main: September 2004 Archives

Winter Music, a book of the essays of John Luther Adams, has just appeared from Wesleyan University Press, with a foreword by yours truly. The title is from John Cage’s music, the publisher the same as Cage’s seminal tome Silence. Adams is the most geographically-identified of recent composers, the composer who writes from Alaska about Alaska, filling his scores with vast, white, sometimes featureless but luminous surfaces. A little reminiscent of Morton Feldman but less nettly, John writes like an artist, not analytically or even literally, but in evocative epigrams that give insight into his wonderful music:

We hear sounds in measurable space. And in physical terms, sound is audible time. But we perceive sounds as something qualitatively different, less like objects and more like forces. This dynamic quality of sound creates its own kind of space and place....

In visual space there’s a phenomenon called ganzfeld. Immersed in pure color, the viewer loses all sense of distance and direction. I long for a similar experience in music. I want to find that timeless place where we listen without memory or expectation, lost in the immeasurable space of tones.

He also writes as a concerned citizen of the world (and environmental activist by former profession) who can see things going on that we lower-48-ers can’t, and even here he writes with no journalist’s argument, but an artist’s eye:

Some say the world will end by fire. Others say by ice. Here in Alaska, the land of snow and ice, we’re beginning to feel the fire.

In the summer of 2000 the Iñupiaq community of Barrow - the farthest-north settlement on the mainland of North America - had its first thunderstorm in history. Tuna were sighted in the Arctic Ocean. No one had ever seen them this far north before.

The following winter Lake Illiamna on the Alaskan Peninsula didn’t freeze over. No one, not even the oldest Native elders, could remember this happening. In Fairbanks for the first time in memory the temperature never dropped to 40 below. Months of unseasonably warm temperatures, scant snowfall, and constantly changing winds were followed by an early spring. This was not the exhilarating explosion, the sudden violence of the sub-Arctic spring. It was the slow attrition of dripping eaves and rotting snow.

Once again this year, winter never really arrived. South central Alaska experienced a violent storm with the highest winds ever registered there. The Iditarod dogsled race had to be moved hundreds of miles north because there was not enough snow. Here in Fairbanks the mean temperature from September through February was the warmest on record. In November and again in February, we had freezing rain. As the small community of Salcha, the ice on the Tanana River broke free of the banks and jammed up, flooding nearby homes and roads. This is something that happens in April or May, not in the middle of winter.

What this all refers to, of course, is that global warming, of which we receive only vague intimations in lower latitudes (like multiple hurricanes?) is a fact of daily life nearer the poles. John's article was completed a year ago and the news it brought depressed me then; more recently I’ve read similar descriptions in Salon and National Geographic. At a reading last night John said if he wrote the article over this year, the picture would be even darker. On the bright side, as temporary consolation while we prepare to bid farewell to our habitat planet, the book comes with a CD of three previously unreleased John Luther Adams works: Roar from The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies, Velocities Crossing in Phase-Space from Strange and Sacred Noise, and Red Arc/Blue Veil. This last will be up on Postclassic Radio very shortly.

September 29, 2004 11:43 AM | |
I’m somewhat number-obsessed, and the core idea of my music has always been melodic loops of different (mutually prime, in fact) lengths going out of phase with each other. (This is also generally true of John Luther Adams, Mikel Rouse, and to a lesser extent Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca - a lot of the totalist composers, in fact.) And so programming a repeating playlist on Postclassic Radio offers a comforting continuity with the rest of my life. I’ve bought 500 MB of web space, which offers me about 18 hours’ worth of music, and I limit it to 17, to have enough “give” room to add new works easily.

Now, 17 is prime, and (trivially) mutually prime with 24. What I imagine (and I have no idea what people’s radio-listening habits really are) is someone getting up every morning and listening to Postclassic Radio from, say, 8 to 9 AM (or in Manhattan, 11 AM to noon). Under this listening pattern, the person will hear everything on the playlist in 17 days. Of course, if you listen two hours a day, you’ll hear everything twice. If I only programmed 16 hours’ worth, you’d hear the same music at the same time every two days (16 x 3 = 24 x 2), and at 18 hours you’d hear the same music every three days (18 x 4 = 24 x 3), so staying around 17 is crucial. Even so, one friend wrote to tell me that it seems like every time he tunes in, Tom Johnson’s Bonhoeffer Oratorium is playing, and I’ve had pretty much the same experience - with that same piece. (It’s a great piece, but I finally replaced it.) I’ve been replacing about two tracks a day on the average, and since I have between 80 and 90 tracks up, that means a complete playlist turnover every 40 to 45 days. From my vantage point, I get a little tired of hearing the same pieces over and over again, but then, I frequently have it on five or six hours a day, which I imagine greatly exceeds the listening time of the average listener. On the other hand, I’ve included a lot of tracks from the to-be-listened-to stack of CDs that perennially occupies the side of my desk, and I’m gotten familiar with a hell of a lot of music I’d been meaning to get around to for months, in some cases years. One way I look at it is that I’m paying 35 bucks a month to listen to my own CD collection. But I learn a lot.

