main: December 2004 Archives

I finished my doctoral courses at Northwestern in spring of 1981. The summer found me lounging around in my apartment, drinking vodka tonics in the afternoon and taking down phone numbers from truck-driving schools and bartending schools, as advertised during Leave It to Beaver reruns. In the middle of this, the phone rang, and my composition teacher Peter Gena asked, “Do you want a job?” Peter had taken on the temporary directorship (with Alene Valkanas) of the New Music America festival, which moved from city to city. It had started in New York in 1979, then moved to San Francisco and Minneapolis, where I first attended it. Now, in Chicago, I would be the festival’s administrative assistant.

That means, if you submitted some music to NMA ‘82, I was the guy who opened your package, catalogued your vinyl records and cassettes, and first listened to them. My job wasn’t to filter stuff out, but I did advocate (without much success) for the music I really liked. Some of the recordings were submitted by composers, some brought by members of the advisory committee. I remember George Lewis brought along cassettes of two guys I’d never heard of: Rhys Chatham and John Zorn. Zorn’s Mauricio Kagelesque game improvisations struck me as old hat, but the Chatham excited me - combining minimalism and rock had never occurred to me. I sat at my desk absorbing the music of my generation: Beth Anderson, David Garland, Wayne Siegel, Carl Stone, Bruce Odlund, Michael Byron, Lois Vierk, Jeffrey Lohn, Peter Garland, Stephen Scott, Glenn Branca. Some of the names (Tom Cameron, Joseph Paul Taylor, Bill Seaman) have since disappeared, and I’ve never heard of them again. Others, once I moved east, eventually became close friends. Some of them have recently released CDs for which I wrote the liner notes. One of them, Bruce Odland, my son recently assisted in a musical production.

The experience didn’t make me a composer, for I had been that since I was 13. The piece of my own that was performed at that NMA festival, in fact, is coming out on a Cold Blue CD in a couple of months. But it was my first immersion in the music of my peers across the country, people who were reacting to the same music I had been consuming in college. I found out whom I stood with and whom against in the great aesthetic battles that would come later. And, looking back from an otherwise indistinguishable New Year’s Eve, it’s astonishing to reflect how much of my future life was forecast in my contact with those cassettes and records in the basement of the Museum of Contemporary Art in October and November of 1981. As PR person for the festival I got to know the superb Chicago jazz critic Neil Tesser, and it was he who helped me get started as a critic myself in the Reader. The rest you know.

Many of those cassettes are in a cabinet a few feet away from me right now. I kept the ones I could, and taped all the ones I couldn’t. I was probably, as administrative assistant, supposed to mail them all back to the composers. I didn’t. But now I’m transferring them onto CD, making mp3s of them, and playing them on Postclassic Radio. Sorry for any inconvenience. I hope, after 23 years, you don’t mind that I held on to them. They’ve meant a lot to me, and I knew someday I’d get a chance to release them back into the world.

December 31, 2004 3:29 PM | |
This article by Roy Rivenburg in the LA Times suggests that digital technology is gradually making the world quieter, to an extent that makes movie sound effects engineers rethink the way they give audio cues in soundtracks:

Electronic cash registers eliminated the ka-ching of their ancestors; digital cameras erased the traditional shutter-click and advancing-film noises of their predecessors; PowerPoint presentations chased away the clunks and whirs of slide projectors.

The lifespan of sounds seems to be shrinking, Valentino said: "We sent our engineers to Ft. Bragg 25 years ago to record military tanks. All those sounds are now totally historical."

So are old pinball machines, car horns and pull-chain toilet flushes. Even the scratch of chalk on a blackboard is being exiled by the squeak of markers on dry-erase boards....

Right now, sounds such as creaking doors help create drama on the screen, he said. But the day is coming when door technology, which hasn't changed in centuries, will switch to an airtight, silent mechanism like something out of "Star Trek," he said....

It's happening with shoes. Although the clip-clop of leather soles against sidewalks is still a movie staple, in real life the sound of walking has largely been anesthetized by rubber soles.

