main: May 2005 Archives

You might assume that the late George Rochberg (1918-2005) was not the kind of composer a Downtowner and experimentalist like me would be interested in, but you'd be wrong. In everything I've ever written about Rochberg - and there has been a lot, notably the long lead section of my chapter on the New Romantics in my book American Music in the Twentieth Century - I always cited him as one of the best 12-tone composers ever. His works from the 1950s, notably Serenata d'Estate and the Sonata-Fantasia, were important to me as a teenager, and I still think of them first as intriguingly introverted and thoughtful modernist works, only secondarily as examples of "12-tone music." I worked hard on that Sonata-Fantasia in high school, and performed the first section publicly (the rest was a little much for my technique at the time). The sheet music has been sitting on my piano for the last few months, and I still enjoy reading through its craggy counterpoint.

If anyone could have continued the 12-tone idiom with integrity, I thought it was Rochberg, but when his son died, and in his grief he came out and railed against the technocratic, obfuscatory music of his peers, I watched his courage with admiration. I wasn't always wild about the directions it led him in - as an ambitious grad student, I didn't see aping the styles of Handel and Mahler as any key to the future. But I was in awe of the thoroughness with which he cast off ideology from his shoulders, and I gave him the benefit of the doubt as he stumbled about in the uncharted, ahistorical wilderness outside the academy. Rochberg's book of essays The Aesthetics of Survival was a heartfelt plea for musical sanity, and even though it excoriated Cage along with Boulez and Babbitt, I found myself nodding in agreement with its compelling common sense.

Of course, in retrospect Rochberg's neo-tonal and quotation-based music has fallen into an ironic genre popularly understood as postmodernism, but he never claimed that title for it, nor pursued the directions he did trying to be hip. Today the Third through Sixth Quartets with which he abandoned modernism sound no longer like pointers to a potentially sterile future, but like bold thought experiments of someone trying desperately to breach the present crisis. To have arisen to prestige through the academy and then apostatized against it as Rochberg did, threatening what could have been career suicide - except that he was so palpably right - was a move as brave as Monteverdi's embrace of the "secunda prattica" around 1600. I remember even Time magazine documenting the charges that Rochberg had "sold out," but he never faltered or looked back.

I never had contact with Rochberg but once. When I reviewed The Aesthetics of Survival in the Voice, he sent me a letter taking thoughtful disagreement, and telling me I had misunderstood the gist of some of the essays. In my youthful arrogance I was prepared to argue, but needed to reread much of the book, and, in the haste of carrying on three careers while raising a son, never got around to rereading, and thus never answered. I've always regretted that. Because of all the composers who inhabited points distant from me on the spectrum of musical politics, he alone exhibited an honesty and courage that transcended all differences of ideology. "We are not slaves of history," he wrote; "we can choose and create our own time."

May 31, 2005 5:28 PM | | Comments (0) |

I'm told that among Latin American countries Costa Rica is second, after Chile, in its standard of living, and that due to the excellece of its health care system, the country has now surpassed Japan to become number one in the world in the average longevity of its population. Certainly a lot of Americans flock to Costa Rica for dental work and plastic surgery, for professionals in those fields are well-trained in the U.S. and Europe, and their fees significantly cheaper than those at home. Americans are also buying up land for retirement purposes, the country is considered favorable for business investment, and, most tellingly, the number of Costa Ricans who live abroad in Europe or the U.S. for years and then nostalgically gravitate back home is quite remarkable. Some decades ago (so I was told by a seemingly knowledgeable tour guide) the government took 80 percent of the land away from the wealthiest landowners who were basically enslaving the rest of the population and made it available for the poor to afford at cheap rates. The constitution does not permit the country to maintain a standing army. The Costa Rican Cumbres cigars I brought back legally are smoother and richer in flavor than the bandless Cuban Cohibas that, to my surprise, turned up in one of the shoes in my suitcase when I got home. Aside from the nerve-wracking craziness of trying to drive in San Jose (no worse than Manhattan, and no better), Costa Rica does seem like a jewel of the Western hemisphere.