Statistically speaking, if you listen an hour a day, you should hear each piece two to three times before it's replaced. I'll appreciate hearing whether people think I'm replacing pieces too quickly or too slowly.

Conventional wisdom would hold that my playlist represents only one slender strand of new music - the Downtown variety - but I think the diversity is pretty remarkable, far greater than you’d get from any similar roster of recent orchestral commissions. There is much postminimalism, much totalism, but other things that don’t fit, including quite a bit of atonal music (Petr Kotik’s Asymmetric Landing, Morton Feldman’s Flute and Orchestra, and Clarence Barlow’s Çogluotobusisletmesi, for instance). A lot of music with pop influences, and a lot of music with no pop influences at all, mostly American but some from Finland, Korea, Holland, Japan, Italy, Russia, and other countries. I recently wrote that the typical prize-winning Uptown orchestra piece is brief, hyperactive, filled with rhythmic momentum, tonal but not too tonal, and dotted with splashes of orchestral color. The “typical” Postclassic Radio piece, if there is one, is precisely the opposite: long, often nearly motionless, extremely tonal or at least limited in pitch content, and monochromatic. No wonder these composers don’t fill their bios with prizes they've won.

Listeners can rate the works frm one to five stars, and the ratings so far have made no sense at all. A piece that has one star one day will have five stars the next, and while some pieces I didn’t expect to be popular get five stars, others by celebrated composers, like the Feldman, will get half a star. One Mikel Rouse song gets five stars, the next half a star. So I don’t know what to think about that; I tried leaving up the more highly-rated pieces longer, but it didn’t make any sense. The statistical sample seems too small to take seriously. If my audience has little inclination to divide works on the “thumbs-up, thumbs-down” principle, I can certainly appreciate that.

Recent additions, since I last blogged about them, that might interest you: Chas Smith’s Scircura is a gorgeous continuum that I wrote about here several months ago, and I’ve been especially attentive to uploading music I’ve written about. Tom Hamilton’s Sebastian’s Shadow is a lovely electronic work based on the harmony of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue No. 4, BWV 542. Terry Riley’s Journey from the Death of a Friend is the flip-side (really) of the old Warner Brothers recording of Happy Ending. The first movement of Gloria Coates’ Symphony No. 4, if you’ll listen long enough, reveals a basis on Dido’s lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, “When I Am Laid in Earth.” I’ve added in Jeff Beal’s soundtrack to the film Pollock, which I mentioned during the Critics’ Conversation as the first postminimalist film score; I wanted to see how it would sound in the context of other postminimalist music. As a slight joke, I added Max V. Mathews’ 1961 computerized realization of “Bicycle Built for Two,” which was used in the movie 2001. And you’ve got to hear Prent Rodgers’ Resolution in Blue for slide piano, meaning a piano computer-altered so that it sounds like it’s played with a gigantic whammy bar. The diversity of Postclassical music is endless, the quality very often remarkable. And the classical mavens are all convinced it doesn’t exist.

September 28, 2004 11:08 AM | |

Composer Kyle here. We just finished a very successful two days of recording sessions for my piece Long Night, which will be an upcoming release on Cold Blue records, an underground West Coast label that I've admired since its vinyl days. The piece is for three pianos, but since the piano parts aren't synchronized, we recorded it with one pianist, the amazing Sarah Cahill - though on three different pianos. And we did it in the Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center at Bard, which European newspapers have called acoustically the best concert hall in North America, and which is across the street from where I sit. I wrote Long Night in 1980, revised it in 1981, and it hasn't been heard publicly since New Music America 1982. You can listen to the 1981 performance here if you want, though it sounds so inferior to the recording we just made that I'm ashamed of it now.

Anyway, we recorded all day yesterday, and gathered this morning to hear the results. The first piano tones that came over the loudspeakers were just gorgeous. Tech Director Paul LaBarbera had turned off all the air conditioners in the building for us, and we had achieved absolute silence, like an anechoic chamber; I could hear my tinnitus, which is so faint as to be drowned out by almost anything. In the playback, those pristinely recorded piano tones emerging from total silence were just delicious, like perfect blueberries in first-run maple syrup, even where Sarah was just practicing a fingering. Suddenly it didn't matter what I had written, and I said so, and Sarah replied, "It doesn't matter how well I played." The piano would have sounded beautiful even if a cat had been walking on the keys. Thank goodness perfect sound conditions are so rare, or composers, arrangers of sounds, would become unnecessary - as, indeed, John Cage thought they were.

