main: October 2004 Archives
To upload a couple of pieces to Postclassic Radio every night is easy. What's proved more daunting, in my mid-semester work overload, is keeping the playlist current. My apologies for lagging behind in that area. Corrections coming shortly.
"The president... needs to collect ALL the facts... before making politically-motivated statements!"
I laughed so hard I nearly drove off the road. I'm not sure I would feel better even if Bush DID collect all the facts before making his politically-motivated statements. I'd rather he just told the truth. But maybe, this once, he was.
Wednesday, November 3rd, 2004
The Slavonic Cultural Center
60 Onondaga Ave. (corner of Alemany Blvd; near Balboa Bart)
Saturday, November 6th, 2004
The Berkeley Arts Festival Gallery
2324 Shattuck Ave.
To make the first concert I would have had to fly across the country on Election Day, and it occured to me that Dick Cheney might choose that day to order his Pentagon friends to shoot a couple more planes out of the sky and then claim he was mistaken again. So I’ll wait until President-Elect Kerry is securely ratified, and go out for the Saturday performance.
None. There’s nothing wrong with that light bulb. There is no need to change anything. We made the right decision and nothing has happened to change our minds. People who criticize this light bulb now, just because it doesn’t work anymore, supported us when we first screwed it in, and when these flip-floppers insist on saying that it is burned out, they are merely giving aid and encouragement to the Forces of Darkness.
- John Cleese
Q: What's the difference between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War?
A: George W. Bush had a plan for getting out of the Vietnam War.
- courtesy of Antonio Celaya
Anyway, the response I get is kind of deadeningly repetitive. The pieces I usually play are jazzy, impressively fast, and sort of humorous, and generally make a good impression. But afterward, I’m invariably approached by two or three or four people who ask, “Gee, isn’t there some way to make it possible for live pianists to play those pieces?” They ask as though they suspect it's a possibility I've never considered, as if they expect me to strike my forehead and shout, "Of course - a live pianist! Why didn't I think of it?"
Now, number one: I get a big kick out of watching the Disklavier. It’s fun to watch all those keys ripple up and down the keyboard; I take the front cover off, when it’s an upright, and you can watch the hammers fly by as well. In Australia I also hooked up my computer to a projector, so the audience could watch the Digital Performer file scroll by, which looks exactly like a player piano roll, only with the notes running horizontally instead of vertically. I got the idea from watching Conlon Nancarrow’s player pianos, which were incredibly more fun to watch live than to listen to a recording of. You’d see a diagonal line of holes appear on the piano roll, and know that a huge glissando was coming, and it would blast in a split second later - it was like being on a sonic roller coaster, because you could see what you were headed for just a second before it happened. I love watching player pianos as much as I’ve ever loved watching a live pianist.
Number two: I’ve written a lot of piano music and a lot of Disklavier music, and I approach them with different mindsets, just as though they were different instruments. When writing for Disklavier I don’t even think about spacing the notes so that a human hand can reach them. If I want to write a melody in lightning-fast quintuple octaves, or a whole string of six parallel sixths, I go right ahead. And the whole point is to be freed from downbeats and meters, so the first thing I’ll do is lay out a whole set of nested tempo relationships, like 7-against-9-against-11-against-13-against-17, and then fill in the notes, knowing that notes in one line will coincide with notes in another line only at downbeats, and then I try to avoid putting notes on downbeats. By doing that I get exactly what I want, which I feel is a wonderful spontaneity of notes bubbling up, not randomly, but like corks bobbing up and down on brisk waves, with patterns that are repetitive but wholly unsynchronized.
I know that there are pianists, like Ursula Oppens, who have trained themselves to play some pretty complex rhythms; in fact, the Helena Bugallo-Amy Williams Piano Duo played some of Conlon Nancarrow’s early Player Piano Studies in New York this past Thursday, and I couldn’t be there because I was impersonating Abraham Lincoln that night. (Scroll down if you really have to know why.) But it’s one thing to play a 22-tuplet over a 4/4 beat in a Chopin nocturne, it’s something else to play steady lines of 13-against-29-against-31 for several measures at a time. I imagine it can be done. What I don’t imagine is that it would sound the way I want it to sound, with the same spontaneity and bubbly effect. I did, by request, transform one of my Disklavier pieces (Folk Dance for Henry Cowell) into a live-pianist piece (Private Dance No. 2), and I’ve never been totally convinced by the result. In addition, pianists fudge rhythms like these, and I frequently change harmony in mid-measure among several lines at once, the notes all changing chord suddenly like a flock of birds mysteriously reversing course with one mind. I don’t see how a pair or trio of pianists would be able to “sort of” play all these tempos at once, and also be able to so closely synchronize that when one switches to the E minor triad on the fifth note of a 17-tuplet, the other switches to that chord on the corresponding fourth note of a 13-tuplet.