To a musician, this sounds delightful. There's a wonderful little book no longer in print (naturally), The Third Ear by German jazz entrepreneur Joachim-Ernst Berendt, that I used to use in teaching, all about how we relate through the world through hearing. He wrote that the technology exists to create silent vacuum cleaners and even silent motorcycles, but that people doubted that silent vacuum cleaners were really picking up dirt, while motorcycle riders didn't get the feeling of power they wanted from silent engines. (Yeah, power to impose their own brand of noise on an entire neighborhood.) I hate the unnecessarily shrill beep that ATMs make to alert you that your card is coming out, and I could eagerly look forward to the day when all of our appliances are silent, and the foreground of our audio life is occupied primarily by... music.

December 30, 2004 11:43 AM | |
Merry Christmas: I updated my Postclassic Radio playlist on Christmas Eve - strikes me as kind of a festive activity - for the first time in awhile. Putting new pieces on the station is a cinch, but keeping the playlist current turns out to be the tedious part. I'm streamlining the process to make it easier.

Anyway, I recently got access to an old box of cassette tapes that's been in storage for ten months, and it's a cornucopia of new music mostly from the 1980s that never got commercially released: works by Todd Levin, Bunita Marcus, Maria De Alvear, Carman Moore, Elodie Lauten, Diana Meckley, and especially a large cache of recordings by Peter Garland. So Postclassic Radio will start the new year with another influx of commercially unavailable recordings. The sole complaint I've received about my timing indicated that I'm taking pieces off too quickly, so I'm actually sitting on a gold mine of material and trying to hold back. But to whet your appetite, I've just posted two lovely pieces by Bunita Marcus, her 1987 chamber piece Adam and Eve and her charming arrangement of the Beatles' song Julia, written for Aki Takahashi's Beatles project and played by her. Enjoy.

And for those who read me on a phone-line modem, unable to access internet radio, my apologies for writing about so little else lately. Happy holidays.

December 28, 2004 11:59 AM | |
Speaking of music in which nothing happens, I got a superb new NAD amplifier yesterday, and today I gave it what may be one of the supreme stereo system tests: I played Eliane Radigue's Adnos I. This tape work from the late '70s by a reclusive French composer of almost mystical reputation (released a couple of years ago on Table of the Elements) is a gorgeous continuum of analogue electronic tones, changing in slow and subtle ways. The texture is extremely rich, with pulsing tones going in and out of tune in the bass and a layer of ringing overtones in the treble, with soft bell-like tones adding a less continuous event-structure. It really demands a lot of one's stereo system. And because of that, it's one of the works that I'd love to post to Postclassic Radio and probably never will, because I don't think the piece's subtleties would survive the reduction to mp3 and deficiencies of computer playback. There are several such composers that I don't include, notably Phill Niblock - I don't think the internet radio medium can yet do them justice. Gorgeous music, but it wouldn't be represented well.

Meanwhile, there are some other additions I'm pleased with. One is the first disc of La Monte Young's 1981 performance of The Well-Tuned Piano - if you've searched high and low for this recording without success, here's part of it, and some day I may put up all five hours' worth. Also a lovely multiple guitar work by a young New York composer I admire named Christian Rober, and a new Golden Research recording of Charlemagne Palestine's Piano Drone from 1972, one of his most enchanting works. And my own Hovenweep, which was a commission from the St. Luke's Orchestra chamber series, and an attempt to write a piece that Uptowners would understand, i.e., very expressive with lots of detailed dynamics.

December 24, 2004 12:22 AM | |
My complaint about people who listen to new music and automatically respond, “I know a rock group sounds just like that!” brought an excellent anecdote from a reader who said that it

reminds me of an exchange I heard while auditing [Fred] Frith's composition class at Mills; he'd play examples of various music and ask students whether the music was “rock” or “classical.”

He played the beginning of Tony Conrad & Faust's Outside the Dream Syndicate, (monolithic 2/4 bass & drum stomp). Girl instantly says aloud, “rock.” Frith says “what if I told you that this goes on for another 50 minutes, much like this?” She then instantly said, “Oh well, then it's classical.”

This echoes a remark I’ve quoted many times. In the 1980s, when new music groups were playing at New York rock clubs while rockers were playing at the Kitchen, postclassical music and rock seemed all mixed up. One night at a bar, Robert Ashley gave me his ironclad definition: “If it’s over five minutes it’s classical, under five minutes it’s pop.” That definition has only come to seem more relevant over the years.

After all, it seems to me that the formal issues of, say, a Beatles song are not particularly different from those of a Schubert song in, say, Die Winterreise. To write a three-minute song that states a single musical idea is a different project from writing a 20-minute piece that goes through a journey of transformation. Each requires a particular talent, and many composers who are very good at one don’t do the other very well; I love Schubert’s piano sonatas and chamber music, but I’d have to say his long forms aren’t quite as flawless as his songs. Much of the classical prejudice against taking rock seriously in the ‘60s was not so much the energy or instrumentation as the habit of placing song-writing on a lower scale of difficulty than larger forms. That prejudice is dying out, and rightly so. But the simple distinction between songs and longer forms may remain, transcending all pop/classical definitions - much as writing short stories requires a different talent than writing novels, or watercolors versus oil paintings, or portraits versus murals, or houses versus skyscrapers. Whether “pop” and “classical” are the appropriate words is another issue. (I have to admit, I felt slightly mendacious referring to Sonic Youth's Female Mechanic Now on Duty as a pop song - successful or not, it's kind of an extended work.)

December 24, 2004 12:18 AM | |
I’ve returned from the dead - the dead of semester-end academia, when one’s life is no longer one’s own. A friend wrote to tell me that my blog fans are near suicide, and while I don’t flatter myself that such is even metaphorically the case, I can take a hint.

The last day of class the students played their compositions (it’s a theory class - harmonic correctness is required, creativity isn’t). Then they, not unreasonably, demanded that I play something of my own. So I complied with the one piece of my own I can play on short notice, No. 1 of my Private Dances, which is kind of a tango. Afterwards, two students swore that my piece sounded exactly like the background music to a scene in some movie they’d watched, and that I should check it out.

Now, that a tango of mine should resemble one in a movie - or every other piano tango in existence to some extent, for that matter - is hardly cause for surprise. However, without needing to watch the movie, I feel pretty secure in my doubts that the tango in the movie did what mine does. Mine is in a kind of verse and chorus format, repeated three times. The first pass through the material is firmly in B major/minor, chromatically nuanced by an occasional F major chord. The second time through it changes to some distant keys but keeps returning to B minor at cadences. The third time it takes off: Ab7, Gb7, E, G7, C#7, A minor. In addition, at the end of each chorus comes a C dominant 7th chord which twice acts as a German 6th back to B, and once as a dominant of F, so it’s kind of a theoretical joke, playing with your expectations. The piece does something, it ventures further and further out and gets lost, it playfully changes its mind. I doubt that the tango in the movie does that, or does it the same way.

What’s disappointing - and I mean it not just with respect to these two students but to their generation in general, for this is ubiquitous - is that for young musicians, momentary identity is often everything, and what happens in the piece hardly exists. For me, the cleverly-composed course of the tango was everything; to them, merely the general sound, the momentum, texture, and flavor of the tonality, mattered. From experiences in my criticism class, I’m tempted to think that this is a listening habit inculcated by pop music. Most pop songs retain pretty much the same sonic identity from beginning to end. The profile of a pop song is crucial to its instant recognition. You can’t have a pop song that starts out “We... will... we... will... ROCK YOU!” and ends up “God only knows what I’d do without you” - though in a sense, most classical music does something like that all the time. In class I even assigned them to write descriptions of some pop songs that went through tremendous changes - such as Sonic Youth’s “Female Mechanic Now on Duty” - trying to elicit recognition of, and maybe some interest in, the fact that some music transforms itself and goes through a variety of sections. It seemed pretty much in vain. I played entire movements from Mahler symphonies, and while they came up with loads of adjectives and even elaborate pictorial scenarios, not one, except under the most obvious prodding, ventured a description that took time-based changes into account. That’s why, in my Music After Minimalism class, I’d play part of an hour-long work by Robert Ashley or Meredith Monk or anyone, and someone would invariably shout, “I know a rock group sounds just like that!” And it would, for about 20 seconds.

The late Jonathan Kramer wrote about what he called horizontal time in music and vertical time. Horizontal time was what you experience listening to the recapitulation of a sonata differ from the exposition, taking account of before and after, hearing the consonant version of Beethoven’s Eroica theme 20 minutes after that version with the dissonant C# and realizing that something has changed. Vertical time is what one experiences in the moment, without before or after, and a lot of recent composers have written with vertical time as a goal - Jonathan listed Satie’s Vexations, Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge, even certain works by Stravinsky. In fact, as the critic who most champions music in which nothing happens, I feel a little hypocritical chastising my students for only listening that way. I have the opposite trouble trying to get my classical colleagues to appreciate the timelessness of La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano, Charlemagne Palestine’s piano strumming, a Phill Niblock orchestra piece which might seem to remain motionless. I love pieces in which nothing happens. One of my own pieces is entitled Time Does Not Exist. But I think I love those pieces more because they negate my deeply embedded horizontal listening habits (sounds like I listen to music lying down), the way Waiting for Godot smashed the expectations of conventional theater because the title character never showed up.

Imagine applying this situation to literature. You read, “Though Mrs. Jennings was in the habit of spending a large portion of the year at the houses of her children and friends, she was not without a settled habitation of her own,” and someone shouts, “I know another novel reads just like that!” It wouldn’t happen, because people who read novels at all realize that what’s important is not so much the individuality of the sentences (some of which may chance to appear verbatim in other books) as what happens. And movies! How many movies have a scene in which the hero is running from a bomb and is thrown forward by the explosion? Who would yell out, “I know another movie goes just like that”? No one, because people are conditioned to experience movies in time.

But I think - and I realize I sound like an old grump but I merely note the phenomenon - we’re raising a generation who, by and large, do not think of music as something to be experienced in time. And it strikes me that the lack of that habit closes one off from the pleasure of a tremendous amount of music - even the music in which nothing happens, if not especially that music.

New on Postclassic Radio:
Night song by Raphael Mostel and his Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble
Steel Chords for pedal steel guitar and strings by Sasha Matson
Tukwinong for piano by Judith Sainte Croix, and played by her
Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto with Keith Jarrett as soloist
Alien Heart from Elodie Lauten’s early disc of piano works on Cat Collectors

December 21, 2004 11:28 AM | |
I've been absent because of school duties and computer problems. (When I moved from a 4GB computer to a 40GB, I laughed at the idea of ever filling it up - now I'm realizing it's too small to play fast and loose with aiff audio files the way I need to.) But I stumbled across a cache of my rare cassettes, and I've put up some recordings on Postclassic Radio that you'd have a hell of a time finding anywhere else. One is the sole work by Conlon Nancarrow that isn't commercially recorded: his Trio No. 2 of 1990, for oboe, bassoon, and piano, close to being his last work (at least, the last he composed without ransacking previous material). Another is the Wittgenstein Cycle (1980) of the inimitable Jeffrey Lohn, who was the third leg of the art-rock trio he shared with Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca in the '80s, but who detoured out of history for a decade or two and is now reportedly composing again. Lohn set Wittgenstein's entire Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to music, in German, in a bouncy, Stravinskian idiom, and this is an excerpt. It's wonderful. And on top of that I'm uploading a mystery bootleg recording that I'm not even going to advertise, not having any desire to be visited by disgruntled musicians' union goons. The Mad New-Music Broadcaster strikes again!

December 12, 2004 5:58 PM | |
An article in The Guardian linked from Arts Journal suggests that, since the best-selling albums do not match up to critics' top-ten choices, the public clearly pays no attention to music criticism, which is thereby demonstrated to have become irrelevant. The obvious retort to this was published decades ago by Virgil Thomson, and since Googling it produces no results, it seems advisable to trot it out again here: "Music criticism may be unnecessary. It is certainly inefficient. But it is the only antidote we have to paid publicity." The fact that paid publicity is so massively effective these days does not mean that criticism has become unimportant; on the contrary, it is more crucial than ever that it be written and supported. We need a name for this ubiquitous and debilitating fallacy that, even in a corporate fascist state like ours, what the people buy a lot of must therefore be what the people like.

December 2, 2004 9:03 AM | |
Hey, it's December, and Postclassic Radio's composer of the month is Mikel Rouse! Tonight at Walter Reade Theater in New York City I'll be receiving my ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for the station, along with Robin Cox of Iridian Radio. I told ASCAP that the station was Robin's idea and I stole it from him, and that he should get the award alone, but they split it between us. It confirms what I've said all my life: you don't get the things you deserve, but you get other things you don't deserve instead, so it evens out. In college I got C's in the courses I deserved A's in, and A's when I deserved C's. Something similar keeps happening. My mother always called it Emerson's Law of Compensation.

December 1, 2004 12:57 AM | |

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Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
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Paul Levy measures the Angles
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Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
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Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
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Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
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The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
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Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
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Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
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Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds

Jerome Weeks on Books
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Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
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Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
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