September 26, 2004 6:30 AM | |
As though to demonstrate the flip-side of my argument (does the very word “flip-side” date me?), an e-mail arrives this morning announcing the appearance of Lukas Ligeti’s new web site. Ligeti is a Hungarian-American who’s performed and studied a lot in Africa, but who’s made his home in New York’s Downtown scene. His biography runs thusly:

Lukas Ligeti's music is a unique fusion of acoustic and electronic, traditional and avantgarde, Occidental, African, and other influences. [Immediately he tells you what kind of music he writes. What a great idea!] With his uncompromising musical vision and his collaborations ranging from contemporary music groups to free-improvisors to traditional musicians, he has established himself as one of today's foremost musical innovators.

Lukas Ligeti was born in Vienna, Austria, to Hungarian parents [one of them a famous composer named, uh... Stockhausen, I think]. He studied composition (with Erich Urbanner) and jazz drums (with Fritz Ozmec) at the Vienna Music Academy (University for Music and the Performing Arts), obtaining a Diploma in composition and a Certificate in jazz drums (1993). He also holds a Master of Arts degree from the Vienna Music Academy (thesis on "World Music and Improvised Music", 1997), and took part in workshops led by John Zorn, George Crumb, and David Moss, and in the Darmstadt Ferienkurse.

From 1994 until 1996, he lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he was a visiting composer at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University. In 1998, he settled in New York City....

Ethno-musicological recordings and analyses, especially of African music, were a great influence on him from the beginning on; other areas of interest include experimental mathematics, architecture and visual art, geography and traveling, as well as sociology and politics. Musically, he is interested in creating new forms of ensemble interplay, non-tempered tunings, and the possibilities generated by electronics and by cultural exchange.

He is equally engaged in composition and in improvisation and is fond of many kinds of combination of these two extremes. An interest in jazz led him to the "downtown" New York avant-garde, and on the whole, in his attitude and development as a composer, he probably has more in common with the so-called American "mavericks" (including composers like Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, the so-called "minimalists", John Zorn, and others) than with any European contemporary tradition.

Then, after you’ve gotten some idea what he’s about, he names the awards he’s gotten. There’s a long paragraph listing all the musicians he’s worked with. At the top of the page, this would have looked boastful, but it’s buried down at the bottom, where you’ll run into it if you’ll still interested that long. Overall the whole web site radiates enthusiasm, a sense of Ligeti’s passion for music and why he makes it the way he does. You want to hear the stuff. Compare this with any Uptown symphonist’s list of their awards and residencies, and - without any value judgment made about a single note of music - you’ll get a vivid sense of the European/Downtown eagerness for innovation and creativity versus Uptown prize-validated pretentiousness.

September 21, 2004 12:06 PM | |
A young composer friend took me greatly to task for being so hard on Jennifer Higdon for listing nothing but her hundreds of prizes and awards on her web site biography. I agree that it was unfair to single her out. I was preprogrammed to explode at the seventh dry, pompous, unmusical, grant-organization-acronym-filled composer’s web site I saw, and it just happened to be hers. It must seem out of left field to chastise her for making her bio look like that of every other colleague she has. I had a particularly hard time finding information about John Corigliano, a much older and better established composer. After scouring the usual reference works (which are always several years out of date) I went to 40 or 50 web pages before finding anything about him that wasn’t the usual list of awards and prizes and grants, usually lifted verbatim from his official web page. For all I know, Ms. Higdon’s web site may have been designed by her manager, not herself. And, for all I know, that kind of award resumé might be exactly the kind that’s most effective - tailored as it obviously is to presenters and potential patrons, not to music lovers deeply affected by your music. It seems to assume that the latter will not exist.

And yet, when you research European composers, how different, how much grainier and more thought-provoking the results are. I recently wrote about Arvo Pärt (roughly equivalent in fame to Corigliano) and Erkki-Sven Tüür (roughly as well-known as Higdon), and everywhere you go, there are quotes, interviews, insightful musical descriptions. Pärt and Tüür talk about what’s musically important to them, how they write pieces, their relation to the culture they came from, why they ended up writing music the way they do. They refer to individual pieces as turning points, talk about musical architecture, aesthetics, even religion. "I am very interested in a combination of opposites," says Tüür - "tonality versus atonality, regular repetitive rhythms versus irregular complex rhythms, tranquil meditativeness versus explosive theatricality - and especially in the way they gradually change from one to another.” "I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played,” Pärt explains. “This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements - with one voice, two voices." Have Pärt and Tüür ever won any prizes or awards for their music? I have no idea. They don’t say.

This level of talking about what they want from music and why is scrupulously avoided by the American orchestra-composer crowd - as though admitting what they’re trying to achieve would make them vulnerable somehow, or scare off the next potential patron. Of all the ones I’ve researched, only John Adams (who started out pretty much as a Downtowner anyway) likes to talk about how he composes, what musical effect he’s trying to create. Of course, 20 years ago, composers gave all kinds of technical detail about their music, and it was very forbidding. The kind of dense program notes we had then (“the inversion of the row enters in the clarinet at the golden section of the exposition”) justifiably got a very bad name, and is no longer done. But in an important way, the listing of one’s awards and prizes has replaced it. Both attempt to overwhelm the listener by invoking the authority supporting one’s music. It used to be, “You may not like this piece, but I can prove it’s great because it has all kinds of technical devices that you don’t understand.” Now it’s “You may not like this piece, but I can prove it’s great because this panel of experts gave it a prize, and this panel, and this panel, and this panel.” Both kinds of program note render the composer invulerable, by denying the listener any right to come to an independent conclusion.

After all, we all know that neither Schoenberg nor Varèse ever succeeded in winning a Guggenheim - every composer knows and repeats those anecdotes. Hundreds of French composers won the Prix de Rome whose names are now lost even to the large music reference works. The music Pulitzer list is famously brimming with duds. Everyone knows or at least intuits, composers and laymen alike, that the great original composers don’t win prizes, that lots of prize-winning artists fall by the wayside, and that any correlation between prizes and quality is pretty much accidental. I say nothing against prizes and awards and commissions per se, because, however inefficiently they’re distributed, they allow a certain number of composers to make a living, or part of one, by writing music. But while awards facilitate the writing of music, they do not validate the music made. Only listeners can do that. Awards are not an end but merely a means, and it is clear that a young composer who has racked up more than a hundred of them has made collecting them an explicit career goal. The tail is wagging the dog. There is a kind of piece composers write to win prizes - hyperactive, tonal but not too tonal, resplendent with instrumental color and brass climaxes - and the most successful composers I’ve known have been the first to admit it. Some of Higdon's pieces fit this mold.

No prize, no hundred prizes, can prove that a piece of music will be of lasting value. But we have a musical upper crust in America who have been completely seduced into forgetting that, and who live in a mad whirl of prize- and honor-collecting: oblivious to audiences, oblivious to the social role of their music, but completely focused on their fellow professionals in a system in which one proves one's worth by the accumulation of awards. One passes a certain critical mass and it becomes easy. There's a well-known phenomenon in prize-giving called the "St. Matthew effect," by which those who receive awards become more likely to receive even more. (It's from Matthew 25:29: "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.") If Charles Wuorinen gets famous for a Pulitzer, then another organization increases its own prestige by adding him to their list of honorees. But when you read about these people, and find them unable to say anything for themselves except list their awards, save for the occasional effusive compliment for some conductor who conducted their music and might do so again - you get the impression that they've forgotten what their music was originally about before they started trading it in for prizes.

UPDATE: I found an interview with Jennifer Higdon on Andante, and as I had heard, she seems very nice and personable. From the point of view of someone curious about her music, her web site does not represent her well.

September 20, 2004 6:11 PM | |
Just in case anyone thought I was exaggerating in my recent complaints about Uptown composers and their program notes: I needed to look up composer Jennifer Higdon, and I found her official web page. It offers a "biography." And so I think, well, biography, I'll learn whether she was born in a log cabin, what her formative influences were, what age she started composing, what crises in her emotional life resulted in certain works, and so on. Here's how her "biography" runs:

Jennifer Higdon is active as a freelance composer. Born in Brooklyn, New York on December 31, 1962, she grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and Seymour, Tennessee, and now resides in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

She has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Letters (two awards), the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, the International League of Women Composers, Composers Inc. (the Lee Ettelson Prize), the University of Delaware New Music Competition, the Louisville Orchestra New Music Search, the Cincinnati Symphony's Young Composer's Competition, NACUSA, and ASCAP. In addition she has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Meet-the-Composer, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. She has served as Composer-in-Residence with the Music From Angel Fire Festival, the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, the Walden School, the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, and the Prism Saxophone Quartet. Most recently she was named Composer-in-Residence with the Philadelphia Singers. Her orchestral work Shine was named Best Contemporary Piece of 1996 by USA Today in their year-end classical picks. In 2003, her Piano Trio was awarded Ithaca College's Heckscher Prize.

Pardon my French, but Jeepers H. Christmas, can't these Uptown composers think about ANYTHING in the world except their stupid awards? This is a BIOGRAPHY?! It's pathetic that these orchestra-circuit idiots have nothing personal to say about themselves, no aptitude for introspection, no aim in their music beyond boosting their careers, but that they are driven to impress you ad infinitum with their endless lists of awards, prizes, grants, degrees, residencies, titles - as though a mile-long resumé could make anyone in the world love your music more. And I've only quoted the beginning: look at it: it goes on for many paragraphs like this, without the slightest personal insight or any experience that someone listening to the music would give a damn about. These Uptown composers are so obsessed with their credentials it's ludicrous, and doesn't say much for their love of their art.

September 19, 2004 11:35 PM | |
I've put up on PostClassic Radio a rare old Wergo recording of one of my favorite works: Çogluotobusisletmesi by the irrepressible Clarence Barlow. The title is in Turkish, and has something to do with an autobus, and there are two versions: one electronic and this one, played on piano by the formidable Herbert Henck. Barlow is an important English/Indian/German composer of tremendous wit and invention, and very little of his music is available commercially. This record was, once, and to my knowledge it has never made it to CD. The most incredible thing I ever heard Barlow do was play a piece on a Disklavier that was a theme and variations based on (what chutzpah!) the theme from Beethoven's Sonata Op. 111 (on which Beethoven had written his own rather impressive variations). Barlow played for awhile, and then the piano, computer-driven, started adding its own notes. Barlow eventually got up and walked away, and the piano continued without him. Brilliant music, stunning theater. If I ever get my hands on a recording of that, you'll be the first to hear it with me.

Other new stuff now up: music for digital piano by John Holland, Endless Bummer by Art Jarvinen, a lovely, almost motionless orchestra piece by Michael Pisaro, and a couple of amazing pieces by a young Japanese woman composer, Mica Nozawa. Sometimes it takes a full completion of the playlist loop for the new pieces to come up, and so some pieces may not be available in the first 12 or so hours I say they are. Meanwhile, there's plenty to listen to. I've got more than 90 pieces in rotation, and I've been subtracting a couple and adding a couple every day. I don't know how fast I should go in that process, how many listeners are beginning to hear the same things over and over. Feedback is appreciated.

UPDATE: Responding to my headline, Antonio Celaya informs me of a choral piece by Anders Hillborg entitled, Muocdaeyiywcoum. Ouch!

September 15, 2004 1:21 PM | |
I don't know whether any of you reading out there live in Cincinnati - raise your hand if you do - but by an odd chain of circumstances, I sort of "inherited" the job as program annotator for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra when my friend the previous annotator Jonathan Kramer died a few months ago. This coming weekend marks my premiere in the program guide. For Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3 they're reusing notes from a previous season, but I wrote this week's notes for Sibelius's Kullervo, a mammoth five-movement symphony from 1892 that was his first work based on the Kalevala, and his turn toward an indigenously Finnish musical idiom. Sibelius got nervous about the work and squelched it after a few performances - it wasn't played in its entirety again until after his death - but I find it one of his most arresting works, more powerful than most of his other early tone poems, and in a league with his late symphonies. However that may be, the concerts are this Friday and Saturday, and you can not only get information at the Cincinnati Symphony's web page, but even read the program notes in a PDF if you're so inclined. (I do like the idea of people reading the program notes before the concert rather than during it.) Paavo Järvi, who conducts the orchestra, programs a hefty proportion of new music - among the composers for this season are Erkki-Sven Tüür, Arvo Pärt, Aulis Sallinen, John Adams, Kevin Puts, Jennifer Higdon, Tobias Picker, Edino Krieger, John Corigliano, and Henri Dutilleux. You'll notice a heavy Scandinavian presence there, and I am indeed learning a lot about Scandinavian music. Admittedly, no Bob Ashley or Glenn Branca yet, but who knows?

It was the Cincinnati Orchestra's 1930 performance of The Rite of Spring that compelled a 18-year-old Arkansan named Conlon Nancarrow, studying at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory, to decide to become a composer. An auspicious link, I thought.

September 14, 2004 9:15 AM | |
New tracks tonight on Postclassic Radio by microtonal guitarist Neil Haverstick (playing the blues on 19-tone guitar), Petr Kotik, Jerome Kitzke, William Duckworth, Korean composer Hyo-shin Na, and Bernadette Speach. The last's new cut is Parallel Windows - unframed (1996), one of her two pieces for piano and orchestra. I'll put the other one up soon (Within) for comparison.

September 13, 2004 11:27 PM | |
Got nine minutes? Listen to this:

Blue Rhythm (1990)

This piece by William Duckworth is what I consider absolutely top-shelf postminimalism. You can hear, I think, how different it is from works by Steve Reich or Philip Glass - its process isn’t obvious, there are a lot more textural changes, the form goes off at right angles. These things don’t make it better or worse than Glass or Reich, just different in style. The piece is so intricate in its textures, so melodically and rhythmically inventive, so lively in its momentum, that I think it’s maybe the best piece I’ve uploaded to Postclassic Radio so far, one of the very best chamber works of recent years. And since I had this direct link, I thought, why make you search for it in a 17-hour playlist when I can give it to you directly?

If you’re interested, you can purchase the score, or just find out more about Duckworth, at his web page. If you’re not wowed, well, I guess postminimalism’s just not for you.

September 12, 2004 6:31 PM | |
When I performed in Moscow a couple of years ago (the day the Chechen terrorist seige of a nearby theater ended), I was generously showered with CDs by local postminimalist, electronic, and improvising composers who, in this country, would be considered “Downtown.” I’m now uploading much of that material to Postclassic Radio. In fact, although I am an American music specialist, I have quite a few Europeans running on my station now, and they are NOT the usual suspects from that continent:

from Holland:
Renske Vrolijk

from Germany (though half Spanish):
Maria De Alvear

from Finland:
Juhani Nuorvala

from Italy:
Giancarlo Cardini

from Russia:
Dmitriy Riabtsev
Alexander Bakshi
Pavel Karmanov
Vladimir Martynov
Anton Batagov

Their music may suggest, I think, that in Europe, as here, the young composers writing the most interesting music are not the ones receiving major exposure from classical music institutions.

September 11, 2004 10:20 AM | |
There's been some inexplicable problem accessing the playlist for Postclassic Radio, but I think I've fixed it. (I could reach it through Mozilla, but not Internet Explorer.) Please let me know if you still have trouble.

September 10, 2004 9:36 AM | |
In a climactic moment of the wonderful movie Brazil, Robert DeNiro as Harry Tuttle, subversive free-lance electrical engineer, literally drowns, or dissolves, in the bureaucratic paperwork he has spent his career circumnavigating. I’ll die that way too, not in a mass of paper but in an ocean of CDs, as my friends grab up the fallen stacks of discs only to find that I’ve completely disappeared, absorbed into the microscopic pits in the polycarbonate plastic I spent my life obsessed with.

This combination of a blog and an internet radio station strikes me as really potent. Before, all I could do was harangue you - “Why the hell don’t you already know about all this wonderful music I listen to?!” Or, “Go buy this CD, and then you’ll know what I’m talking about!” Now, the music’s there if you want to listen to it (and, admittedly, if you have a cable modem connection; my willing friends with only dial-ups have been regrettably out of luck), and I can keep up a running commentary. In fact, it aids the fantasy I have of myself as the Harry Tuttle of music criticism - get in, get out, don’t wait for the ponderously slow commercial system to bring talent to light, but suddenly expose people to some wonderful music they would never in a million years have heard otherwise, then retreat for the next strike. You have to subvert and bypass all our social structures to make anything good happen today, because society’s arteries are clogged with the poison of money.

So let me tell you about the recordings I’ve got up so far. It seems that whenever I post music anywhere, some worthy instantly responds with, “Hell, I’ve heard that piece before, that’s not so new!” Apparently because I have a reputation as the Village Voice new-music critic, any music I champion had better be no more than 16 minutes old, and to boot made by some 20-year-old hotshot who just dropped out of college and came to New York yesterday, or I will be exposed as a pathetic fraud, and some people apparently derive a curious thrill from the thought that they’re hipper than Kyle Gann. I always have a few choice comments in response to this, and I’ll spare you the first two. Number three, I was active as a New York critic until 1997, when I cut back at the Voice and entered academia, and I have since always happily admitted that I am inevitably not right smack on the cutting edge of the era 1997-2004. I do keep up pretty well with the music of members of my own generation, who inexplicably get a year older every year. Number four - and this was particularly true of the listening page I posted for the recent Critics Conversation - I run into an awful lot of people who can’t name a non-pop piece of music more recent than Akhnaten, and I sometimes feel it is my mission to drag people through the 1980s and 1990s so they can understand what’s going on now. Also, if a truly great piece of music came out in 1988 and made no public impact whatever, and people have still never heard of it, I reserve the right to consider it absolutely now until somebody friggin’ listens to it and pays attention.