Maybe it could be done. If someone can figure out how to do it, I’ll applaud. But the other thing I can’t understand is, why would anyone want to go to that much trouble? Why are so many people so dissatisfied watching the Disklavier, even people who visibly enjoy it? Sometimes the question comes from a pianist who is dazzled by the music and wants to play it, and that’s flattering. I wish I could interest these pianists in the eight or so piano pieces I’ve written for human players, but I rarely do. One person said that the Disklavier doesn’t give the feel that a live pianist can. Well, that’s a point, I guess; but unlike the old player pianos, I can adjust the dynamic (hammer velocity) separately for every note, and I do a tremendous amount of fine-tuning to accent just the right note in a phrase, humanize the attack points, create the effect of a live pianist hesitating on a high note or beginning a trill slowly. I simulate live performance with what strikes me as a high degree of realism, and I am strongly tempted to assume that psychology plays a role in perception here - the music often sounds nuanced, tentative, slightly irregular just the way a pianist would play it, but since there is no pianist, the listener fools himself into believing that it sounds regular and mechanical.
Or is it just that people don’t enjoy watching machines play music? I’ve seen an entire orchestra of MIDI-operated machines play music in Trimpin’s studio in Seattle, and it was one of the great musical thrills of my life. Computer-operated acoustic instruments are coming, folks - they’re part of your future. Get used to ‘em or ignore ‘em, but you can’t stop ‘em.
I know Conlon used to be bothered by similar queries. In his day, there was always the complaint (he got it from Aaron Copland, among others) that a player piano performance was the same every time, that there was no interpretive deviation from one playing to the next. Conlon’s usual response was, a Picasso painting is the same every time you see it; a Shakespeare sonnet is the same every time you read it; why is only music required to be different every time or you can’t enjoy it? Today’s audiences, however, are so inured to recordings and even near-identical performances that that objection seems to have disappeared. But for some reason people are just bothered by using a computer to do something that humans have always done, and they seem willing - as I am not - to put up with any compromise to transfer that activity back into the traditional realm of the performer-audience relationship. I wish I understood why. Because, sadly, I think people who strongly feel that way are just going to have to listen to someone else’s music, and there’s a lot out there.
The New York Times: The Year of Fear, by William Safire - "Fearmongers in the Kerry campaign are turning any breaking news story they can into a personal threat"
AP: Cheney: "terrorists may bomb U.S. cities"
UPDATE: Breaking news: Iran endorses Bush, because Democrats have this pesky concern with human rights. Not our Commander-in-Chimp! I mean Chief.
The concert, organized by Birgit Ramsauer, is titled “Spinet: an experiment on Gesamtkunstwerk - Totalart.” The rest of the European program comprises:
Pär Frid, Totentanz für Spinett, 2004 (Sweden)
Stefano Giannotti, L´Arte des Paesaggio, 2000 (Italy)
Heinrich Hartl, Cemballissimo, 2003 (Germany)
Horst Lohse, Birgit´s Toy, 2004 (Germany)
Katharina Rosenberger, Echo, 2004 (Switzerland)
Coates is American, but has lived since the 1970s in Munich. Complete info about the concert here.
By the way, some may note an irony in a Southerner like myself reading the part of Abe Lincoln. In the first place, Gloria wanted a Southern voice because Lincoln was born in Kentucky and grew up in southern Indiana. Secondly, what little genealogical research we've received indicates that the Ganns of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas were Northern sympathizers, and that, in fact, one of my ancestors was hung by the Confederacy for giving aid to a Union soldier. So I reckon I'm not too far out of line, and I'm fixin' to do it regardless.
With my performance in New York last week I didn’t have time to pay any attention to my station for several days, but I’ve made up for it: twelve new works have been added to Postclassic Radio in the last 24 hours, including two cuts from Pamela Z’s brand new CD A Delay Is Better (Starkland), and the 56-minute entirety of David First’s The Good Book's (Accurate) Jail of Escape Dust Coordinates, Part 2, a 1992, slowly evolving continuum piece of chords going slowly out of tune. The piece gets more active, even rock-oriented, in the last half-hour. And there’s so much more to come.
Relationship to the “canon,” if any, is different. Jazz critics have a vast and mandatory repertoire of specific recordings they have to have heard. Imagine being a jazz critic and knowing every Coltrane disc except one: you’d be crucified. For classical critics, the canon of works is pretty fixed, though subject to ongoing debate among experts. You can get away with not knowing the Wilhelm Stenhammar piano concerti, but you’d better be able to identify every last Chopin nocturne as such. The idea of a rock canon is not entirely nonsensical, but far more personal. Everyone agreed that to be unfamiliar with Velvet Underground and Nico would generally be humiliating, though if your obsessive specialty was death metal, they said, you might get away with it. The main difference between pop versus jazz and classical seems to be that pop music is far more Balkanized into a few hundred subgenres, so that hiphop, jungle, Mbase, and grindcore fans (love the word) might possess fanatical expertise without overlapping much. With all those subgenres, pop critics also make a fetish of detailing stylistic family trees.