I say all this up front to mitigate the negative PR value of the fact that within ten hours of my arrival, two men jumped out of a cab, pointed pistols at me, and took my wallet. This was apparently a fluke. Pickpocketing and petty crime are common, as in all Latin American countries and many U.S. cities, but violent confrontation is extremely rare, especially in the neighborhood around the Universidad de Costa Rica where I was staying. At six foot two I am taller than the average Central American male by several inches, and thus identifiable as a presumptive American from blocks away. Moreover, foreigners have often told me that I am the most American-looking and -sounding person they've ever met, and so in countries where Americans are pinpointed by thieves, beggars, and police as likely to be carrying cash and credit cards, I?m a sitting duck. Attempts to cultivate a swarthier, more Mediterranean persona have not met with success.

But the University music department's fourth annual Seminario de Composicion Musical, in which I participated, ran smoothly and without further disturbing incident. The music students at the University are hard-working, curious, and uninformed, an odd blend of innocence and innate musicality. According to their teachers they are well trained in the European classics but have had little chance for contact with contemporary music; names such as Reich, Glass, Ligeti, and Feldman drew only the slightest recognition among a student or two. Yet pieces I saw and heard by young composers, if uniformly tonal, were sophisticated in both counterpoint and especially rhythm - and I don't mean the stereotypical kind of 3+3+2 "Latin" rhythms one associates with music south of the border, either, but more complex cycles of 11 or 21 beats. One would almost call such pieces postminimalist, though they seem to have arisen from a blend of classical tradition and pop guitar, with no discernible influence from either modernist or anti-modernist sources.

Similarly, in the Costa Rican music on the Composition Seminar, I heard among my own generation an attempt to create a new music not noticeably indebted to either the USA or Europe. The best, freshest pieces were by Eddie Mora - professor at the University, and my host - Alejandro Cardona, and Carlos Michans. All three composers are capable of a sustained Impressionist quiet dotted by outbursts of melody, though Mora has a more active rhythmic side as well, and Cardona's earlier music is couched in a pensively muted Expressionism. Mora (born 1965) studied violin in Russia for ten years, and his music inherited something of the Shostakovich/Schnittke sense of humor. (Russian-Costa Rican links are common; apparently the Soviet Union used to court Central Americans with generous scholarships to Russian schools.) Rather than try to characterize Mora's music from the sampling I heard, I am posting two pieces from his recent CD, Concierto "Amighetti" for strings, piano, and percussion and Girl and the Wind for strings, synthesizer and piano (both 2003), to Postclassic Radio; I also upload the latter work here so you can check it out at your convenience.

I wish I could play you Mora's Dos Retratos for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, which I heard played in concert by the Seattle Chamber Players (with whom I was traveling, and who also premiered my own Minute Symphony Friday evening). It was a series of calm, still textures, through which little recurring melodic figures kept reacclimating themselves. Very beautiful, and original. Mora has gigs coming up in Austin and at Cornell in 2005, and may well become the first Costa Rican composer with an international rep.

I also wish I could play you La Delgadina by Alejandro Cardona (born 1959) for clarinet, viola, and piano, a lovely work of sustained tones breaking into bits of Italian opera melody. The three string quartets on the CD he gave me are a little less postclassical, a little more modernist, yet highly musical and not really reminiscent of anyone. I post to Postclassic Radio his Third, subtitled "En el Eco de las Parades" (1999-2000) - because 21st-century Costa Rican music is making a strong bid for independence and international relevance, and it's high time you heard some.

May 30, 2005 4:09 PM | |

One of my now-rare Village Voice articles appeared this week, a review of Charles Amirkhanian and Paul Epstein on the Interpretations series. I've uploaded to my website one of the Epstein pieces I talk about so you can listen to it, the lovely Palindrome Variations.

May 29, 2005 8:15 PM | |

Anyone out there reading me in Costa Rica? Hello? No?