That said, many of the pieces on PostClassic Radio are 21st-century, most are post-1992, and I do include four composers in their 20s - Andrew Schulze, Erin Watson, Corey Dargel, and Max Giteck Duykers - so feign a little respect. And maybe Renske Vrolijk, I have no idea how old she is, but she’s Dutch and a major young new talent.

I’ve also performed a public service by resuscitating some music back to 1970 that some people my age may know, but is not available in the CD world. Two such recordings are Terry Riley’s lovely film score Happy Ending from about 1971, and Robert Ashley’s Music Word Fire and I Would Do It Again (Coocoo), a spin-off piece from his opera Perfect Lives that, being only 28 minutes, was never reissued on CD. One of his best discs, disappeared. I also happen to have, because I was in the right place at the right time, tapes of two multiple-piano pieces by the late Julius Eastman, an active underground New York figure of the early 1980s whose music came scarily close to disappearing without a trace when he was thrown out of his New York apartment by the sheriff and ended up living in Tomkins Square Park. There are a few people out there looking for this music, and I’ve got a little more up my sleeve. Plus a fine unsung Midwestern composer now moved to Arizona, Paul Sturm, whose vinyl record of the 1980s Long Distance deserves some 21st-century hearings.

If I were the 17-year-old Kyle Gann of today, I'd be out there with a tape recorder or audio software avidly recording everything on PostClassic Radio, waiting on pins and needles for gems such as these. But perhaps there is no such person. Young people don’t seem to check out music out of curiosity anymore. Just call me “Gramps.”

Mary Jane Leach’s Ceremony of the Bulls is within spitting distance of Arvo Pärt, and personally, I like it better.

A couple of people seem to appreciate that I’m offering cuts from the legendary Plunderphonics CD of John Oswald, the Canadian sampling-meister whose omnivorous thefts from well-known recordings (though he never charged money for the results) landed him in legal trouble. Out of 1000 printed Plunderphonics discs he was forced to destroy the last 300, and I got one of the first 700. I’m cool. There will be more from this absolutely unobtainable disc.

The music by Florentine Romantic/Postminimalist Giancarlo Cardini is now 20 years old, but it’s wonderful, and I keep pressing him on you, so you might as well listen.

Elizabeth Brown’s Lost Waltz is wonderful, and I go around humming it. She got a doctorate in flute at Juilliard, and started composing afterward. Paul Epstein is another highly underrated postminimalist figure.

My students all go nuts for Bald Boyfriend by Pamela Z and the Qube Chix:

I want a man who’s well-behaved,
Who’s neat and clean, whose head is shaved.

It’s maybe findable, but thrown in here as a teaser.

I recently raved here about Carolyn Yarnell’s The Same Sky, and I am happy to provide it. It’s already won new fans. I got the recording of Jim Tenney’s Song 'n' Dance for Harry Partch from Bob Gilmore, and it’s really charming. Also, I’ve put in a hint of Diamanda Galas; I assume her Restless/Mute recordings are very hard to find if not impossible, and I’ll be recirculating more of them.

Enough commentary for now. I'm going for the most obscure, the hardest-to-find as an opening gambit, but I will eventually have to swing a little more mainstream. Remember, the playlist is here on my web page, since Live 365 has room for giganto audio files but can’t be bothered with text information, especially in the quantities classical and postclassical music require. The playlist is also linked from the “Sites I Like” on the right of this page. Give it a listen! Now we've got some actual sounds to talk about.

September 8, 2004 9:37 AM | |
The first chapter in my new-music education came from WRR-FM radio in Dallas. A guy named Steven Achternacht used to play some pretty wild stuff there in the ‘60s, and I would run home from school and record on cassettes anything by a composer I hadn’t heard of - and in that way had a fateful encounter with, among others, a piece called In C by an unknown named Terry Riley, that blew my mind and slowly but surely readjusted my course in life. I was the kind of guy who called in to all of WRR’s radio quizzes, and sometimes wasn’t eligible to win the day’s prize because I had won only last week.

From that time on I yearned to become a classical radio DJ. Of course, had I succeeded, I’d be really depressed now, given the squelched and diminishing state of classical radio. Also, I’m not nearly as polished a speaker as I am a writer - I stumble over my words, stop to edit myself, spend half a minute thinking how to say something. And I had a strong Texas accent, still slightly noticeable, which is hardly the image classical stations want to project. I would never have made it on radio, and fate wisely directed me into the print world.