The relations to the people written about are very different. What’s always impressed me about jazz criticism is its underlying assumption that every figure written about is a legend, somehow larger than human in both talent and suffering. Critics write not just about Billie Holiday’s singing and recordings but about her hard life, and how the pain of her youth comes through her interpretations. I’ve read few negative jazz reviews in my life; Miles Davis may have a bad day and a rocky session, but it’s not that he's faltering (as a classical maven would allege) - he's wrestling with inner demons, and every setback forecasts greater glories to come. Classical critics maintain both more reverent and more condescending attitudes toward their charges. Mozart was a divine genius, not to be questioned, but Beethoven’s astounding Missa solemnis is “a profound, though deeply flawed work.” The life of a classical musician is kept scrupulously separate from his or her music, except in selected cases marked by a whiff of scandal: Wagner’s anti-semitism, Schubert’s alleged homosexuality, Strauss's Nazi connections. Classical critics make a reputation by seeming impossible to please (why I’m in academia instead of at the Times - I’m impolitic enough to show enthusiasm). A totally positive classical review, at least in a high-class uptown paper, is about as rare as a negative jazz one.
Some of the older classical critics, in fact, like to talk about themselves as "gatekeepers" - the idea being that they should discourage every newcomer as much as possible, and if a composer succeeds in leaping over their wall of disapproval, that person has proved himself worthy of entering the canon. I consider this a stupid, pompous, anachronistic view of the critic's role, analogous to George W. Bush's sense of macho entitlement. And pop reviews treat their subjects as giants and targets at once, fated symbols for one part of the culture or another, but also media creations not to be taken too seriously. When John Lennon was shot, Lester Bangs wrote, "I don't know the guy. But I do know that when all was said and done, that's all he was - a guy." No jazz critic would have said that about Charlie Parker. No classical critic would have said that about Mozart. But it would have been no more or less true in either case. Jazz critics, I think one could say, view the musicians they write about from below; classicals from above; pop critics as parallel equals.
Pop musicians have to be discovered young, and fare better when they die out young, too. Jazz musicians seem to get to mature at a slower rate: you see Coltrane’s name first as sideman on a Charlie Parker disc, then as equal with Miles Davis, and later fronting his own albums, sort of the way you see Marilyn Monroe do a bit part in All About Eve before she’s the star of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Classical composers follow one of two invariable career trajectories: they either get scooped up by the establishment at 28 or 30 and made famous, whether anyone continues liking their music or not; or they’re ignored until they’re 60 or so and suddenly discovered as undersung geniuses. (I’m working, I reassured the students, on the latter plan.)
That’s one reason I wanted to teach this class. I think musicians in all genres buy into a whole complex set of interlocking myths invisibly woven into the genre. Why, when a composer gets lionized at 28, does he remain lionized at 45 even if his music hasn’t improved? Many composers mature and find their own voice at around age 40 or a little after; why do you never hear of 40-something composers becoming famous? What would happen if you reviewed classical music the way pop reviewers write?: talk about the scene, admit ignorance or indifference or antipathy to certain repertoires? What would happen if you wrote about pop as though it were classical?: talk about harmonic structure, compare melodies from one song to another? What if we could approach the irreverent Haydn irreverently ourselves? Viewing art forms through each other’s lenses, I think, could reveal much about our unacknowledged, even unconscious assumptions, and maybe begin to free up some of the malaise that fans of each seem to agree infect all three genres.