This Wednesday I'll be appearing at the fourth annual Seminario de Composiciòn Musica organized by the University of Costa Rica in San Jose, May 25 at 7 PM. I'm performing Custer and Sitting Bull again for the thirty-somethingth time (if I still can remember the words - yikes!), along with several of the Disklavier pieces from my upcoming New World CD. I'll also give a composition master class and a lecture on American (Yankee) music later in the week. If any of you happen to be in San Jose, well, drop on by.

No more changes to Postclassic Radio, probably no more blogging, until I return June 1. Imagine me sitting on a hot beach, worrying about how my e-mail is piling up.

May 22, 2005 12:31 PM | |

New on Postclassic Radio this week: Jenin, by Frank Abbinanti, an hour-long, partly improvisatory piano work. Abbinanti is a political composer somewhat in the Rzewski mold, and a Chicago associate of the late Cornelius Cardew. I've uploaded some tracks from Phil Kline's new CD Zippo Songs, with found texts from Vietnam GI's, and a couple of pieces by Eve Beglarian that aren't commercially available yet. Also, music by two composers in their early twenties, John Brady and Bernard Gann (no relation to me, aside from direct descent).

May 22, 2005 12:27 PM | |

Today we presented the Herb Alpert Award to David Dunn. Dunn is an "electronic composer" - though I put the term in quotes because it falls so far short of doing him justice. He makes sound installations, but a lot of his work borders on biology. One of his available recordings, Chaos and the Emergent Mind of the Pond, is a recording of minute underwater creatures, and sounds like an elegantly complex piece of musique concrète. More recently he's invented a microphone that can be inserted into tree bark to record the sound world of the bark beetles that have been devastating the conifer woodlands of the western U.S. Tiny as these creatures are - the size of a grain of rice - they emit a wide range of sounds, some gender-specific, from the backs of their necks. Dunn told me today that, with global waming, these insects have increased from having one or two generations a year to four or five. As the global temperature rises, they move to higher elevations, and are in danger of infesting mountain forests that have never developed defenses against them. These high-altitude trees are the ones that hold snow in place that feeds the great rivers of the west. And so the unnatural spread of bark beetles is a real menace to the ecology of the western U.S., threatening massive droughts, and his recordings help monitor changes in the beetles' habits. As he wrote in his application statement:

I wish to argue for the necessity of an art that sometimes turns outward instead of only reifying our obsession with human self-consciousness. It is an art that desires to foreground the non-human world. This requires a merger of art and science that places the human back into a measured position within the biotic world and encourages both to contribute to a collective activism of real world problem solving.

While my trust in science is tempered by all of the familir criticism directed at it for its true limitations, I still believe that it is one of the only tools we have for transcending the basic human condition that we cannot perceive what we do not believe. At the same time, many of my colleagues will accuse me of being too grandiose in believing that art must contribute to real world problem solving by enriching the communication of what science reveals through seeking the facts of nature.

Given the avalanche of messages that we are now receiving from the Earth in the form of disrupted natural cycles, increasing natural disasters, unprecedented loss of biological diversity, global warming, etc., it seems apparent that we are truly beginning to pass through the eye of the environmental needle. It occurs to me that the best use of my time as a musician is to spend it simply listening to some of those messages and to pass them along to others.

Dunn's wife told me that when they told friends about the Herb Alpert Award, some of them replied, "Oh, I didn't realize David was a composer." But he is, and his music has a fascination born of unfamiliar yet natural processes. Right after the panel met in January to decide the award, I gave a hint of the winner by playing Chaos and the Emergent Mind of the Pond on Posclassic Radio. (The Alpert panelists for a given year are kept secret until the award is given, but I've already been outed in the Times, so what the heck.)

