main: December 2005 Archives

cummings.jpg I’m writing a choral piece for my choral director friend James Bagwell, and am hip-deep in e. e. cummings. I've learned that I had him all wrong. From cute poems with words like “mudluscious” and “puddlespring,” I had gotten, in high school, an impression that cummings was a pixieish little man with a coy sense of humor and a mischievous twinkle in his eye - quel misconcepción! And my high school literature texts aren’t to blame, for the average cummings poem, it turns out, contains too many obscenities and sexual references to make it past the school board censors. Here’s a sonnet-picture that absolutely knocked me over, a photorealist word portrait of nightlife in the 1930s (and one I haven’t found elsewhere on the web):

helves surling out of eakspesies per(reel)hapsingly
proregress heandshe-ingly people
tickle curselaughgroping shrieks bubble
squirmwrithed staggerful unstrolls collaps ingly
flash a of-faceness stuck thumblike into pie
is traffic this recalls hat gestures bud
plumptumbling hand voices Eye Doangivuh sud-
denly immense impotently Eye Doancare Eye
And How replies the upsquirtingly careens
the to collide flatfooting with Wushyaname
a girl-flops to the Geddup curb leans
carefully spewing into her own Shush Shame

as(out from behind Nowhere)creeps the deep thing
everybody sometimes calls morning

I start to feel hungover just reading it. And here’s another cummings ditty that wasn’t included in my high school literature text. See if you can guess why:

may i feel said he
(i'll squeal said she
just once said he)
it's fun said she

(may i touch said he
how much said she
a lot said he)
why not said she

(let's go said he
not too far said she
what's too far said he
where you are said she)

may i stay said he
(which way said she
like this said he
if you kiss said she

may i move said he
is it love said she)
if you're willing said he
(but you're killing said she

but it's life said he
but your wife said she
now said he)
ow said she

(tiptop said he
don't stop said she
oh no said he)
go slow said she

(cccome?said he
ummm said she)
you're divine!said he
(you are Mine said she)

And, no, this probably isn’t one I’m going to set for chorus. Yet.

December 30, 2005 9:29 AM | | Comments (2) |
I have a couple of articles out this week, unfortunately neither viewable on the web: a profile of composer Lawrence Dillon in Chamber Music magazine, and a review of some composer biographies by Daniel Felsenfeld in Symphony magazine. Sorry to go so legit on you, but in difficult times, even the most disreputable of us have to attach ourselves to the mainstream.

And while I'm at it, the comments on my last few posts have taken on a life of their own, more interesting than the original posts. Since I have to OK them all individually, I'm beginning to feel like a freakin' webmaster here. Question to Sequenza 21's Jerry Bowles: How do you go about getting paid for all this work?

December 29, 2005 3:21 PM | | Comments (2) |
My post on the ages at which composers find their mature styles elicited some correspondence from an economist named David Galenson who has written a book called Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity. The book deals with the chronology-related creativity patterns of painters, sculptors, poets, novelists, and movie directors - no composers, unfortunately, but maybe that’s where we come in. Don’t ask me why an economist is writing about this, but he has some interesting ideas, and he offered me a 1916 quote from Wassily Kandinsky that applies to the imitative young composers I wrote about who get orchestral commissions: "Such artists are like starlings who do not know a song of their own, but imitate more or less well that of the nightingale.” I want to read the book.

To continue on that track: I write a lot of program notes, as you know - for three different orchestras this year alone. In the case of very recent works, this usually involves getting a copy of the score, and a CDR of a performance if the work is not a world premiere, and I pretty much have to superficially analyze the piece to describe it and tell the audience what to expect. Recently I was assigned a piece written by a composer in his 20s, the piece for which he is best known. I have rarely seen so inept a work. Unable to sustain or even fully form an idea, he fell into the habit of completely changing texture every two measures on the barline, and one of the “themes” he pointed out as significant in his own program notes was so undistinguished I couldn’t be certain where it was in the score, nor notice it in the recording. Moments that seemed intended as romantically expressive used instruments in the most ineffective registers. It was not an issue of stylistic bias on my part; it was a basically a type of tonal and partly bitonal piece that, had it been competent, I might have been expected to like. Had one of my students written it, I would have patted the culprit on the head and thought, “Well, that’s not too bad for an undergrad, I hope grad school straightens the kid out.” But the piece has been performed by a more than half a dozen orchestras, and has resulted in several new commissions.

