main: March 2006 Archives

For those interested in what tuning software will make microtonality most convenient for them (assuming you can be seduced down the primrose path, my pretty), microtonal programming expert Bill Sethares has offered an authoritative comparison, over at the tuning list, between Li'l Miss' Scale Oven (LMSO) and Scala:

[W]hile they do overlap in some functions, they do differ. The similarities: both will generate scales, both will save to a variety of formats, both are written by dedicated people who have done a lot to make it easier to explore microtonality. Strengths of Scala: many analysis features, huge library, available on all platforms. Strengths of LMSO: easy to use with a large variety of synths and softsynths, great manual (clearly written and easy to follow). For my personal taste, I think of Scala as better for analysis and LMSO as better for performance. With specific reference to Kontakt support, both work by writing a Kontakt script file that can be added into any instrument. Scala's implementation is limited to a single scale at a time (I know -- I helped Manuel debug the Kontakt scripts). LMSO can have many tunings available instantly in a single script, and you can switch between them slickly and easily. It's biggest liability is that it is Mac-only.

March 31, 2006 10:56 AM | | Comments (2) |

The estimable Frank Oteri asked me for a report on John Luther Adams's sound installation The Place Where You Go to Listen for New Music Box, so instead of rambling about it here, I wrote it up real good for him, and it's now over there. The title, "A Long Ride in a Slow Machine," comes from a joke John made about the difference between his career and that of the other John Adams, whom we tend to refer to as John Coolidge Adams. After you go read that article, you'll get more of a kick out of this message I just got from John:

Yesterday evening Jim and I were working in The Place. Suddenly the drums started kicking. We looked online to see that a 4.7 quake had just rocked the Alaska/Yukon border area, then listened as the waves hit each of our seismic stations, one by one. It was pure magic. Talk about your rock 'n roll...

March 29, 2006 4:28 PM | | Comments (1) |

Hundreds of hours of my life have been spent retuning synthesizers. It's the last task, once I've figured out a tuning I want to explore, before I get to hear anything. It's a tedious, mind-numbing job, usually lasting anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, plus a break to give my brain a rest. I've got about 50 tunings stored on my Yamaha DX7-IIFD, four Proteus's (one keyboard and three rack-mount) whose dozen-each user tunings have been tuned and retuned countless times, and many floppy disks with various tunings for my creaky old Akai sampler. Each one represents a half-hour of repetitive, meticulous number-crunching.

But now I've got Li'l Miss' Scale Oven, Jeff Scott's tuning software. [UPDATE: Mac format only! Shoulda mentioned that.] The time-intensive part was the four or five weeks it always takes me to brace myself to read the instructions. But once I got over that hurdle, they turned out to be the clearest, best-written software help text I've ever seen. Five minutes later I had entered a 30-pitch scale into my Kontakt II sampler software, and was playing it. The actual transferring-the-scale part didn't take half a minute. I am astonished. And now I can use that script to retune any of my synths as well. You can define scales as cents, ratios, hertz, srutis, as scales that repeat at the octave, that don't repeat, and that repeat within any other interval. It's software conceived by a microtonalist, anticipating anything a microtonalist may want to try out. Conlon Nancarrow used to muse regretfully about how much easier his player piano studies would have been to write if he had had today's sequencing software, and I feel like I just gained a similar advantage in mid-career. Never again will I have to perform that tedious task between conception and audition. Microtonal music just got easier to make than it probably ought to be.

My remaining problem, in the 2006 Complete Technical Makeover of Kyle Gann, is Kontakt II. On either my Mac laptop or new G-5 desktop, the sounds clip and quickly overload the CPU meter. Ian Turner, our brilliant sound tech guy in Bard's electronic music department, says that Kontakt requires a separate internal hard drive with a 10,000 rpm rate to keep the samples on. I'm sure he's right - Ian has a lot of experience with Kontakt - but can anyone confirm or disconfirm this from their own experience or offer alternatives? I loaded the samples on an external firewire drive, and that didn't help. It's hard to believe that everyone who's ever bought Kontakt also bought an extra internal drive, and I'm really curious whether there's any other way to make it work, so I appeal to the masses.

In any case, even if you're not a microtonalist, EVEN IF YOU HATE MICROTONAL MUSIC, you must purchase Li'l Miss' Scale Oven, just to be able to say you have it, and so that Jeff Scott (whom I don't know, but have already erected a small shrine to, with incense) can make a million dollars for having invented this. It's only $165, postage included.

UPDATE: I had forgotten that LMSO (Li'l Miss' Scale Oven) is only for the Mac at present. I also should have mentioned Scala, a free tuning software that's been around forever for the PC, and became available for the Mac a year or so ago. A student of mine had tremendous luck making microtonal music with Scala. It's a very intelligent program, invented by the helpful and highly literate Manuel Op de Coul, but I played around with it for a few months, and never quite succeeded in retuning anything. LMSO was easier to figure out. I used to have a nice old Mac program called Unisyn that sent tunings to synthesizers, which became obsolete; LMSO is hardly the first software to fulfill that particular function, but I'm wowed by its usability and documentation. I don't know enough about this stuff to be reviewing software, but you can say this for sure: if I have success with a piece of software, any idiot can figure it out.

As for Kontakt, I've already received an endless litany of technical issues. It doesn't look like I'm going to get it to work without spending a couple thousand more dollars. I do wish that the people at Manny's Music who sold it to me had warned me that the advertised technical specifications were nowhere near adequate to actually run the thing. Be warned.

March 29, 2006 8:52 AM | | Comments (6) |

This Thursday evening at Connecticut College, March 30 at 8 PM, the Da Capo ensemble is playing my The Day Revisited, along with my son Bernard Gann on fretless bass and myself on synthesizer. Presented in Evans Hall of the Cummings Arts Center in New London, CT, it's part of a symposium on art and technology, and the program runs as follows:

In Ida's Mirror by Stan Link (alto flute and electronic sound)
Response by Panayiotis Kokoras (electronic sound)
Meeting Places by Arthur Kreiger (ensemble and electronic sound)
New York Counterpoint by Steve Reich (clarinet and electronics)
The Day Revisited by Kyle Gann (ensemble and electronics)
Pan of the Landscape by Christopher Becks (16 mm film)
Synchronisms No. 6 by Mario Davidovsky (piano and electronic sound)

Old Mario and I haven't been on the same program together since... well, forever, actually. I'm kind of a low-tech guy for this high-tech context, but The Day Revisited is my mellow ambient quintet in a 29-pitch scale, easy for me to play on the synth, a tremendous challenge for the flute and clarinet.

March 25, 2006 1:38 PM | | Comments (0) |

FAIRBANKS - They drive on the rivers up here. In winter the frozen rivers are treated as extra streets and even shown that way on maps, until at some point the thaw suddenly sets in, a car or snowmobile falls through, and they close them up for the summer. People also ski pulled by high-speed dogs, sort of like waterskiing on land. It’s called ski-jouring, or something, and is not regarded as evidence of suicidal mental illness. Alaska is not like the lower 48. I’m told it’s homogenized considerably in recent years, but it will never be the same.

Gannook.jpg I’ll tell you about John Luther Adams’s inspiring new sound installation later - the opening is tonight - but I did get my dog sled ride. Tom and Cathy Dimon of Dimon Freight Dogs, North Pole, AK, run a wonderful business. I thought the clothing I had brought was plenty warm, but as the accompanying illustration shows, Cathy bundled me up in several extra layers, until I felt and looked much like Maggie on The Simpsons in her starfish snow suit. Good thing. The temperature’s been between zero and 20, not the 20 below John had gleefully predicted, but when you’re zipping down the trail at 8 mph pulled by eight eager huskies, you don’t want much more than your eyes exposed to the wind.