So today we had a nice little ceremony at a private apartment in Manhattan to present the awards, also given for film, dance, theater, and visual art. Dunn doesn't often present his sonic findings in public, and was extremely surprised to win. He told me that when he got the letter telling him he'd been nominated (it's a $50,000 prize, far more appealing than the Pulitzer though less well-known) he threw it in the trash, assuming someone whose work was so esoteric could never win. But he mentioned it to his wife and she made him fish the application back out and complete it. Improvising harpist Zeena Parkins and composer/entrepreneur Gustavo Matamoros were on the panel with me, and we reached a unanimous decision. Dunn's an amazing guy. He started off his career as factotum for Harry Partch from 1970-74, and inherited much of Partch's integrity, and his complete unconcern for the rewards of his labor. And his music carries such vast implications for our future on this planet - it makes me feel so trivial, just looking for good tunes and interesting new rhythms.

[UPDATE: The morning after I wrote this, the exterminator came over, because I've got carpenter ants. He went along the wall finding them by listening, his ear against the wall. I told him about Dunn's microphones, and he replied, "Yeah, we have headsets that we can place against a tree and find out what's going on." Seems like the sound world of insects is something we could maybe all stand to pay a little more attention to.]

May 15, 2005 10:45 PM | |

Don't anyone miss Anne Midgette's nice profile of composer James Tenney in today's Times.

May 8, 2005 9:29 AM | |

In response to my post on classical musicians rejecting scores for being deficient in dynamic markings, a fellow blogospheroid objects,

Since a score is just a set of instructions for performers, surely it's not unreasonable to expect that a composer will tell the performers what he wants - say whether it's supposed to be loud or soft and where.... Otherwise, at least in my experience, something like that is the first thing the players want to know - with good reason, I think. So leaving it all out just ends up wasting time later when the issue has to be addressed.

What an eminently reasonable argument! How could anyone take issue with it? But it embodies a modernist classical assumption that I don't share: that a composer is required to decide in advance what the volume levels of every moment of his music should be, and to deny the performer the right to intuitively shape the music himself. What is the correct dynamic of "Summertime"? What's the dynamic level of Wayne Shorter's Nefertiti? What is the correct dynamic level of Bach's Violin Chaconne (since the manuscript shockingly omits dynamic markings)?

Whatever else it was, Downtown music was always, always, since those first bizarre concerts at Yoko Ono's loft, an attempt to create a music in-between high and low art. Rather than superficially combine elements from classical music with those from pop and jazz (though it has certainly done that often enough too), it more often aimed at a new kind of music whose ontological status was in-between classical and jazz: free enough that performer decisions and interpretation might once again play an important role, but still structured enough that the piece would have a strong identity from performance to performance. Aiming for a point halfway between "Summertime" and Philomel, Downtown musicians didn't want their pieces to become mere templates for an improviser to redefine in his own style, but - most of all - neither did they want to be stuck in the restrictive modernist classical paradigm of the total, reified sound object of which every nuance was thought out in advance.

Yet rather than see the looseness of Downtown music as a move in the direction of freedom from conceptual straitjackets, and a laudable attempt to break through a debilitating cultural impasse, academic and orchestra musicians invariably, invariably compare it with that classical paradigm and thus interpret it as merely deficient, unfinished, incompetent - except for those few pieces that become famous, like Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, which, oddly enough, cease to seem incomplete once they are performed so brilliantly and so often.

[I might also note the classical/orchestral assumption embedded in my respondent's comment that "So leaving it all out just ends up wasting time later..." - that the rehearsal of music should be a quick, efficient process, and that taking the extra energy to try out different interpretations is a waste of time. This is why a lot of composers won't bother writing for orchestra.]

May 7, 2005 12:33 PM | |

Transferring my vinyl to CDs is a trip through my musical adolescence, and part of the trip I retraced today was Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Heroshima. What an incredibly original soundworld with all those prickly col legnos and mass glissandos, what a stunning breakthrough in 1960. No wonder the piece made Penderecki famous. And yet, listening to it today with fresh ears, what a lifeless structure, what a limp succession of effects that never add up to anything, even in the recording conducted by Bruno Maderna. Now that so many others have used those same effects better (and for that matter, Xenakis had already used them more interestingly in the '50s), it hardly justifies my efforts to bring it into my repertoire class to impress young conductors with. The piece itself pointedly reminds me that the title that made it famous was an afterthought, and that Penderecki had originally planned to call it what it really more sounds like, 8'37" - eight minutes and 37 seconds.

