main: July 2005 Archives
Italian electronic composer Walter Cianciusi (q.v.) has made available an engine he's designed for playing La Monte Young's sine-tone installations - 23 of them so far, ranging from his early Composition 1960 No. 7 to The Prime Time Twins... from the current MELA Foundation Dream House. Download Cianciusi's Dream House package here, and it installs Max/MSP on your computer if you didn't already have it. Then you select an installation you want to hear, type in an appropriate base frequency and hit return so you can hear it, and press "Start." (For the late, complex installations, the base frequency should be 7.5 cps; for the others, something more in the 100-250 range, depending.) Of course, to get anything resembling the real installations, you'd then have to run this through a big sound system with superb frequency response. If you have that available, though, this offers the chance, I guess, to live with these intervals experimentally as La Monte has long done, and maybe - with pristine enough sonic conditions - to experience these fascinating mathematico-minimalist works without traveling to New York City.
My office speakers aren't nearly sophisticated enough to render the more complex installations with any realism, but I'm getting a kick out of the simpler ones. How can you tell whether you're getting it? The volume level should be basically steady, without a pronounced regular crescendo/decrescendo beat, and you should be able to refocus your ears on different pitches by moving your head slightly. Kids, try this at home!
If I were to ask you which composer from history seemed to embody emotional uncertainty in his music, what names would spring to mind? Mahler, maybe? Bartok? Dallapiccola?
I was initially heartened by Nicholas Kenyon's article in the Times demythologizing Mozart. Not that I have anything against Mozart - quite the contrary. In fact, I've long been interested in saving the guy from his father's slanderous picture of him as an eternal idiot child, someone who wrote heavenly music without effort. Mozart HATED that image of himself. Leopold Mozart created it as a way of controlling him, and it gained ground because Leopold's letters happened to get published just after Mozart died, when Europe was suddenly interested and trying to get a grasp of who this Mozart fellow was. Kenyon provides several humanizing correctives:
Not until Wolfgang Plath studied the handwriting in the autograph scores did we realize quite how much of the early works was written down (or edited? or half-composed?) by Mozart's father, Leopold. Much is made of Mozart's admission to the famous Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna when he was 14, but the documents that survive show that his entrance composition was heavily corrected.
Mozart himself claimed that his music arose not by divine inspiration, but through hard work and study. Kenyon further claims that Mozart was not as good a composer at 15 as Mendelssohn would later be, and he's right: I have yet to find any music Wolfgang wrote before age 19 that I felt I needed to hear again. The Mozart myth, I've always felt, was 1. a condescending image created by his father, and 2. a distant, divine image intended to make all future composers feel inferior, and to reinforce a public feeling that musical genius is something distant and fated, not something we should ever expect to meet up with on a daily basis.
But ultimately even Kenyon can't resist perpetuating the myth. He ends his article:
[A]s we approach the next anniversary period, 2006 to 2041, there is no sign that Mozart has lost his relevance among composers. He still matches with uncanny precision the temper of our troubled times: our emotional uncertainty, our ability to perceive serenity fleetingly but never to attain it.
Does this sound right to you? Is there something about living in the age of iPods, terrorism, and corporate dictatorship that makes Mozart now more relevant than ever? Does Don Giovanni embody a cautionary tale that young people of the 21st century need to hear? Does The Magic Flute provide insight into Republican deceptiveness? Does Mozart's music contain anything that we, today, would understand as emotional uncertainty, the troubled temper of our times, or the fleeting quality of serenity? Or do our classical mavens just feel an overwhelming need to reinforce the status quo, by recentering our musical life on a distant figure with whose music we have pretty much lost any capacity for real intellectual and emotional engagement? Isn't the real significance of Mozart's music today that his is the easiest for the classical music industry to turn into a commodity and sell?
A question came up at Sequenza 21 recently as to whether a composer should respond to a negative review. I know the answer to this one. My playing both sides of the game for 22 years has given me some insight into how to treat critics - as a critic myself I've had some blundering composers alienate me for years, and others charm the pants off me (only metaphorically speaking, of course). And as a composer, I've responded to many a review, with such surgical expertise as to never occasion (so far as I know) any negative consequences. It strikes me that composers may benefit from knowing the rules. (I'll refer to the critic as "him" rather than "him or her," because they're always men anyway, right?)
1. Never insult a critic, go ad hominem, or counter his negative opinion with any negative emotionality of your own. Be clear, neutral, objective, factual, professional. He knows he's pissed you off - if you can avoid showing it, he'll be impressed. If you can't, he'll be reluctant to review you again, or, worse, come gunning for you. There's only one exception to this rule, given below.