Thursday, Oct 14 8PM
"Blue" Gene Tyranny
Friday, Oct 15 8PM
"Blue" Gene Tyranny & Jon Gibson
Jin Hi Kim
Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell
Saturday Oct 16 2PM
"Blue" Gene Tyranny, Jon Gibson & Peter Zummo
Saturday Oct 16 8PM
"Blue" Gene Tyranny, Jon Gibson, Peter Zummo & Leroy Jenkins
Pauline Oliveros/Deep Listening Band
Downtown Ensemble (William Hellermann/Daniel Goode/Mary Jane Leach/Peter Zummo)
Sunday Oct 17 2PM
"Blue" Gene Tyranny, Jon Gibson, Peter Zummo, Leroy Jenkins & Mark Dresser
William Duckworth/Cathedral Band
Michael J. Schumacher
Sunday Oct 17 8PM
"Blue" Gene Tyranny, Jon Gibson, Peter Zummo, Leroy Jenkins, Mark Dresser, & Roscoe Mitchell
David First & Tom Hamilton
Joan La Barbara
48nord & George Lewis
That’s right, that’s yours truly in there on the final concert, and it’s my only New York performance this fall. (I have some San Francisco performances November 3 and 6 that I’ll tell you about later.) At “Sounds Like Now” I’m playing three of my Disklavier pieces, Bud Ran Back Out, Petty Larceny, and the world premiere of Unquiet Night - although if you’ve been listening to Postclassic Radio you may have already heard the last-named piece. [A Disklavier, since many people have no idea what one is, is an acoustic piano, with real strings struck by real felt hammers and vibrating in real air, played by a computer via MIDI cables. The sounds are not electronic, and do not play through loudspeakers.] So show up at La MaMa Etc., 74A East 4th St., and you’ll hear many of the stalwarts who inhabited the new-music scene of the 1980s and ‘90s with me.
In an audience of any size, there will be a certain proportion of well-intended people who do not process new auditory information as accurately as they do verbal and visual information. Those people appreciate, and benefit from, a nudge in some direction as to how they should understand the music they’re hearing for the first time. It doesn’t even have to be the right direction, they’ll self-correct through experience soon enough. The most gratifying comment I’ve ever gotten is, “I didn’t really know what to think about that piece until I read your review.” As Virgil Thomson so incisively wrote, “The purpose of music criticism is to aid the public in the digestion of musical works. Not for nothing is it so often compared to bile.” It is a composer’s professional deformation to forget that, for most people, hearing a new piece of music in an unfamiliar style is a rare experience for which they have not spent any time mentally preparing. You can go through your career secretly despising these people, but the composer who despises the vast body of well-intended lay listeners amply deserves to fail - and will, unless he or she succeeds in a superficial sense by clever politicking in musical society, as so many do.
There are many routes to an interest in music, and the music-should-speak-for-itself crowd inexplicably want to close down all but one. I had a student from Danbury, Connecticut, who took up a particular interest in Charles Ives because he was from Danbury. Is that an ignoble reason to make a hobby of someone’s music? Had I told the class, “Who cares what city he was from, dammit, the music should speak for itself!” - she would never really have heard Ives’s music. Program notes can put a human face on strange-sounding music. Composer Jennifer Higdon told me that she once caught 41 bluegills in a pond in Tennessee where she grew up; that may reel in a segment of the audience less impressed by the 410 composition prizes she caught later. Music also, as we all ought to have learned by now, sometimes carries an ideational content that doesn’t register with unpracticed listeners until it’s pointed out to them in words. Another student didn’t care for Cage’s music at first hearing, but became fascinated with the I Ching. Everyone rightly respects the paradigmatic experience of suddenly hearing a piece of music and being so overwhelmed that you have to know more about it, but I have to admit that not every composition I now dearly love came into my heart through that direct route. And my favorite use of program notes is for after the concert - by listeners so impressed they had to know more. Pure experience is a wonderful thing, but to have a shared artistic culture we have to fit our experiences into a narrative. Program notes can be the humble building blocks of that narrative.
So let’s correctly interpret what “the music should speak for itself” usually means: “I just want my music played, and I’m too busy and important and self-absorbed to bother helping anyone who doesn’t get it. If they’re not sophisticated enough to understand it just by listening, SCREW ‘EM!” Is that really the image you want us poor music critics to think you intend to project to the world?
That piece is now followed by a beautiful 1992 work for multiple electric guitars - Sunrise over Fields of Withered Grain - by the great, undersung Paul Sturm, whose web site you should check out.
Then, I guess the very fact that I would quote America's greatest 19th-century thinker marks me as some kind of effete East-Coast elitist commie pinko Francophile child-molesting liberal. If every small mind in America votes for the guy who's been foolishly consistent, we're doomed.
This recording, which is still obtainable on vinyl in Germany but has never made it to CD, can now be heard every 17 hours, starting this evening, on Postclassic Radio. I've been putting up some long pieces on the station, and this is the longest yet. That's one of the problems in presenting new music (for example, trying to publish a book about it with an accompanying CD) - many of postclassical music's most important strategies and innovations are length-dependent, and if you restrict yourself to pieces under, say, 15 minutes, you just can't give a representative picture of what's going on today. I hope listeners aren't disappointed when a piece they don't care for runs on forever, but I just can't fulfill the station's mission without adding some major works in their entirety. I've even been toying with the idea of uploading the five-hour 1981 recording of La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano someday, or Feldman's six-hour String Quartet II. But to kick off Postclassic Radio's second month, this rare Fluxus audio document of Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik is sufficiently momentous.
Sites To See
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog