldn't quite expect anyone else to get the same feeling from the word that I do. But I judge it from the transition I myself went through early in my career as a composer. When I was young, I had this vague but powerful sense (a neurosis, it seems to me now) that music was supposed to have a certain kind of pitch complexity, a certain kind of variety, a form that started at one place, went somewhere, and came back; a certain feel for organic unity-within-variety. Music, in order to be Great Art, needed to manifest some kind of psychological cohesion, some analogue to sonata form. Pitch complexity was central, and a piece's form had to be defined harmonically; rhythm was not an important or sufficient formal element.

Certain pieces challenged that: Riley's In C, Reich's Drumming, anything by the mature John Cage. Variety, it turned out, wasn't necessary. "Going somewhere" wasn't necessary. I started hearing this music that seemed to begin from a clean slate, that allowed itself to sustain one sound-image all the way through a piece, or that moved in an abrupt, nonlinear, nondevelopmental manner. Classical music required lots of glue to hold its notes together, but this new music seemed to get by fine without glue, seemed to be freer and happier without it in fact. I enjoyed listening to it. I asked La Monte Young why the movements of his Five Pieces for String Quartet were so much alike, and he scowled a moment and answered, "Variety is for people who can't write music." What a revelation! The old classical music started with the germ of an idea and DEVELOPED it in a careful manner towards increasing and then decreasing intensity. Climaxes were crucial, to be approached gradually and left carefully. The new music, though, started from scratch, without such assumptions, writing on the listener's attention as on a blank slate, adding whatever appeared to work without bothering with the inner reality of smooth dynamic curves and gradual pitch-set transformation.

One thing that bugged me about the "classical" music of the 1970s and '80s was the kind of precious feeling of sounds going into and out of silence. Sounds were supposed to die into silence, decrescendoing "al niente." Classical composers were deathly afraid of grooves and hard, clean lines. Music was supposed to be mercurial, delicate, always in transition, virtuosic, endlessly rubato, impressive in its subtlety of detail, with different dynamics on every consecutive note, every tiny little nuance very carefully worked out. It was supposed to limit itself to "good, 20th-century intervals like sevenths and tritones" (as one of my professors exhorted me), constantly negating any unambiguous tonal implication, rather than making use of the full spectrum. Ambiguity was the goal, any clear statement a professional faux pas. I got sick and tired of the precious, delicate, busy, hard-working sound of this music. It sounded afraid: afraid to keep going, afraid to start up a beat, afraid to make a direct point, afraid to paint a clear and recurring melody on the canvas of silence.

Reich, Riley, and Glass, and even before them Cage and Feldman, brought a new kind of music with constant pulsations, clear melodies that didn't fluctuate in volume from the first note to the last, music with a beat, sometimes a groove, bold music that could be loud all the way through or soft all the way through, music that would take a singular sound image and hammer away at it until you really got it. Memorable music. Music that didn't give a shit whether its pitch constructs were all derived from the material in the first three measures. Music that appealed to how people hear, how their attention spans work, not music meant to be analyzed on the page for its ingenious transformation of pitch sets. Music that if it suddenly wanted to go into C major in measure 135 just suddenly went there, and if it wanted to turn atonal in measure 402, it could do that too. Music that sounded like it was made by composers who were unfettered and free, not by composers who were lining up to be the next successor to Schoenberg in the Great Line of Composers.

This is hardly a definition. It's a feeling. If you're tuned into it, you can tell in the first 15 seconds of a piece whether the composer "gets it" or not. Postclassical music can't yet be defined positively, by where it's going to, but only negatively, by where it's escaped from. An awful lot of musicians involved in "contemporary music" are still addicted to that careful, precious feeling, that delicate al niente articulation, the florid interplay of dynamics, all the glue that holds the mercurial variety together. They look for the careful preparation and dissolution of climaxes in music, and are disgusted if it's not there. The new music seems so unsubtle to them, embarrassingly frank, irritatingly continuous in its motoric beat or unvarying dynamic, insufficiently macho in its refusal to climax. Just this week I played Daniel Lentz, John Luther Adams, and Janice Giteck for some grad music students who were horrified by the music's unchangeability, its steady beat, its partly electronic timbres, its contentment to pursue one idea for up to 75 minutes. ("Where is the line between classical and pop?," yelled one exasperated hater of Lentz. "There ISN'T any line!," I shouted back.)

Well, screw 'em, and screw everyone who wants to hold onto the precious, mercurial, climax-oriented aesthetic. I prefer postclassical music: it dances, it sings, it rags, it quotes ironically, it muses, it abides, it hammers away, it sits in one place when it wants, it takes sharp left turns, it paints in bold, hard-edged strokes. It burns itself into your ear and your brain. It isn't trying to worm its way into the history books or win awards from prestigious committees of university professors. And (because of that) it isn't afraid.

So that's my criterion. If music makes my flesh crawl and my brow furrow, and impresses me with the deadly hard work that went into it and the weight of tradition it carries along with it, it's modernist. If it makes my ears perk up and my shoulders relax, and brings a smile to my face, it's postclassical.

May 10, 2004 7:16 PM | |

All right, here's the repertoire list for postclassical music for multiple pianos, as well as I've been able to piece it together - and longer than I expected to find, I must say, given the inconvenient nature of the medium. There's a temptation to broaden the category, since so many fine works for multiple pianos remain little known. For instance, Wallingford Riegger's Variations for two pianos is among his best works, and Ferruccio Busoni's Fantasia Contrappuntistica, based on fragments of Bach's last, unfinished fugue, has been a tremendous influence on me, partly the inspiration for my own I'itoi Variations. It's curious, in fact, how common theme and variations is in the double-piano literature. But I'll stick to postclassical, and some of those listed, like Reich's Piano Phase and Feldman's Piece for Four Pianos, are seminal works of the era. The number in parentheses is the number of pianos required, of course.

The Postclassical Multiple Piano List

Morton Feldman: Two Pianos (2)
- Piece for Four Pianos (4)
- Vertical Thoughts I (2)
- Five Pianos (5)
John Cage: Winter Music (any number)
Steve Reich: Piano Phase (2)
- Six Pianos (6)
Daniele Lombardi: Sinfonia No 1 (21)
- Sinfonia No. 2 (21)
- Threnodia (21)
Harold Budd, Daniel Lentz, and Ruben Garcia: Pulse/Pause/Retreat (3)
- La Muchacha de los Suenos Dorados (3)
- Iris (3)
- Somos Tres (3)
- The Messenger (3)
- La Casa Bruja (3)
Simeon ten Holt: Meandres (4)
- Canto Ostinato (4)
- Horizon (4)
- Shadow nor Prey (2)
James Tenney: Chromatic Canon (2)
- Bridge (2 pianos, four players)
- Flocking (2 pianos, four players)
Ernesto Martinez: Tocatta [sic] (2)
- Mutaciones Basadas en el Preludio #1 de J.S. Bach (2)
- Adagio (2 electric pianos)
Eduardo Gonzalez: Casi Satie Pero con Adorno (2)
- Estudio Micro-Arritmico #1 (2)
Meredith Monk: Ellis Island (2)
- Phantom Waltz (2)
William Duckworth: Binary Images (2)
- Forty Changes (2)
Ingram Marshall: Five Easy Pieces (2)
Anthony Braxton: Composition No. 95 (2)
Frederic Rzewski: Night Crossing with Fisherman (2)
David Borden: Double Portrait (2)
Stefan Wolpe: Enactments (3)
Paul Bowles: Night Waltz (2)
Michael Byron: Evaporated Pleasure (2)
Terry Riley: Cinco de Mayo (2)
Kevin Volans: Cicada (2)
Jack Vees: Piano Trio (Hulk Smash) (2 pianos, 3 players)
Robert Ashley: Viva's Boy (2)
John McGuire: 48 Variations for Two Pianos (2)
"Blue" Gene Tyranny: The Decertified Highway of Dreams (2)
Larry Polansky: ivt (2)
Wendy Mae Chambers: Ten Grand (10)
Peter Gena: 100 Fingers (10 players, I forget how many pianos)
David Lang: Orpheus Over and Under (2)
Galen Brown: Distance Over Time (2)
Julius Eastman: Evil Nigger* (4)
- Gay Guerrilla (4)
- Crazy Nigger* (4)
Kyle Gann: Long Night (3)
- I'itoi Variations (2)

*Perhaps I'd better hasten to explain the titles of the late Julius Eastman (1940-90). Eastman was a gay African-American, and his titles are quite deliberate strategies to appropriate to himself and neutralize, or even exalt, words that normally have negative connotations. Since the American economy was built on the manual labor of those at the bottom, he defined "nigger" as "that which is fundamental," and he intended to glorify, through his titles, those who have been demeaned as "niggers." He was controversial, but the pieces are fantastic.

In addition, there's an entire repertoire performed by the piano sextet Pianocircus, which can be looked up at their website. I don't know much of the music there, how many of the pieces are arrangements, or how many are for fewer than six pianos. Suggested additions will be entertained.

May 8, 2004 12:32 PM | |

I rarely get to sit and talk endlessly about my own music, and I love doing it. You maybe don't want to hear about it, but if you do, composer Daniel Varela's interview with me just came online at Perfect Sound Forever magazine ("the online music magazine with warped perspectives"). And I have so much insight into myself!

May 4, 2004 6:47 PM | |

I have to wonder how often someone reads my blog and then goes back later and reads the same entry again. It must be disconcerting. Because I'll finish a blog entry, go onto Arts Journal and read it, then go back and fiddle with it, correcting typos, changing a word here and there, even adding or subtracting sentences. I get such a different sense of how the essay looks on the internet than how it looks in my word processor that I almost always change something, even a day or two later. Quote me, and someone looking up the quote may find something else. It's one of those real internet luxuries to be able to write something, see how it looks to the reader (assuming the reader has the same browser you do, of course), and then go back and keep making adjustments in coming days to get it perfect.

Back in the old days of newsprint (God bless 'em), it took some trial and error to gauge how your writing would look on a page. I was a little embarrassed by the look of my first few Village Voice columns until I adjusted my writing to the new format.

You have to write a little differently depending on the visual aspect of the venue.

Font, column width, art size, and surrounding advertisements and articles have an effect on what you feel you can intelligently get across.

For instance, the Times has narrow columns, and I never quite get used to their tendency toward brief little one-to-three-sentence paragraphs.

I hate to end a paragraph before the eighth sentence at least.

It drives me nuts.

But not as nuts as it must drive someone to e-mail a friend, "That idiot Kyle Gann on his blog today said that Philip Glass was a better composer than Luciano Berio," and the friend logs on and looks, and e-mails back, "No, that's not what he said at all."

May 3, 2004 10:52 PM | |

My new-music-obsessed friend Anthony Creamer alerts me to a very articulate interview with composer Gavin Bryars, who has written some wonderful music, courtesy of the BBC. (I especially recommend a gorgeous Bryars postminimalist ensemble piece called Four Elements, recorded on ECM.) Bryars echoes my point about fulfillment coming more from the act of composing than from the performance. He also feels, though, as I do, more comfortable being onstage playing in the performance than sitting helplessly in the audience as a new work is played. I like his reason:

Interviewer: Is this so there will be a little piece of yourself in the music?

Bryars: No, it's so I'll have something to do with my hands besides bite my fingernails.

May 3, 2004 10:15 AM | |

Free improvisation maven Lang Thompson quoted my comments about improvisation on The Funhouse blog, and I can't resist quoting his approving response, especially because it comes from a very different viewpoint. I feel somewhat vindicated that a fellow critic who follows the scene much more closely than I do has pretty much the same perception, even if his take on it is less negative than mine:

Now I'm undoubtedly more attracted to free improv than Gann both as an artistic matter (that rock 'n' roll clatter rewritten) and as pure temperament, but think he's nailed a major problem with the practice (though perhaps not the underlying aesthetic). So much free improv has attempted a kind of purity where no obvious styles intrude that the whole thing feels static; it's no accident that so many critics have noted free improv tends to fall into either insect twitter or waterfall roar. Frequently there is no feeling that the players listen to each other despite what many reviewers claim ("listening to each other" seems to be a common motif in Cadence reviews). Plugging up their ears or maybe just layering separate recordings could produce nearly the same results. Just look at free improvers' willingness to play with anybody in any context; I doubt you could convince me this is a bad thing but it does indicate a certain conceptual vagueness. Worse is that the results tend to sound so similar no matter what nationalities, background or even date are involved. A French and American ensemble from 1982 doesn't sound much different from a German and British one from 1997.

May 2, 2004 1:10 PM | |

The world is moving so fast today, isn't it? Now that we the have the internet, the moment something is discovered it can be flashed around the world. We're all in a state of instant communication, and the time lag of assimilation of creative work has been reduced to less than a day.

The flat, clich├Ęd tone of that paragraph may clue you in to its high bullshit quotient. On the contrary, we grow musically more and more behind the times. My friends and I spend lots of time trying to bring into the world music that was made 20, even 30 years ago. I'm transcribing Dennis Johnson's November, the two-hour 1959 piano piece that was the inspiration for La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano. I've just transferred to CD some rare recordings of Julius Eastman's works for multiple pianos from a 1981 concert; I'm sending them to Mary Jane Leach, who's involved in a project trying to bring Eastman's music back into circulation. My jazz pianist friend John Esposito is sitting on an archive of 1980s recordings of the jazz great Arthur Rhames, trying to get them released. Recordings of influential music by Rhys Chatham from the early 1980s just came out recently (on Table of the Elements, a label nobly devoted to preserving that era). Much of the most important music of the 1980s, despite a tremendous local impact at the time, remains buried, unavailable, and undigested today - and as for the 1990s, fuggidaboudit.

Luciano Berio wrote his Sinfonia in 1969, and by 1973 its Columbia recording with Bernstein had electrified the American new music world. Likewise, Steve Reich's Drumming from 1969 hit the world the summer of 1974. I consider that period the peak of music's speed of assimilation (unless, indeed, the peak really occurred in the 19th century, which I sometimes suspect). Since then everything has slowed to a trickle. At Oberlin in the '70s we students were obsessed with music of the '60s, but today's academia hardly acknowledges any music after 1975. I matter-of-factly described Robert Ashley to a student as the greatest opera composer of the late 20th century, and our opera coach, overhearing me, was astonished: he had never heard the name. Nothing unusual about that, unfortunately.

And it's not just that individual composers go unheralded. New conceptions of music get collectively developed (totalism's multitempo ensemble structures, Ashley's text-driven operas which have already given birth to offspring) without the subsequent generation ever learning that that's already happened. One of my more inventive students created a video alter ego for himself in a music video, and was surprised to learn that someone named Laurie Anderson did the same thing over 15 years ago. Decades go by, one musical movement succeeds another - artrock, postminimalism, text opera, performance art, just intonation, spectral music, sampler collage, new complexity, free improvisation, ambient, illbient, totalism - and years after those movements have crested and begun to evolve into something else, students, faculty, and music lovers alike are still struggling with moral qualms over that scary 1960s phenomenon, minimalism. If the lag time for the acceptance and understanding of new music was 4 years in 1969, today I'd say it's at least 25.

We seem to be settling into a corporate-dictated stasis, a world divided between a calcified classical (and even jazz) repertoire and "Golden Oldies." Art continues to move forward, but the money collectors of the world have turned off the spigot on culture, and the amount of new work that drips through approaches zero asymptotically. I'm sitting here looking at thousands of CDs of music from the 1980s, '90s, and early 2000s that no musical public is likely to catch up with in my lifetime. Internet, schminternet - it feels like the world is moving at a decelerating snail's crawl.

May 2, 2004 10:31 AM | |

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Paul Levy measures the Angles
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