2. If he's made an error of fact, correct it, cleanly and without rancor or condescension. Condescension is unnecessary when you've got the poor guy by the balls. Factual errors are critics' Achilles' heels. Critics don't really consider themselves reporters, but they work in the same milieu as reporters, and the comparison is unavoidable. There is a spurious but compelling assumption abroad that a critic who can't be trusted for his facts can't be trusted for his opinions either; no logical reason why this should be true, but it remains the soft underbelly of the critic's self-esteem. In many publications, he'll have to issue a correction, which makes him and the paper look bad. Misstatements in negative reviews, unless they are totally trivial, should always be corrected - it keeps the critic on his toes and makes him as humble as he's capable of being.
3. If you're a living composer and the critic is not Kyle Gann, chances are 9 out of 10 that he doesn't understand what you're doing in your music. This in itself can be interesting; you're doing more in your music than you realize, and the insights from offbeat perspectives can be illuminating. But if you get negatively reviewed because he thought you were doing something different than you were, which happens a lot, treat this as a factual error. In analytical terms worthy of an encyclopedia article, explain to him what it was that interested you in the music, what you were trying to achieve - you might even concede that he was right about what the music failed to do, since it's not what you were trying to do. In the short term, this will produce no effect, and the critic will cling to a right to his own subjectivity; but it is not impossible to bully (gently) a critic into some modicum of self-doubt that he maybe he really doesn't understand your kind of music.
3a. In endemic cases of this kind, one might write to the editor instead, informing him in objective, unemotional terms that the critic who's covering your kind of music really doesn't have any expertise in the genre, and wouldn't it be better to hire some other critic for that beat - someone like, say, Kyle Gann? In this case I wouldn't write the critic as well, because you're trying to push him out of part of his job, and he'll feel betrayed when he finds out.
4. If the critic's opinion is completely subjective and boils down to an indisputable matter of taste, there's no point in arguing. Instead, send the critic a note thanking him for attending, for choosing your concert to review (if he had that option), for taking your music seriously enough to wrangle with, and/or for getting something about your work out to the public. Feign a belief that all publicity is good publicity, and that you and he are two fellow professionals ultimately involved in the same task. You won't believe how effective this can be. Some of the most negative reviews I've ever written were of operas by Philip Glass - yet whenever he sees me, Phil has always been friendly, affable, and talkative, though dropping the occasional hint to let me know he read those reviews. This baffles the critic; he starts to suspect (as I always did with Phil) that you're such an important composer that noticing negative reviews would be beneath you, since you get so many positive ones elsewhere; most importantly, he will be unafraid to review you again, and to do so honestly; and he might even subconsciously start wanting to like your music because he's unable to dislike you.
5. The exception to number 1: If a critic hates new music but constantly writes about it anyway just out of malicious glee, and there's not a snowball's chance in hell that you or anyone else is ever going to get a good review out of him, and it would make you feel better to tell him what an ignorant, lowlife, tone-deaf son-of-a-bitch he is, go ahead and do so. (Clearly, I'm thinking of Donal Henahan at the Times in the 1980s.) Get as many cosigners as possible.
Why respond? Because more communication is always better than less, and for the critic's own good. A critic who never gets responded to paradoxically starts to think both that, 1. no one's reading him anyway, and so he doesn't have to worry about the consequences of his words, and 2. he's the isolated high-and-mighty authority whose word no one would dare question. I got responded to a lot in my early years at the Village Voice, and it made me sort through my musical convictions with a fine-tooth comb, and express them with razor-edged precision. Not a bad thing.
As for responding to a positive review, a note of thanks is not called for nor, precisely, even appropriate - but it is never resented. Same goes for cash and sexual favors.
In Salon there's a chilling report of the 1994 Rwanda genocide in the form of Suzy Hansen's review of Jean Hatzfeld's book Machete Season. It details how the Hutus became inured, over a three-month period, to getting up every day and hacking to death their neighbors, the Tutsis, without qualms and without remorse, just because they were Tutsis.
And then I read Karl Rove's answer when someone asked him why he so ruthlessly set out to destroy and discredit Joseph Wilson: "Because he's a Democrat."
Thanks to Lawrence for this wonderful quote from Eric Hoffer (1902-1983):
In products of the human mind, simplicity marks the end of a process of refining, while complexity marks a primitive stage. Michelangelo's definition of art as the purgation of superfluities suggests that the creative effort consists largely in the elimination of that which complicates and confuses a pattern.
Think of it as you're listening to Brian Ferneyhough's new opera at Lincoln Center this week.
In response to my new CD Nude Rolling Down an Escalator the questions have started pouring in about the Disklavier, some of them the same questions that Conlon Nancarrow spent his late life fielding about the player piano. Let me see if I can head some of them off at the pass.
I love the pieces, too bad the Disklavier sounds so electronic. Couldn't you have used some really good piano samples? Actually, the Disklavier is a regular acoustic piano. Those are physical, metal piano strings being struck by felt hammers, just like any other piano. I can reach in and pluck the strings if I want. It's exactly like an old-fashioned player piano, simply played by MIDI commands rather than by a paper roll with holes in it. If you think it sounds electronic, your false conception of what a Disklavier is may be misleading your perception.
The one odd thing about my Disklavier is its tuning: I keep it in an 18th-century well temperament, Thomas Young's well temperament of 1799 (nearly identical to what's called Velotti-Young on some synthesizers - you can read about the scale here). It's a more subtly different tuning, to our ears, than something like Werckmeister III that Bach used; the greatest deviation from modern equal temperament is only 6 cents (6/100ths of a half-step). It is not a "microtonal" tuning, as some have thought, because there are only 12 pitches to the octave, all about a half-step apart. Nevertheless, while it's difficult to notice the well temperament in any particular passage (though one reviewer's sharp ears caught it in Folk Dance for Henry Cowell and Tango da Chiesa), it does create a slight but pervasive difference of timbre over the whole keyboard. Intervals that are purer, and lack the buzzy inharmonicity of the modern piano, are often perceived as unpianolike, and a little bell-like or electronic. I've had this perception myself with La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano. If you think the piano sounds a little electronic, it might be that you're not used to the temperament. I recently had my grand piano at home worked on, and it came back in equal temperament; I couldn't stand the sound, which was buzzy and harsh and undifferentiated, and which everyone else is perfectly accustomed to. I was so relieved when my piano tuner came over and restored the 18th-century temperament.
[UPDATE: Composer Lawrence Dillon credits the electronic illusion to "an aural illusion caused by fast torrents of notes that I intuitively knew couldn't be contained in 10 fingers -- my brain... solved the riddle by hearing an artificial tint to the timbre." I have to admit, there's a moment at the end of Bud Ran Back Out that sounds electronic even to me. Perhaps instead of worrying about that I should cultivate it.]
The tempos sound so mechanical - shouldn't you have randomized the attacks to make it sound more like a human is playing it? Actually, I randomized the attacks in every piece. Almost nothing on the CD is metronomically pure. Again, if you know you're listening to a machine, you may be predisposed to hear it as mechanical. However, in writing music of different tempos, there's a limit to how much rubato one can allow, and it is a much narrower range than is common in live performance. (This is a question that came up constantly regarding Nancarrow's player-piano music, and my feeling about it is the same as his.)
Jonathan Kramer, in his book The Time of Music, reported that studies that analyzed performers playing conventional music showed that even the most accurate performer will frequently show variation in the durations of consecutive 8th-notes or quarter-notes of as much as 15 percent. One study showed that professional violinists played a 3/4 rhythm of alternating half- and quarter-notes at a ratio averaging 1.75:1. Now, for the kinds of tempo contrasts I use, and that Nancarrow used for the latter half of his output (up to 60:61), a 15-percent tempo deviation would be fatal to the subtle differences between lines. Take one of the simplest examples, my Texarkana. The tempo contrast throughout is 29 in the treble line against 13 in the bass line. The joke of the piece is that the melody, being indefinably just more than twice as fast as the bass, sounds out of control. 26 against 13 would be a pedestrian 2:1, something any human pianist could do. Yet a 26-tempo is only an 11-percent deviation from the 29-tempo, well within the range of typical human tempo deviation. For the 29:13 tempo contrast to mean anything, the random attack humanization needs to be kept well under 10 percent.
What Conlon always said was that, in Romantic music, performers had to add rubato and tempo deviations to enliven the music because it was inherently rhythmically uninteresting. In his own music, he felt, the rhythmic interest inhered in the subtle complexity of close-but-not-identical simultaneous tempos, and therefore no further "enlivening" was needed - and, in fact, would obviate perception of the tempo relationships he was trying to capture. I agree. To gain the new rhythmic liveliness of simultaneous tempos, we have to sacrifice some of the old rhythmic liveliness of rubato. Imagine if player pianos had always been around, but people had only recently learned to play piano by hand: someone would be complaining that we lost the old rhythmic liveliness of multitempo, for which pianists were fractically trying to compensate by applying rubato.
Performers have begun arranging Nancarrow's player-piano studies for live ensembles. Don't you really hope someone will do that for your pieces someday? Number one, just about the only Nancarrow studies that have been performed live are those with fairly simple tempo ratios, like 3:4:5. No one has yet arranged (or at least performed) Study No. 33 with its ratio of 2 against the square root of 2, or No. 40 with its ratio of e-against-pi. Similarly, I doubt that an ensemble could play the 29-against-13 of Texarkana, or the 5:7:9:11:13:15:17 of Unquiet Night. If someone wants to try, that's fine with me - but it sure seems like a lot of wasted effort. Personally, I find both the player piano and the Disklavier tremendous fun to watch, whereas I don't really see much entertainment in watching most live pianists.
The thing is, if you presuppose that the raison d'etre of a Disklavier is that it can do anything a pianist can do and more, I guarantee you'll be disappointed. I'll go further than that: if you expect ANY new music to provide all the same pleasures as the music you already love, I promise YOU WILL BE DISAPPOINTED. The question with new music is always, Does it provide sufficiently plentiful and rich new pleasures to compensate for the old pleasures that have been lost? A human pianist is an amazing phenomenon, and the Disklavier is no substitute for one; nor is a living pianist a substitute for a Disklavier. Each can do things the other one can't. The fact that the sounds are the same may create an unfortunate expectation, one that's never bothered me, but it may bother you. In some of my Disklavier pieces (especially Texarkana and Despotic Waltz) I take great fun in mimicking the conventions of live piano playing with the Disklavier, and, to me, it's funny because they're so not the same. I've written a lot of piano music for live performers, and I compose very differently for pianist than I do for Disklavier. To me, they're different instruments. You may be one of those people for whom the Disklavier can only remind you of a deficient live pianist. If so, there are a couple thousand recordings of live pianists I can recommend.
Some of us composers feel that in order for music to progress, we need access to rhythms and tunings and timbres and structures that humans can't play. Something will be gained by achieving them, but something else will be lost. I guarantee it. You're either interested in the search for new musical pleasures or you're not.
Why don't you refer to it as the Yamaha Disklavier, since it's made by Yamaha? Because I tried to get Yamaha interested in putting some money or publicity into the project and they turned me down. Why should I supply them with any more free publicity than I have to?
I needn't have called them Disklavier Studies, after all, because they can also be played on a Pianodisc system. The Pianodisc system can be installed on a regular grand piano (a Steinway or Bösendorfer, for instance), and runs just like a Disklavier - with the additional advantage that Pianodisc, unlike Disklavier, can be run from a floppy disc containing straight MIDI files. Yamaha's Disklavier ain't the only game in town.
A quotation I ran across from Virgil Thomson's The State of Music:
When we made music that was simple, melodic, and harmonious, the fury of the vested interests of modernism flared up like a gas tank.... I am considered a graceless whelp, a frivolous mountebank, an unfair competitor, and a dangerous character.
A friend of mine who will probably appreciate remaining nameless in this connection teaches in a highly interdisciplinary graduate program for the arts. Painters, photographers, performance artists, filmmakers, dancers, and composers all meet together and give critiques of each other's work. (Still echoing in my head 25 years hence is the comment of a philosophy prof on a paper of mine: "'Critique' is not a verb.") My friend notes that, except for the musicians, all the students and faculty speak the language of postmodernism and deconstructionism: they talk about how a work "engages the Other," or about its "modes of negation," or about how it uses """space""" in some ineffable meaning of the word unknown to most earthlings. My friend, a really brilliant guy who's added a few wrinkles of his own to the history of music, has no idea what they're talking about, and neither do his students, nor, to hear him tell it, do the other music faculty. The non-music faculty and students have learned to accept as a matter of course that the musicians speak a completely different language, and can't participate. One of the big differences is that the composers are the only ones whose work doesn't necessarily "reference" (also not a verb) things in the real world. The painters, performance artists, et al, assume that every piece is political in intent, and critique (ouch!) every work in terms of its positioning along a social spectrum. In so doing they indulge an elaborate word game virtually unknown in the music world.
Does anyone else find themselves living on the edge of this divide? I admit I've been on interarts grant panels that were very similar, on which every artist was judged according to the political correctness of his or her work's message, and on which composers were brushed aside because their work "isn't really saying anything, is it?, it's just music." Is it perhaps true that, right this moment, music is more isolated from all the other arts than it's ever been before?
OK, music theory teachers, here's a more definite proposal. The teaching of music theory needs to be changed. Can we start by getting rid of inversion symbols?
Bear with me while I develop my argument. I spend a lot of time beating inversion symbols (in Roman numeral analysis) into my students. They're seemingly arbitrary ("6" for first inversion, "6 - 4" for second), and difficult for the students to internalize. Now, I do agree that inversions of triads are important to note. Unless you're writing really eccentric music (and may the gods bless you if you are), a second-inversion triad has a specific connotation and creates specific expectations. Refuse to deal with those expectations, and the result is a musical faux pas, and sounds like you don't know what you're doing.