May 7, 2005 12:25 PM | |

We moved to a house whose owner had been absent a couple of years. The trees and bushes are so overgrown with parasitic vines that their growth is being stunted. I've pulled down hundreds of feet of vines, releasing the trees underneath to uncurl and grow toward the sky again.

New music is similarly overgrown with vines: the school-taught classical assumptions about what constitutes musical sophistication.

Composer A sent me a new score to an orchestra work. She wanted to submit it for an award for which Composer B is on the panel, and asked my opinion because I'm friends with Composer B. It's a terrific piece - I've heard it - but I looked at her score, with its endlessly repeating rhythmic patterns, its pages and pages with no new dynamic markings, its postminimalist absence of detailed notational nuance. I know that the more classically-oriented Composer B is going to take one glance and dismiss it as "unsophisticated."

I had a brilliant composition student several years ago, the first student who ever took my Analysis of 20th-century Music course as a freshman. He did very well in it, too. His big influences, besides post-rock, were late Beethoven and Sibelius, both of which he had studied in some depth. He wrote what I thought was a subtle, innovative orchestra work that, without being loud or rock-oriented, recast orchestral texture according to some pop paradigms.

The performance of his piece was cancelled because it contained "too many whole notes," and looked unsophisticated. I imperiled my own impending tenure by insisting on its reinstatement, which I achieved, but an investigation was threatened to see whether my composition students should be taken away from me, because I clearly wasn't competent to teach them sophisticated techniques. To this day I remain the second-class composition teacher.

Later I had another composition student who wrote an orchestra piece entirely on the C major scale, no sharps or flats. I once wrote an ensemble piece on the C major scale myself, and John Luther Adams has several lovely orchestra pieces using only the C major scale, one of them 70 minutes long and recorded on New World. I see no problem with this. But I let her finish the piece the way she wanted it, and then I said, "Will you do me a favor?" "What?" "Transpose the piece up a half-step." A couple of clicks in the notation software, and the piece was now in D-flat major. This time the performance passed without incident, the realization that there were no subsequent accidentals having come rather late in the game. I knew if a student of mine had turned in a piece using only the "white" pitches, there would have been another investigation.

Now I've got a student with a very nice piano piece, cluster-filled and sort of Henry Cowell-reminiscent. She absolutely resists putting dynamic markings. A lot of young composers today don't like dynamic markings: they listen to music on the car stereo, they admire pop music that's been dynamically compressed, and the idea of using dynamic contrasts and crescendos to shape a piece strikes them as precious, classical, insipidly Romantic. But she knows what to do to get past the classical people: she'll put in a bunch of mp and mf dynamics, and after the performance she'll take them right out again.

The classical people suffocate music with a raging network of stupid, anti-intellectual, false beliefs:

Only chromatic music can be sophisticated.

Sophistication in music always manifests itself on a detailed, gestural level.

A plethora of notational nuance equals sophistication; absence of notational nuance equals lack of musical knowledge.

What audiences want in their music is sophistication.

For my money, Erik Satie is the most sophisticated composer of the early 20th century. You analyze his music in close detail, he often broke every known rule of harmonic progression and voice-leading too consistently to have been by accident. This entails, of course, that he knew the rules perfectly well, and by so doing, he helped Debussy and Stravinsky stem the overwhelming tide of organicist Wagnerianism. Yet Satie is precisely the historical figure whom the classical types most dismiss as unsophisticated. Among other things, his scores were the most blankly notated of their day, often without even barlines.

Last night our school chorus performed Orff's Carmina Burana. A very simplistic piece, harmonically. Lots of C major scale. Rhythmically, it struck me once again as far more sophisticated than anything Schoenberg ever wrote. The audience ate it up.