BUT - I’ve just realized my dream in another way. Postclassic Radio debuts today, at Live Besides talking, the other half of the DJ job is programming, and on my own radio station I can put together a dream program, and I have, or at least the beginning of one. I decided that my opening playlist would consist entirely of pieces that haven’t been commercially recorded, except for a few that were only on vinyl and never made it to CD, plus a couple of things that are due to come out soon - because the purpose here is not to sell CDs, but to convince you that there’s a universe of great music out there that you’ve never heard. (Actually, I remembered afterward that John McGuire’s A Capella has indeed already been released on the Sargasso label, but it’s a great piece, and I’m not taking it down just on principle.) Here is the initial line-up, five and a half hours worth:

John McGuire: A Cappella (Sargasso)

Beth Anderson: Net Work

Eve Beglarian: Machaut a Gogo

Renske Vrolijk: Voice Over

Julius Eastman: Evil Nigger (I wonder if this great piece has been heard publicly in the last 20 years)

John Oswald: 7th (Plunderphonics)

Belinda Reynolds: Sara’s Grace

Giancarlo Cardini: Lento trascolorare dal verde al rosso in un tralco di foglie autunnali (Edipan)

Mikel Rouse: “Where Are Those Girls” from Music for Minorities (Exist Music)

Renske Vrolijk: Spinning Wheels

Elizabeth Brown: Lost Waltz (Orpheus Chamber Orchestra)

Kyle Gann: Unquiet Night (brand new work for Disklavier, concert premiere in New York next Oct. 17)

Eve Beglarian: The Bus Driver Didn’t Change His Mind

Paul Epstein: Interleavings

Dan Becker: Fade

Belinda Reynolds: Cover

Mayumi Tsuda: Knishtet (this one is really weird, in a crazy scale based on the 13th harmonic, so brace yourself)

Corey Dargel: Antidepressants

Renske Vrolijk: Boiler Plate

John Oswald: Pretender (Plunderphonics)

Eve Beglarian: The Continuous Life

M.C. Maguire: Got that Crazy Latin/Metal Feelin’ (Haro St.) (absolutely obnoxious, but pretty brilliant)

Kyle Gann: Bud Ran Back Out

Renske Vrolijk: Blink Blink

Dennis Bathory-Kitsz: Mantra Canon

Mikel Rouse: “Those Days Long Gone” from Music for Minorities (Exit Music)

Terry Riley: Happy Ending (Warner Brothers, long out-of-print vinyl)

Erin Watson: Inhale

Dan Becker: S.T.I.C.

Andrew Schulze: Dreams and Lullabies (Spiked Punch)

Several of these composers are in their 20s or 30s, and if you’ve already heard more than ten percent of this music, stop following me around or I’ll have you arrested. All of the composers so far are still alive (as far as I know) except for poor Julius Eastman, who died in mysterious circumstances at age 49. Finally, instead of just telling you about postminimal and totalist music, I can play them for you so you can hear for yourself. And by the way, Live 365 has contracts with ASCAP and BMI, and does pay royalties to the musicians. I’ve only filled a third of my megabyte space so far, so I’ll be adding tracks and making substitutions every few days. I’ll keep a list of current and past selections on my web page. Enjoy!

September 4, 2004 2:38 PM | |
Today's gem from the reliably wise and brilliant Paul Krugman at the New York Times deserves all possible exposure, even from music critics (this is just an excerpt):

...For many months we've been warned by tut-tutting commentators about the evils of irrational "Bush hatred." Pundits eagerly scanned the Democratic convention for the disease; some invented examples when they failed to find it. Then they waited eagerly for outrageous behavior by demonstrators in New York, only to be disappointed again.

There was plenty of hatred in Manhattan, but it was inside, not outside, Madison Square Garden.

Barack Obama, who gave the Democratic keynote address, delivered a message of uplift and hope. Zell Miller, who gave the Republican keynote, declared that political opposition is treason: "Now, at the same time young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats' manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief." And the crowd roared its approval.

Why are the Republicans so angry? One reason is that they have nothing positive to run on (during the first three days, Mr. Bush was mentioned far less often than John Kerry).

The promised economic boom hasn't materialized, Iraq is a bloody quagmire, and Osama bin Laden has gone from "dead or alive" to he-who-must-not-be-named.

Another reason, I'm sure, is a guilty conscience. At some level the people at that convention know that their designated hero is a man who never in his life took a risk or made a sacrifice for his country, and that they are impugning the patriotism of men who have....

Nothing makes you hate people as much as knowing in your heart that you are in the wrong and they are in the right. But the vitriol also reflects the fact that many of the people at that convention, for all their flag-waving, hate America. They want a controlled, monolithic society; they fear and loathe our nation's freedom, diversity and complexity..... [boldface added]

Why hasn't this man been tapped to write speeches for Kerry? He'd do a hell of a lot better job than whoever is.

September 3, 2004 9:01 AM | |

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