However, let's go on to seventh chords. Root position is "7," first inversion is "6 - 5," second is "4 - 3," and third is either "2" or "4 - 2." (I invariably teach "2", but always get a student or two already trained to use "4 - 2.") Using triads, it's important to deal with the second inversion carefully, but with seventh chords the second inversion rule is greatly relaxed, especially diminished seventh chords. The "4 - 3" chord, theoretically to be avoided, is actually quite common. And so by April I have a bunch of freshmen sweating over whether a dim. 7th is "6 - 5" or "4 - 3," and I have yet to see a context (outside of Baroque improvisation) in which it makes a damn bit of difference. Different inversions of chords can have quite different effects, but what possible purpose can it serve to specify those inversions in Roman numeral analysis? The prohibition (or at least careful handling, if you prefer) against non-cadential 6 - 4 chords can easily be noted and dealt with some other way. When having students write harmony according to pattern, all the inversion symbols do is asymmetrically isolate the bass line and prevent them from coming up with creative solutions to that one line. Of course we can talk about the advantages of sometimes putting the third or seventh of the chord in the bass, but why cling to a prescriptive notation for same which only really has application to Baroque figured bass? And in 17 years of teaching, I have not yet had a student go into Baroque keyboard accompaniment as a career.
Of course, I'm afraid to send students out into the world not knowing what a "4 - 3" chord is. I don't want them doing badly on grad-school entrance exams, and I don't want Bard to get a reputation for loose scholarship. Is that any reason to continue drilling this arbitrary and useless convention? Will you stop teaching it if I do?
My review of Eve Beglarian, Corey Dargel, and Margaret Lancaster appears in the Village Voice tonight.
This is what they call off-topic, but last night I shaved a 27-year-old mustache, and saw my upper lip for the first time since the Carter presidency.
I went into Patelson's Music in New York the other day, one of my favorite places to while away time. Aside from the 200 most solidly canonical pieces of classical repertoire, musical scores are difficult to find, and it's always fun to see what odd things happen to spring up at Patelson's. This time, I came across a relatively modern piano piece that I didn't expect. It was just a few dozen noteheads, no specific rhythms notated, on two pages. There was a key signature of two sharps, and one dynamic marking at the beginning: p. If I showed it to you, you'd think it was by some radical Downtown composer. If you submitted this piece for a grant or award, it would be laughed off the table as being amateurish, ridiculously simple. There is nothing at all about this score, in fact, that would make 90 percent of American composers take it seriously except for the name at the top: Arvo Pärt.
It was, of course, the piano piece Für Alina, published by Universal and recorded on ECM. It's a lovely piece, or, one might say, a potentially lovely piece: there's not much about the notation that would constrain one to play it with the devotional calm that makes it soulful. You kind of have to know Pärt's reputation as a "Holy Minimalist" in order to know what atmosphere to play it with; the notation doesn't tell you much, which is a bad thing if you're a Downtown composer, but apparently fine if you're Estonian. I bought the sheet music for $9.95, which also included a 1977 Pärt piece called Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka, a four-page piece of which the first half is in A minor, the second in A major, with no accidentals in either half. The melody is a quarter-quarter-half rhythm not varied until the final measure.
Lots of American composers have written music this simple, even this spiritual in intent: Peter Garland, Beth Anderson, Elodie Lauten, Mary Jane Leach, Daniel Goode, Jim Fox, William Duckworth, myself. But of course, we're not Estonian, we don't have reputations as Holy Men, and so our scores, neither published by Universal nor recorded on ECM, are neglected and ignored as the overly simple, notationally incomplete, amateurish screeds that they apparently must be.
San Francisco composer Dan Becker sends a quotation from Krishnamurti relevant to the discussion of music theory. Perhaps not the most profoundly stated truths in the world, but one would certainly like to see these sentiments acknowledged in academia on a more regular basis:
The function of education is to give the student abundant knowledge in the various fields of human endeavor and at the same time to free his mind from all traditions so that he is able to investigate, to find out, to discover. Otherwise the mind becomes mechanical, burdened with the machinery of knowledge. Unless it is constantly freeing itself from the accumulations of tradition, the mind is incapable of discovering the Supreme, that which is eternal; but it must obviously acquire expanding knowledge and information so that it is capable of dealing with the things that man needs and must produce.
So knowledge, which is the cultivation of memory, is useful and necessary at a certain level, but at another level it becomes a detriment. To recognize the distinction - to see where knowledge is destruction and has to be put aside, and where it is essential and to be allowed to function with as much amplitude as possible - is the beginning of intelligence.
Now, what is happening in education at the present time? You are being given various kinds of knowledge, are you not? When you go to college you may become an engineer, a doctor, or a lawyer [....] and so on; but nobody helps you to be free of all traditions so that from the very beginning your mind is fresh, eager and therefore capable of discovering something totally new all the time. The philosophies, theories and beliefs which you acquire from books, and which become your tradition, are really a hindrance to the mind, because the mind uses these things as a means of its own psychological security and is therefore conditioned by them. So it is necessary both to free the mind from all tradition, and at the same time to cultivate knowledge, technique; and this is the function of education.
I remember that when I was young I once nurtured an ambition to be known as the world's smartest and most knowledgeable musician. Today that seems laughably perverse, like wanting to be the world's tallest locksmith, or the world's fastest-swimming accountant. Life has taken a tremendous toll on my memory, and I seem to no longer understand the complicated theories and philosophical positions I did when I was young. And I keep getting this eerie feeling that every decline in my intellectual abilities is accompanied by an improvement in my music.
Geez, Louise, you'd think I'd be more media-savvy after 23 years in the media. But it didn't occur to me to mention, here in my blog, part of the purpose of which is self-promotion, that I was going to be interviewed at 2 PM today on John Schaefer's Soundcheck program on WNYC. John can no longer archive his programs on the web because of potential copyright issues concerning live music, but there was no live music on my show, and so I don't think it will raise any problems that I've posted a recording of the half-hour interview here. (Like everyone else, I hate the way my voice sounds on recording - it sounds very different from inside my head, believe me. And I don't really have a Texas accent, I don't know how WNYC's microphones made it sound as though I do.)
John's a great boon to new music, isn't he? He knows just how to ask all those faux-innocent questions that you need to ask to get answers interesting to a non-specialist audience, and he got me to say a couple of things I'd never said before. It was a fun interview.
One of the perennial problems of radio interviews, however, completely unknown in the blogosphere, is that you never have enough words to completely elucidate a point. John zeroed in on a problem I often worry about: that my compositions are so different from each other that it's difficult for listeners to find what I think of as my "voice." Most of my works have as their basis a counterpoint of different rhythmic durations going out of phase with each other. In my Disklavier pieces, I can simply set lines going at rhythms of 17-against-19-against-31 and think no more about it. When I'm writing for an ensemble with conductor, I have to be a little more circumspect, but can have a repeating 17-beat isorhythm in one instrument or section against a 23-beat pattern in another. When I'm writing for a solo pianist, it's more likely to be a five-beat pattern in the left hand accompanying four-beat phrases in the right. It's all the same idea - but it would require someone analyzing the scores to point out what the commonalities are. It's really typical of me to base a piece on a rhythmic problem and use harmony as the articulating element - somewhat the opposite of traditional classical music. As I told John, "I feel like I keep writing the same piece over and over," and I do. But I am heavily swayed by differences in medium, and accommodate my ideas according to practical considerations.
Another point John brought up is that several of my Disklavier pieces have a "retro" feel, based in ragtime, bebop, or other familiar styles. This is a change that came about in my music in the late 1990s. I used to try to build up a piece from scratch, with no aspects likely to be already familiar to the listener. But when I started writing for Disklavier around 1997, I decided that, if you're going to do something really weird like a continual 13-against-29 rhythm, you can better suck the listener in by having some aspect that already sounds familiar. The weirdness, I realized, will be more clearly set off against a familiar chord progression or melodic style. And so, abandoning my earlier quest for 100-percent originality, I began appropriating known idioms, so that the listener would have something to hold onto as the rhythms got wild. Early reactions to my Nude Rolling Down an Escalator CD suggest that listeners are both enticed by the familiar idioms and confused by the combination of harmonic banality and rhythmic unpredictability. I'm not displeased. John was very insightful and complimentary, and it's always an honor to be on his show.
Corey Dargel - singer extraordinaire, writer of touching songs, and the only composer I know of still in his 20s (though there may be ones I haven't heard) who is carrying on the Downtown tradition of making technological music in which the technology is subsumed into the feelings involved - Corey has raised an issue over at Sequenza 21 that I have been struggling with for years. At issue is whether teaching music theory to music students warps them in some way, and ruins their natural intuitions about music. Specifically, he asks,
Could teaching young musicians to write analyses, dissections, and formalistic essays about music improperly influence their responses to it (i.e. do they actually like the music, or do they think they're supposed to like it)? Is it possible that introducing music theory and analysis at the undergraduate level may subvert or distort a young listener's perfectly valid instincts? Is it better to require theory and analysis courses only for music theory majors?
And he starts off, very cleverly, from an item he read about jam-tasting. You should read the whole thing. (That's my photo Corey pasted just below John Corigliano, by the way. Cute.)