May 5, 2005 8:28 AM | |

Awhile back I wrote about my project to put all of the CDs I use for teaching on an external hard drive, and the subject seemed to generate some mild interest among music blogospheroids. I continue apace: I now have just over 4000 mp3s, some 20 days' worth of music, occupying 33 gigs of a 250-gig hard drive. But I also just received a new G5 desktop for my office at Bard, with a 75-gb capacity. And since I hardly use my office computer, doing most of my business on my laptop, I decided to transfer all of those mp3s to my G5 as well, and keep the hard drive at home. That way I don't have to load mp3s onto a computer to play them, and don't have to delete them for space afterward - I just click and the music plays. It's hooked up to my office stereo, which is an excellent one that was donated to us, and one I'm keeping until we have another use for it.

I can report a revolutionary impact on my teaching habits. A couple of weeks ago a student came in trying to write a piece in jazz style for orchestra. I said, "Well, there are some models for that kind of thing, like Darius Milhaud's Creation of the World." I clicked on La Creation du Monde and it played. "And there's also Bohuslav Martinu's Le Jazz." Clicked on it, and it played. "But if you want something more authentic, you might try William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony" - clicked on it, let it play a couple of minutes - "or, better yet, James P. Johnson's Harlem Symphony" - click, and it played. It's like I think of a piece and it appears - no searching through shelves of CDs, no trips to the library, no promising to bring that disc tomorrow. I only wish I had my scores as PDFs, because those I still have to search for. A student came in expressing an interest in environmental sound, so I clicked on Luc Ferarri's Presque Rien No. 1, which led to talk about musique concrète, so I played Varèse's Poème Electronique. [Note to self: rip some more musique concrète examples.] He also needed some guidance setting a text in English, so I grabbed a blank CDR and burned him some scenes from Virgil Thomson's operas.

A piece rarely comes to mind that I don't have on that computer, and I'm astonished at the variety I've gotten in 4000 mp3s: the complete secular works of Dufay and Ockeghem, some Scots ballads sung by Ewan MacColl, some Residents albums, Ornette's Free Jazz, most of the Haydn symphonies and masses, the complete works of Claude Vivier and Mikel Rouse, the Field Nocturnes and the available Dussek sonatas, quite a bit of Indian classical music, all of Harry Partch, Schwitters's Ur-Sonate, all the major Stravinsky except Rake's Progress, the complete Well-Tuned Piano, all of Charlemagne Palestine's discs, the complete songs of Ives, all the orchestra works I teach in my 20th-century repertoire class for conductors, Papago Indian songs, several discs of quarter-tone music by Wyschnegradsky, the complete Brahms piano music, every known scrap of Satie, all my own works, and tons of new music. The main area underrepresented is opera, because I hate to have to upload 45 different mp3s to have Die Gotterdammerung. Somehow I've got to have the complete Wagner on there. And I still worry that mp3s aren't faithful enough to represent the acoustically subtle music of Phill Niblock and Eliane Radigue well. Still, now all I need is a similar setup in every classroom, and teaching music will become a much more vivid experience. I understand there are some copyright problems with this, and I'm afraid we'll have to end up subscribing to some academic library system that won't be nearly as diverse as my own collection. Too bad, because we're getting so close to what teaching music would be like in heaven.

I even thought of offering a class in which I set iTunes on random shuffle and talk about whatever comes up. That's a little too Cagean, I guess: I'd end up giving long, long disquisitions on Young and Palestine, and cramming everything I know about Satie into 90 seconds.

May 2, 2005 9:07 PM | |

Postclassic Radio's May Composer of the Month - Flavor of the Month? - is Daniel Lentz, naturally. He's got too much really compelling music that's been out for too long, and friends of mine whom I consider new-music mavens remain inexplicably unacquainted with it. Richard Friedman reminded me, though, that the station hasn't yet aired any Giacinto Scelsi, which I immediately remedied. And there are two new string quartets up, the Fourth ("Beneath thy tenderness of heart") by George Tsontakis, a really lovely work, and a 2004 quartet by young Dutch composer Renske Vrolijk, who proved so popular last September that I've been haranguing her to send more music. And some other stuff.

May 1, 2005 12:36 PM | |

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