And good lord, the reviews in this composer’s press kit: “Beethoven.” “A young master.” “Audiences are ecstatically enthusiastic.” I don’t mean the Winona, MN, Times-Picayune, I mean some of the biggest-name critics at some big-city papers have prostrated themselves before the coming of this Messiah of ineptitude. The hip-deep hyperbole seems almost a compensation for not having anything explicit to say about the music. Since I usually get press kits for the young composers I write about, I notice that this is quite common. Every one of them can boast press notices bulging with the most lavish praise. The critics exhibit all the wise, skeptical, cautious, seasoned judgment of the White House press corps, which is to say, they salivate on command. Bless them, they do advocate for orchestras to play new music, and for that I thank them. But they are ridiculously quick to assume that the composers who make it into the orchestra circuit are the best around, quick to convince themselves that these pieces by young composers are masterpieces, and also to assume that those who haven’t “made it” into the orchestra circuit must not be very good. Hearing only a tiny smidgen of the new music that’s happening, they grab at what the orchestras give them, and exercise no independent judgment.

The result? A Potemkin music scene, in which our spirits are demoralized not only by the great music that goes unrecognized, but also by the bland and incompetent music into which tremendous resources are poured. And how can anyone protest with the critics so avidly warming to their assigned puppy-dog role? The bios of these young composers, at least the American ones, all read the same: they attended Eastman, Juilliard, Peabody, Curtis, or a couple of other places, studied there with big-name composers (who made their careers the same way), and who took up the youngster as a protégé, introducing him or her to conductors, giving them the awards on whose panels they sit, and getting their pieces played. In these press kits, I read the repetitive process over and over again. Often the young composers themselves shyly reveal, in interviews, that they’re aware that their style hasn’t really coalesced yet, and seem a little embarrassed by the grandiose expectations that have risen around them. But that doesn’t matter. They’re being fed into a machine, as the successful orchestral composers I know readily admit, and the machine will take care of them.

And the orchestras have little choice but to trust the machine. The only new music they know is what the older composers tell them about. I recently wrote an article about a 28-year-old composer whose music I really like, Mason Bates. For it I interviewed an orchestra conductor who told me that the great thing about Bates’s music was how utterly distinctive it is, and how it doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. Well, Bates is something of a postminimalist who works DJ rhythms into his music, and if you’ve never heard the 20 or 30 other postminimalists whose music his vaguely resembles, yes, he must seem completely distinctive. The historical note here is that now, such are the attractions of minimalism that even the big conservatories can no longer avoid putting out a generation of 20-something postminimalists who are getting taken up by the orchestral circuit. Does this mean that the composers who’ve been pioneering postminimalism for the last quarter-century will now get their reputations rehabilitated? HA! Sorry, fellas, if you didn’t get famous by 30, the next bus leaves at 65. The consolation prize will be all the apologies I receive in a couple of years from all those critics and musicians who kept pronouncing minimalism dead as I kept insisting it was only getting started. (I’m not holding my breath.)

I’m happy to see young composers get attention and experience having their music played. It’s a shame that so many hundreds of performances and awards are concentrated in just a handful of them, and that those few are inevitably picked by the same people at the same schools. And it’s more of a shame that we have only that one mechanism for entering into a well-commissioned composer’s career, one which has no place for composers who blossom in their 30s, 40s, or 50s. One organization I really respect is the Herb Alpert Award, which is intended for emerging composers: but explicitly admits that some composers don’t emerge until they’re 45, 60, even 70. The orchestra world should learn to take this patent reality into account.

Meanwhile, every other year I analyze Rothko Chapel in class, and describe the life of Morton Feldman: three recordings issued during his lifetime, dozens more suddenly appearing in the years after his death, plus a recognition as one of the century’s great composers that he didn’t live to enjoy. And now Lucky Mosko (of whom I’ll be writing shortly), highly regarded by his colleagues, has died at 59 without my having had a chance to hear a note of his music. We are no better than in Mozart and Schubert’s day at rewarding great composers while they’re still alive: worse, in fact, because you no longer have to die young to achieve only posthumous acclaim. Instead we have the permanent, institutionalized razzle-dazzle of composers who made propitious connections in grad school.

December 29, 2005 1:35 PM | | Comments (5) |
As a music critic, I’ve sat in the middle of hundreds of audiences, and I’ve observed them closely. I’ve seen them all gasp in unison at a right turn in a daring improv; I’ve seen them break into laughter at a clever one-chord quotation in a Rzewski piece; I’ve seen them fooled by an energetic performance into approving mediocre music; I’ve seen them let their minds wander during a performance and then clap loudly because it was something they were supposed to like. In short, I’ve generally seen audience members get swept into a collective dynamic, especially if a piece or performance is extreme in one way or another - extraordinarily boring, virtuosic, touching, and so on. I’ve also talked to people at intermissions and found that, despite a tremendous variety of opinions, it’s usually pretty easy to reach agreement on the details. It’s one’s evaluation of the details that makes for differences of opinion.

And so, from my own observations, I’ve always thought that that omnipresent composer mantra - “I never think about the audience when I write, because there is no such thing as the audience; everyone listens differently” - was hugely exaggerated. Within reasonable social-group similarities, people don’t listen that differently. Everyone drives differently, too, but it’s funny that when I press on my brake, the guy behind me nearly always does too.

So I think about the audience when I compose. Constantly. Of course I don’t simply try to write what will please them. I have my own kind of musical content I want to get across, and always have: overlapping rhythmic schemes, intricately interlocked harmonies, smooth forms whose seams (if any) are carefully brushed over. That stuff is me, and if I couldn’t put that into music, I’d quit composing. But when I was younger I often noticed that I’d stuff a piece with everything I wanted to say, and the audience wouldn’t get it. They’d just be mystified. I realized that my message wasn’t coming across. I went through a lot of self-criticism, and learned to give the audience what I call “points of entry” so they’d recognize something right away. If I wanted to get them to perceive a 13-against-29 tempo clash (in my piece Texarkana), I’d couch it in stride piano technique, so they’d have something familiar to start with. To seduce them into a tonal flux of microtonal harmonies in Custer and Sitting Bull, I added a military snare drum beat. I don’t call that compromising - I just call it learning how to get your message across, giving the listener something to hold onto, something that interests them, acknowledging their part of the transaction. It’s not up to me whether audiences like my music or not, but if they listen to a piece of mine and have no idea what I was trying to do, I consider that my failure. Frankly, I feel composers should forget about Schoenberg (who railed against people who please the audience) and start taking lessons from Spielberg.

Out of a purported 40,000 composers in America, I thought 39,999 disagreed with me, but it now turns out the number is only 39,997. As revealed in the comments on my previous post, Jeff Harrington and Samuel Vriezen also believe in composing with the audience in mind. That makes three of us.

UPDATE: Actually, let me add one more thought. Beethoven gave us what I consider an admirable model: he wrote the Grosse Fuge, which almost no one understood, and also the Ninth Symphony, which no one can fail to understand. And I've never figured out why today's composers seem to think that they need to choose one point along this continuum and compose only from that point. Why not write one piece with a typical symphony audience in mind, and the next as a puzzle just for yourself and friends? As I once asked in a Village Voice column, "Isn't Craft a god who must be propitiated, and won't an occasional offering do the job?"

December 27, 2005 2:07 PM | | Comments (14) |
The guys (and the occasional gal) over at Sequenza 21 had their liveliest conversation ever this week, racking up 143 comments before spilling into another thread that went to 71. It was mostly young guys, balanced by house curmudgeon Jeff Harrington and official instigator Jerry Bowles, enthusing about the return of complexity to music - gnarliosity became the operative word - and morphing into a discussion (the same one my friends and I had all through the 1980s, to little effect) about how to market the music to get it out there. Finally Lawrence Dillon, social conscience of Sequenza 21, brought the thread to a dead, unanswerable halt with a simple-seeming question:

What will listeners gain that they don't currently have?

It was a sharper form of a line of questioning he had begun a few posts earlier:

1. What is the goal of marketing new music? Is it personal, i.e. I want more people to love me, I want enough money to live comfortably so I can create, etc. Or is it cultural, i.e., the world would be a better place if more people listened to the music of living composers, the world would be a better place if all living composers could just write music instead of having to hold down other jobs, etc. Or is there some other reason?...

2. What do you imagine people will replace in their lives to make more room for new music? Should they watch less television? Read less? Listen to less pop music? Blog less frequently? Spend less time lying around doing nothing? You can’t expect to add something more to anyone’s plate without acknowledging what they are giving up.

What are we giving people in our music? What's in it for the audience? How can we write our music to make the world a better place, perhaps even fulfilling needs that people didn’t realize they had until hearing it? Excellent questions. The central holidays of a season of giving seem like the perfect time to stop and think about them. I'm grateful for the reminder to do so.

December 24, 2005 5:51 PM | | Comments (18) |

Virgil Thomson was 44 years old when he started writing for the New York Herald Tribune. Tom Johnson was 33 when he became a critic for the Village Voice; Greg Sandow was about 36 when he started pinch-hitting for Tom, 39 when he took over. I got a weekly column at the Voice at age 30. Now I’m 50. Thirty-year-olds seem awfully young to me. And as I re-read yet again through my new book Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice, which has just been issued by the University of California Press, I find myself pursing my lips periodically and thinking, “Mmmm, I really said that, did I?”

But I also marvel sometimes at the energy of my writing back then, for energy I had plenty of. I was writing for the most demanding audience of my life: my editor Doug Simmons (currently managing the entire paper), who filed down my style with the meticulousness of a good dentist, and forced more clarity and color from me than I’d known I was capable of. In those days when there was still time enough to make journalism an art form, we used to spend 60 to 90 minutes a week, in person or by phone, going over every word I’d written. The first few weeks on the job I would argue with Doug about a comment or joke I’d made, and he always let me have my way - but when the paper came out I’d notice that, in print, the comment seemed trivial or the joke fell flat, and I learned to trust and internalize his judgment. The day I wrote an article that he didn’t change a word of felt like a major victory. I can’t imagine I’ll ever have the incentive to write that well again. Nor will most people, perhaps, since that kind of intense editing is a luxury that more and more publications can no longer afford. Working with Doug for seven exciting years was an education in itself, and the book is dedicated to him.

I’ve noticed before in other anthologies, and now I see it in my own: it’s odd to take work that was geared toward weekly consumption and squeeze it into a book back-to-back. I might have made a point in March, alluded to it again in September, refined it with new insights the following February - then those three articles appear consecutively, and the reader gets the feeling that I was working out some kind of private obsession. I made my own index, which I love doing because you learn so much about a book, but one thing I learned was that Pierre Boulez had become something of a boogie-man for me, referred to in far more articles than was justified by anything I had to say about him. In retrospect, my choice of articles even looks different than it did when I was making it. The selection is heavy on thinkpieces, light on reviews, and a lot of musicians I reviewed frequently over the years will be surprised not to find themselves mentioned. For long stretches, the book seems to be less about the Downtown Manhattan scene than about the formation of my own aesthetics. I don’t think it seemed that way over the 19 years I’ve been writing for the Voice, but when I came to choose 96 articles out of the 523 I’ve written, many of the ones I was proudest of chronicled my own creative thought process. As has been noted, I'm quite an introvert.

Anyway, the book is out, the University of CA Press did a fine job with it, and I’m very pleased. There’s a lengthy introduction by myself, describing the historical context of the Downtown scene, that reflects my thinking today perhaps more than the articles do. But even that was written when I was only 48 and terribly naive.

December 24, 2005 9:41 AM | | Comments (2) |
December 23, 2005 10:10 AM | | Comments (0) |
Oh, all right, since I'm too busy trying to get Christmas jumpstarted to blog anything else:

Four jobs you've had in your life: music critic, record store clerk, art gallery director, door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman

Four movies you could [do] watch over and over: The Big Lebowski, Greaser's Palace, Gettysburg, My Dinner with André, The Madness of King George (oops, five)

Four places you've lived: Dallas, Chicago, Lewisburg, PA, Germantown, NY

Four TV shows you love to watch: The Simpsons (only one, sorry)

Four places you've been on vacation: the Hopi reservation, Normandy, Venice, the Adirondacks

Four websites you visit daily: Alex Ross, Jan Herman, Sequenza 21, Salon

Four of your favorite foods: imperial crab, glazed yams, sushi, oatmeal with maple syrup

Four places you'd rather be: Berlin, Santa Fe, San Francisco, Florence

December 20, 2005 9:24 AM | | Comments (0) |
"I discovered that my obsession for having each thing in the right place, each subject at the right time, each word in the right style, was not the well-deserved reward of an ordered mind but just the opposite: a complete system of pretense invented by me to hide the disorder of my nature. I discovered that I am not disciplined out of virtue but as a reaction to my negligence, that I appear generous in order to conceal my meanness, that I pass myself off as prudent because I am evil-minded, that I am conciliatory in order not to succumb to my repressed rage, that I am punctual only to hide how little I care about other people's time. I learned, in short, that love is not a condition of the spirit but a sign of the zodiac."

Gabriel Carcía Márquez: Memories of My Melancholy Whores

December 15, 2005 10:37 AM | | Comments (1) |
I'm in the final week of the Bard semester, and having a little trouble remembering which way is up at the moment. But the comments on my blog entry about internet radio limitations have turned into an interesting thread independently of me, too good to be buried in the back room, so to speak.

December 13, 2005 6:00 PM | | Comments (0) |
Every professor of composition knows, and will tell you, that you can’t predict, from a 20-year-old composer’s output, his or her eventual success. People mature creatively at different rates. Some composers bloom in their 30s, others, grappling with an array of original ideas, may not achieve an integrated aesthetic until their 40s. Others may seem to follow the crowd for the first half of their career, then undergo a startling change of direction around 45 or 50. Only in retrospect do their compelling late works reveal the germs of genius inherent in their eccentric early works. Among the 20- to 25-year olds, the ones who initially produce the most professional-sounding music will often be the least original - their technical polish may be evidence more of a mimetic ability than an original vision. The more “out there” a composer’s personal vision is, the more awkward his or her early works will probably sound, and the longer it will take his or her compositional language to crystallize into something eloquent and communicative.

The early idioms of many composers testify to this. For instance, Nancarrow didn’t discover his instrument until age 36, and took another 8 or 10 years to master it. Partch, having an even wider range of unconventional elements to integrate, was nearly 50 when his style started to feel compelling. Varése wrote romantic music that he later abandoned, and struggled to bring his style into focus at just shy of 40. Feldman’s music seemed like a cute adjunct to Cage’s philosophy until his ambitions suddenly blossomed at age 44. Elliott Carter wrote an undistinguished neoclassicism into his 40s, and didn’t find what we recognize as a Carterian idiom until age 43. Rzewski wrote some charming minimalist works in his early 30s, but didn’t create his own style until he was 37, with The People United. Robert Ashley was involved in the avant-garde all along, but didn’t begin to stand out until he wrote Perfect Lives at 48. Giacinto Scelsi was 54 when he found what he had been looking for in his 4 pezzi su una nota sola. Other composers have bloomed earlier. Charles Ives wrote Thanksgiving, one of his greatest works, at 30. Cage entered into his first-period maturity in his late 20s. And La Monte Young made his life’s monolinear path clear at 25. There really is no universal pattern.

As I say, every composer knows this. Oddly enough, however, music critics, conductors, orchestra managements, and some record labels operate on a strikingly different theory of creative development. Convinced that compositional talent is similar to that for dancing or mathematics and thus inevitably manifests itself by age 25, they are on the constant lookout for the brilliant young composer. Giddy with the thrill of discovery, they pick the next Beethoven out of a crowd of grad students, shower him with commissions and recording contracts, spend a bundle promoting his name to the public. He is groomed to take an elevated position in musical society, much the way Hollywood positions young actresses to become stars. (For some reason Great Britain is especially attached to this habit.) The youngster becomes famous, is watched and listened to, taken seriously because “the authorities” have staked their reputations on him. The youngster’s music may develop, may not; it doesn’t matter, because he will continue to be lionized, performed, recorded regardless of whether his music lives up to its early promise. Only in the rarest occasions will there be a general admission that enthusiasm was premature; George Benjamin is the only such case I can name. By law of averages, these lionized composers will most often be the imitative ones whose early music seemed highly polished because it wasn’t encumbered by a need to integrate new insights.

And so, among famous composers, we have two career paradigms: the composer discovered before age 30 by the classical music establishment, and the composer discovered after 65 by younger composers. What about the composer who achieves public success at age 40 or 50, due to the dawning realization that his or her work has reached a remarkable maturity? This almost never happens. In Rzewski’s case I think it helped that he was such a persuasive pianist for his own works - the orchestra world has still not embraced him. Carter’s career I’ve never figured out, but I imagine inherited wealth didn’t hurt. But I am moved to these recurring reflections once again by writing program notes for yet another batch of competent, but not-yet-terribly-distinctive, 20-something composers that the orchestra world, with its critical entourage, has confidently declared will be the geniuses of the future.

December 11, 2005 9:06 AM | | Comments (5) |
In response to my noncompliance problems with Postclassic Radio, a lot of people e-mailed me with suggestions for getting around the two-track rule at Live365 - thanks to all of you - and several recommended not being very public about my solutions, which is why not all those comments have appeared. I even came up with a trick of my own. Suffice it to say that I’ve learned a little more about iTunes, and that you may find an occasional discrepancy between track name and content. The playlist now running on Postclassic Radio is no different than it was last Monday, yet I am now in compliance with the GDDMCA (God-Damned Digital Millennium Copyright Act). At least, Live 365’s computer is not registering any infraction, and that’s what counts, right?

So, yay!, I got our music past the government censors! But the very fact of having to exercise my creativity in a sneaky, duplicitous way, just to present a multimovement work in its entirety with the full permission of the composer, and on a station that I’m paying to operate yet, gives me the creepy feeling of having time-traveled into the old Soviet Union. As I’ve pointed out in other contexts, there’s no longer a line to be drawn in America between the government and the large corporations that control it and direct its actions, so we need to get out of the old habit of making a distinction between government censorship and corporate lack of interest. And in this case it was our actual remaining unindicted congress members who decided, in their well-remunerated wisdom, to censor the free broadcasting of any more than two movements of a multimovement work. I could make a five-movement electonic work myself, on my own equipment with no one else involved, and it would be illegal to present it on Live365 in five separate tracks. So, in a bit of comedic dialogue that George Orwell would surely have relished, the new-music community has responded to the government: “Multi-movement works? Why, senator, there’s no such thing! A piece of music is, by definition, only one track!”

I said that no one was losing any money over my playing little-known works that aren’t commercially recorded. From the corporate government’s viewpoint, I’m not so sure that’s true. One of the rules given in Live365’s mass e-mailing was: “No unauthorized or ‘bootleg’ recordings.” I’m not sure what an unauthorized recording is. I play a lot of music from CDRs, and even music from cassettes I’ve collected over the years. Clearly the assumed purpose of Live365 is to get people to pay to make up their own playlists of favorite commercial recordings. They can play just enough of the CD to pique the listener’s interest, but not enough to decrease incentive to go out and buy the album. In short, Live365’s raison d’etre is that the recording industry allows us, if we pay a fee, to make commercials for its products.

Clearly, Postclassic Radio subverts that intention. I believe the only current recordings I’ve ever played from a label owned by the Big Five record companies - excuse me, I mean the Big Four - no wait a minute, it's now the Big Three (I’d better finish this entry quickly before it’s the Big Two) - have been Robert Ashley’s Improvement and some of Frederic Rzewski's piano music on Nonesuch. Many of the pieces I play can’t be purchased. Many others the composer would be happy to send you. At present, an average of 46 people a day listen to my station for an average of 43 minutes each. Theoretically, if they weren’t listening to Postclassic Radio, they’d be listening to something else for those 1,978 minutes. Assuming that other people weren’t also subverting the industry’s intentions, that something would be a product that they bought. If it weren’t for me (or my equivalent), they’d be engaged in an activity that was making money for the corporate government. Therefore, by providing them with a non-money-producing alternative to the product the government offers for their “consumption,” I am stealing money from the government. And in fact, all of us who make music whose primary purpose isn’t to make money for a corporation are, in effect, bandits, and if the government can’t entirely stop us, it must at least keep us marginalized, out of sight - until one of us, somehow breaking through the moratorium on media exposure for bandits, begins to attract enough audience attention that a corporation can start making money on him.

Of course, you at least had to use a computer to listen to Postclassic Radio, so that made money for someone. And if you weren’t listening, rather than listen to something else, you might just take a walk outside, and enjoy the trees and the birds and the sunshine. Our corporate overlords haven’t figured how to cash in on that yet. Postclassic music is as subversive - as Nature itself!

December 10, 2005 9:53 AM | | Comments (2) |
There has been a slight delay in the publication of my book Music Downtown due to a copyright problem: not with the contents, but with the name Village Voice and its accompanying logo! Who knew? Anyway, I am assured that the good people of U of CA Press are doing their best to get orders out on time to people who ordered it to arrive for Christmas, but it's a little dicey. (Don't have a copy yet myself.)

December 8, 2005 11:24 AM | | Comments (0) |
I am told that Stephen "Lucky" Mosko (see here and here) has passed away at the age of only 58. He was a wonderful and well-regarded conductor, a faculty member at CalArts, and a composer too, though I've never heard any of his music. I know him only by reputation and through some wonderful recordings of Morton Feldman's music that he conducted. I'm sure more detail on his career will be filled in in coming months. I do know that his father gave him the nickname Lucky, which he carried all his life, by telling him how lucky he was to have him for a father.

December 7, 2005 10:50 PM | | Comments (4) |
Rock Happens, my review of the recent concert of Barbara Benary's music by the Downtown Ensemble and Gamelan Son of Lion, is now up at the Village Voice. (By the way, her name rhymes with "plenary," not "canary" - confirmed it herself.)

December 6, 2005 12:02 AM | | Comments (0) |
Postclassic Radio has been found in violation of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, under which operates. Because I sometimes play more than two consecutive tracks from the same CD, the station cannot be listed in Live365's directory - I don't really know how big a deal that is, I imagine most of my listeners go there direct from this blog. But here's the e-letter I sent to Live365:

Dear Live 365 Staff,

I see that my internet station, Postclassic Radio, is listed as noncompliant due to too many tracks coming from the same CD. I run a classical-paradigm station, on which I sometimes play multimovement works. According to the rules you've set up, it would be inadmissable to program an entire Beethoven symphony, because that would require four consecutive tracks from one CD. Surely some exception could be made for classical works with more than two movements? My station gives exposure to hundreds of little-known composers who are thrilled that I do this for them, and some have specifically thanked me for playing entire works, something no commercial radio station will do any longer.

I submit that this ruling imposes an unfair penalty on classical music. It should be easy to distinguish multiple tracks that are all from one classical work from several independent tracks that are truly noncompliant: the titles will all be the same. For instance, I am now listed as noncompliant for having a piece by Julius Eastman called "Piano 2," which is in three movements, and the tracks are labeled "Piano 2, i," "Piano 2, ii," and "Piano 2, iii." In addition, this is a private recording, not even commercially released. No one is losing any income from my playing this little-known, unrecorded work. Isn't it possible that when several consecutive tracks have the same title, except for the movement number - like "Symphony No. 5" - that some allowance could be made for it being an integral classical work in several tracks? And how is it possible for this ruling to apply to works that aren't even commercially recorded, and therefore aren't "tracks from the same CD" in any meaningful sense?

My station attracts a lot of national attention, and there will be some public outcry if I have to start scaling back the complete works I play because a pop paradigm is being imposed on classical music.

Thanks for your attention, etc.

I won't quote the reply I received, because I didn't ask permission, but it sort of politely said, Screw you. Here's a statement from their original notice:

In 1998, Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This piece of legislation established parameters around which one could build a business in instances where copyrighted digital material is concerned (e.g. music, software). It also built in some protections for the content  companies who produce said digital material, (e.g. the RIAA) as they wanted to ensure that internet distribution wouldn’t cannibalize sales.

So here I am, paying 30 bucks a month for the privilege of giving my friends' music away so they can get some exposure, and I'm prevented from doing even that in a way that represents their music correctly because of laws put in place to protect megacorporations from being ripped off by the masses. One can imagine a nearby future in which people will not be allowed to distribute their music to each other unless some corporation is skimming money off the transaction.

December 5, 2005 6:55 PM | | Comments (11) |
Speaking of harmonies that draw specific sources to mind, my friend Bob Gilmore thinks that Morton Feldman ruined the interval of the falling minor seventh - not that it is no longer beautiful, but that using it has become an instant signal of Feldman influence.

Personally, I tell all my students to steal what they want and not worry about their influences showing through. For all they know, their music may be better known a hundred years from now than that of the people they're stealing from, so they might as well plan for that optimistic eventuality.

December 5, 2005 6:49 PM | | Comments (2) |
Like clockwork, every November of an odd-numbered year I end up teaching Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. And we get to the gorgeous fifth movement “Louange à l’éternité de Jésus” (which I helpfully translate for the students as “Lounging through enernity with Jesus,” using the Spanish “Hay-zeus” pronunciation), and I wonder once again why so many commentators have taken Messiaen to task for using the so-called “added sixth” chord, E-G#-B-C#. Here’s Paul Griffiths on the subject:

There is a discontinuity of taste as well as period.... [T]here comes a little tune of banal perkiness in the “Intermède,” and in the two “Louanges” music that many of Messiaen’s stoutist adherents have found regrettable or else passed over in silence. For not only do the added-sixth and diminished-seventh chords appear at crucial moments and in profusion, but the atmophere is that of the sentimental piety exuding from such similarly scored movements in the French repertory as the “Méditation” from Thais....

This is not to say that Messiaen consciously wrote vulgar music for his two adagios. On the contrary, he has maintained with some fierceness that they are not vulgar at all.... However, a musical sensibility that can form such an opinion is awesome indeed: it takes a sublime, even saintly naïvité to accept materials from Massenet and Glenn Miller, then use them to praise Christ as if they had never been employed for any baser purpose. But this is Messiaen’s way, and though the two “Louanges” offer the greatest stumbling block to the sophisticated, in so doing they only exemplify in extreme fashion a refusal of discrimination typical of Messiaen’s art.

I’m glad to think that Griffiths will think that my musical sensibility is awesome, for I don’t understand what’s wrong with the added-sixth chords at all (nor even the diminished chords, which in the fifth movement are only triads, not sevenths, and which only occur in one transitional measure). Messiaen uses the chord, here and also in the Turangalila Symphony of a few years later, as an ecstatic, sensuous resolution chord, and I find it sublimely perfect for that purpose. Of course there was a period in the swing era in which the added-sixth chord was a standard closing for evergreens and showtunes. So what? What about that invalidates it for use in any other context? The way I see it, the 19th century from Chopin on routinely substituted the third scale degree for the second in a dominant seventh - that is, in the key of C, using G-F-B-E (reading upward) instead of G-F-B-D. To use the sixth scale degree in the tonic triad strikes me as the logical equivalent. Why is such a substitution justified in the dominant (assuming one holds no brief against Chopin), and not in the tonic? It sounds lovely; when I hear it in swing era jazz it reminds me of swing era jazz, and when I hear it in Messiaen, it sounds quite different in context, and reminds me of Messiaen. Yet Griffiths is hardly the only writer to take fierce exception to it.