As someone who has now taught first-year theory eleven times, and will teach it a twelfth come September, I have increasingly been having a crisis of conscience about this very issue, and in fact have an article on the subject published where my readers might not know to look for it, in the current issue of Chamber Music magazine. (I've been writing a bimonthly column for Chamber Music called "American Composer" for six years now, which is the recent journalistic activity I'm most proud of. Sorry you can't read it online.) Let me tell you first how I used to think about teaching theory, and then about the second thoughts I describe in the article.
I used to take the position that music theory was kind of a necessary evil, and something that would winnow out the wheat from the chaff, or the men from the boys, or the sheep from the goats - stop me when I've mixed too many metaphors for you. Being a musician is tough, and if all you've got going for you is talent and a love for playing or composing, you'll never make it. You can't simply love playing - you've got to have the stamina for sitting in a practice room for six hours, the ability to put your ego aside in rehearsal, the resoluteness to go out and get gigs, the capability to accept music-making that is compromised by political or commercial exigencies. You can't only love composing - you have to love, or at least not debilitatingly dislike, copying parts, doing PR, applying for grants, networking, debugging technical setups, organizing rehearsals, all that crap that makes the composing life possible. The difference between talented amateur musicians and professionals is that the professionals can take on the logistical crap that constitutes maybe 50 percent of a musician's business life and still keep loving music in spite of it all.
And I saw music theory as being part of that crap. I always applied the wonderful saying Cage quoted from Zen:
Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are again men and mountains are again mountains, only the feet are a little bit off the ground.
Things certainly do become confused while you're studying music theory. Chords become numbers. Melodies become cadence types. Inspired dissonances fall into Germanic categories. Everything you used to do with such elegance and simplicity, being led by your impeccable ear, gets chopped up and dropped into slots labeled with musical examples from Bach, Mozart, and Schumann. If all you love about music is the right-brain intuitiveness of it, the way you get swept away at the piano and lose track of time, you will quail before this process and not go on. Sometimes with great results: David Garland, my favorite songwriter of my generation, recently told me he majored in art in college because he was afraid that studying theory would mess with his intuitive composing abilities - which are fantastic. He may have been right.
What I've always told students, though, is if you have what it takes to become a professional musician, you will go through this horrible process and get all confused, transferring a lot of musical processing from your intuitive right brain to your analytical left brain, freeing up the former for ever deeper musical investigations - and when it's all over, sounds will again be sounds and numbers numbers, and your feet will be a little bit off the ground. Otherwise, you'll go through life never able to do more than you could by ear at 20. David's songs are stirring, lovable, unforgettable - but he's never written a piano concerto. As long as he doesn't want to, his ear is enough.
I still believe all that, basically. But I am becoming more and more dissatisfied about the way we teach theory. As I get fewer and fewer students who come from a classical background, I feel more like we're not only deflecting student musical enthusiasms into more structured channels, we're actively deflating them. I try to bring pop music into class via sheet music, in order to convince them that what I'm teaching them has broader applications than just the canonical classical repertoire. As I say in the article (since it won't be easy to get ahold of even if you're interested),
I analyze the Beatles' "Yesterday," Don McLean's "American Pie," Cat Stevens's arrangement of "Morning Has Broken," even parodies by humorist Tom Lehrer. When we get to secondary dominants I wrench from the students' collective memories the correct harmonization of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," one of the few songs left for which I can count on universal recognition (thank God for baseball). We are honored to possess a superb jazz pedagogue, John Esposito, and a few years ago I took his jazz harmony course so I could better learn how jazz works. So now I compare near-identical passages from Beethoven and Thelonious Monk, and prove triumphantly that we we classicals call the "German Sixth" is also a tritone substitution chord for a V7 of V. I show that Wagner and Liszt were just as excited to discover the possibilities of a "flat five" chord as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were.
But elsewhere I fall into trouble. Jazz and classical music observe the gravity of the circle of fifths - vi ii V I - but popular music often plays against it. Pop and folk music regularly stick a four chord between a cadential five and one, just after I've told my students never to do that. I hit my head against a wall trying to make them always sharp the seventh scale degree in a minor key, and "Scarborough Fair" (not to mention "Greensleeves") makes them wonder if I know what I'm talking about.
Our duty is to pass on what we know about music of the past, but that past looks awfully limited to them.... [T]heory is supposed to be the science of music, and science is supposed to be true in all cases.
My justification for continuing to hit 18-year-olds with secondary dominants year after year is to show them how the "conventional" music they hear is written so they can write it too: church hymns, broadway tunes, film music. Of course that's not what they want to do. They immediately want to be creative, and write things unlike the music they hear. So they turn in theory assignments with interesting chord progressions that they've obviously scoped out by ear, but that are "incorrect" according to the theory text, which is based on Mozart, Brahms, etc. And rather than swing with their enthusiasm and channel it, I have to slam their momentum to a crashing halt, and say, "That's fine for your own music, but in here you have to write more conventionally." I don't like doing it.
Here's the solution I'm toying with, and by the glacial norms of acadème, it's pretty radical.
You can't learn to more expertly express yourself in sounds until you learn how sounds work - but how sounds work is a matter of physics, not 18th-century usage. I have a course called The Arithmetic of Listening in which I teach the harmonic series, the physics and arithmetic of harmony, various world tuning systems. Students who encounter that class after years of learning harmony seem to breathe a sigh of relief, as if, for the first time, a theory teacher is not lying to them. What we call a "major third" is a 5-to-4 frequency ratio, approximatable by 81/64 or the cube root of 2, and that's that. There's no room for opinion. 5/4 was not a different ratio for Mozart than it is for Sting. Start them there. (To the extent that I can, I do.)
Secondly, understanding of the numbers of tuning leads to an understanding of consonance, which is all you need to do 16th-century counterpoint. I find that my students who take my Renaissance counterpoint class before they study harmony have less trouble with harmony, and get a more intuitive grasp of how it's supposed to work. For hundreds of years, until the Paris Conservatoire switched tactics in the 1820s, counterpoint was taught before harmony, with excellent results - and Chopin, coming from more conservative Warsaw Conservatory, was disturbed by the trend, so actually I'm suggesting something radically conservative. Counterpoint leads to a recognition of triads, at which point one can introduce the concepts of I, ii, IV, V chords, etc., that a musician needs just to get through a simple blues tune.
As for our old friends five-six-five-of-two, French sixth, seven-four-three-of-four - and I'm sure there are practicing musicians among you who already don't know what I'm talking about - why burden young musicians with them just as they're starting out? Why not leave that German/Italian bastard Roman numeral analysis, with its peskily inconsistent inversion symbols, in the closet until senior year, when it's become clear who is planning a career in classical music and who wants to be a rock star? As I say in Chamber Music,
Every classical musician agrees that a knowledge of advanced harmony is important for a classical performer, but everyone also agrees that its advantages are subtle and somewhat intangible, difficult to pinpoint. There seems to me good reason to make harmony, not the foundation of a musical education, but the finishing touch, saved for senior year and for the students who are clearly headed toward a life involved with 18th- and 19th-century music.
The theory curriculum I'm mulling over is one turned almost upside-down from the ones in the theory books. I can't teach it yet - I don't have the textbook support, which is not likely to be forthcoming in today's timid and classically entrenched educational environment, and I'm not quite sure I have the cohones to supplant I-IV-V-I with alternative tunings. I do still feel that a certain amount of regimentation, a systematic right-to-left-brain transfer is ultimately necessary for a musician. But I am also convinced that today's students are veering farther and farther away from the music our conventional theory training is based on. And I wonder if we can't come up with a way of teaching theory that would harness the momentum of students' creative energy rather than immediately block it.
As I suspected, that frail reed on which Postclassic Radio depends, Live365, has done nothing toward restoring my playlist of mp3s, and I am starting over from scratch. [UPDATE: They've retrieved four of my Charlemagne Palestine tracks.] Don't expect restoration to proceed quickly, because I already had other commitments this week. I am first reposting all the pieces I had put up in mid-June, including the choral mini-festival of works by Lentz, Giteck, Leach, and myself. Past that, I guess I'll just do a big overhaul. And July's composer-of-the-month will be
some of whose works are already up. Her Lullaby has been on for a few weeks already, and is so incredibly, touchingly, ravishingly lovely - anyone who could listen to that piece and says there's no great music anymore just might as well have their ears plugged up with cement permanently.
On the other hand, there's another lovely Beglarian song that I balked at posting because it's rather XXX-rated (for language and brief frontal nudity). I imagine most of my listeners as lonely new-music nerds sitting alone in garrets, but idunno, some of you may be blaring Postclassic Radio out through your stereo to help keep the kiddies quiet. What should I do? Should I keep the Postclassic airwaves clean? Or thumb my nose at the FCC? [UPDATE: In response to several e-mails, it's on the air, "Somedays" from The Bilitis Project. It's preceded on the playlist by a warning.]
Sorry, there seems to have been some nuclear disaster at Live365.com, and everything on Postclassic Radio was erased. They're supposedly reloading everything from their backup, and I've put some of the Mary Jane Leach tracks back up, just in case. If there were some better station to work from, I'd use it, believe me. I have no idea when things will be set right again, or whether I'll have to start over from scratch.
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