I have never been able to fathom this mentality that attaches some specific element of music to a certain time and style and thinks it should be buried with that time and style. It seems like a type of insensitivity, an inability to hear sounds in their momentary context. Isn’t it obvious that it’s not what materials you use that counts, it’s what you do with them? In high school I had a composition teacher who wouldn’t allow me to use the chromatic scale because it had 19th-century connotations. I’m happy to report that I have made profitable use of the chromatic scale many times since. I’ve defended a lot of my favorite Downtown music that uses synthesizer from people who say that music with synthesizer reminds them of ‘80s rock, as though that were the most heinous grievance with which a piece of music could be charged.

So, doesn’t the harpsichord sound like 1770’s chamber music? Doesn’t the oboe sound like French Romanticism? How can a timbre, or a harmony, or even a rhythm, so take on the imprint of one era that no one can ever be allowed to use it again? Since Harry Partch used the 11th harmonic, should I abstain? Stravinsky used the octatonic scale, should I leave it alone? And yet, Webern became intimately associated with the major seventh, and for decades afterward, hundreds of composers seemed willing enough to remind the listener of Webern. This guilt-by-association of harmonies and timbres always seems awfully selective, as though the real point is to impress the listener with what company you keep: Webern gooooood, Glenn Miller baaaaaaad. I guess I’m just happy that I’m not sophisticated in Griffiths’s definition, because that much less music is a stumbling block to me.

I’ve also never understood why some people find certain passages in Mahler’s music “vulgar.” Maybe I’m just not very refined.

December 4, 2005 10:48 PM | | Comments (15) |
Opening bars of John D. McDonald's Kyle Gann in Worcester:


Now up on Postclassic Radio, along with new works by Amy Kohn, Belinda Reynolds, Alvin Singleton, Mason Bates, and Jo Kondo.

December 4, 2005 11:19 AM | | Comments (0) |
One of my cherished self-indulgences is to read each new Gabriel Garcia Márquez novel as it comes out, and he has never disappointed me. His new Memories of My Melancholy Whores, however, contains this startling sentence:

At noon I disconnected the phone in order to take refuge in an exquisite program of music: Wagner's Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra, Debussy's Rhapsody for Saxophone, and Bruckner's String Quintet, which is an endemic oasis in the cataclysm of his work. [Italics added]

Do the Colombians know something about Wagner that we don't? Is there a South American Wagner who isn't Richard?

Actually, this reminds me of the entrance exams I took to start my Master's at Northwestern. There was a question on the exam: "Debussy wrote chamber music involving the following instruments:", and then were listed some pairs of instruments. The only answer at all applicable was "flute and saxophone," and I knew about Debussy's Syrinx and Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, but I was pretty certain that he had never written a piece of chamber music using saxophone. So after I was done, I went up and argued with the instructor, Theodore Karp, who later became an important mentor of mine. He claimed there was some chamber arrangement of an orchestral piece with saxophone. Grove Dictionary of Music, as I quickly ascertained, lists no saxophone music among Debussy's chamber works, but if you rummage around through the orchestral music, there is indeed a piano reduction of his Saxophone Rhapsody mentioned as having been made by one Roger-Ducasse. Even so, that was an awfully obscure bit of repertoire to ask incoming master's students to know about. It turned out, of course, that if you didn't pass the test you had to take a remedial course, for which privilege the school charged you an extra $3000. I was the only incoming student that year who passed, and my doctoral exit exams, six years later, were easier than the entrance exams. Ever since I've been dubious about grad-school entrance exams, as potentially having more to do with making money for the school than testing worthwhile bodies of knowledge.

December 3, 2005 11:48 PM | | Comments (2) |
Ethan Iverson, himself the rather incredible young jazz pianist of Bad Plus, wrote about my CD Nude Rolling Down an Escalator for Downbeat magazine. (Geez, how hip can I get?) Not content to leave the review there, he's blogged it here. Not only that, he mentions another mention that I got from blogger Alex Ross. This is getting blogtastic!!

December 1, 2005 10:26 PM | | Comments (0) |

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