What surprised me was the enthusiasm of the dogs. The team selected for my trip were leaping with excitement, the 30 or so left behind visibly and audibly disappointed. Rambunctious but affectionate, they seem human: they understand a wide range of commands, well beyond “gee” and “haw” for right and left and “hold” for stop, and Tom Dimon - standing behind me on the sled - kept up a running conversation with them as though they were old and faithful employees, which they are. I finagled my 23-inch butt into the 20-inch-wide sled, sat on a plastic crate, and pretended to be a sack of provisions bound for Prudhoe Bay, which seemed the appropriate role. Tom released the anchors, and John tried to take a photo of me in the sled, but in their eagerness to stretch their legs the dogs shot off so fast that the photo came out an empty field of snow. The six-mile circular trail traced a rectangle through a flood plain, and so no hills were involved, but there was still a sharp two- or three-foot bump every 30 feet. I feared getting my bones rattled, but the sled was well built to absorb the shocks, and I was never uncomfortable. Jennifer, another employee, rode ahead on a snowmobile to watch out for moose. Moose don’t really distinguish between dogs and wolves, Tom explained, and sometimes a nasty fight ensues.

Dogs.jpgThis had all been John’s idea and I, no seeker of physical thrills, was dubious until the moment I got in the sled. But from the first rush I was exhilarated. No eight humans could have showed more personal nuance than the dogs; Pepper was thirsty and kept grabbing mouthfuls of snow, Sherman wanted to look back at Tom rather than stay on his side of the line, and kept getting tangled up. The lead dogs were a little young, Tom explained, and though they took charge well, they sometimes paused to argue with commands. Once I slid far enough up an embankment that I expected to be tumbled out into the snow, once the dogs nearly took off without Tom while he was untangling the line, but disasters were avoided, and it was pure effervescence. It became easy to imagine that, years ago, this was the most efficient possible technology for negotiating Alaska’s frozen expanses. People in the back country still do it, for pleasure and for purely practical considerations. So I’m sold: DO NOT go to Alaska, DO NOT, without getting a dog-sled ride.

March 21, 2006 4:11 PM | | Comments (4) |

Look where I’m going:

Saturday morning before dawn I’m flying to Fairbanks, Alaska. John Luther Adams has a permanent sound and light installation opening this Tuesday, March 21, at the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. The installation is a set of rooms called The Place Where You Go to Listen, which is a translation of an Iñupiaq word for a legendary place on the arctic coast. Called by its creator “a virtual world that resonates with the real world,” The Place Where You Go to Listen translates seismic activity, geomagnetism, cloud cover and visibility, and the movements of the sun and moon into soundscapes and changes of light. The image you’re looking at above is a set of five glass panes altogether 20 feet wide and 9 feet tall, coated with a diffusion surface and illuminated by LED floodlights that make it a rear-projection screen for fields of pure color. The colors change with the angle and position of the sun in real time. Bell sounds are activated by movements of the aurora borealis, noises ebb and flow with seismic activity, and harmonic series’ track the phases of the moon. It’s all done by computer, with data piped in from seismological stations and whatnot, and is intended to make the viewer/listener aware of where the earth fits into its environment and what it’s doing. It looks and sounds like it'll be really beautiful. predicts it will be minus 11 degrees when I get there [oops, John just e-mailed that it was 26 below last night]. Have I ever mentioned that I’m a warm-weather kind of guy, and already resent that upstate New York gets down to 20 above? Anyway, John’s promised me a dogsled ride - I didn’t ask, but he volunteered - and after the opening we’re sure to retire to another hallowed Iñupiaq spot, The Place Where You Go to Imbibe Fine Single-Malt Scotches. I’m looking forward to that too, and, after I return on the 23rd, will report back to you on the beauty of the whole experience. Or what I remember of it.

March 16, 2006 8:33 PM | | Comments (3) |

I'd never applied for a Guggenheim before, and I found the wording of their rejection a little surprising: "Yeah, right, we're gonna give you a Guggenheim, and George Bush is going to give Cindy Sheehan a cabinet post." Can anyone tell me if this is their standard form letter?

March 10, 2006 8:27 PM | | Comments (6) |

Sunday the Da Capo ensemble performed a program here at Bard College of music by Russian composers who all attended: Elena Antonenko, Boris Filanovski, Alexander Radvilovitch, Vladimir Tarnopolski, Kirill Umansky, and my friend Dmitri Riabtsev, who three years ago was invaluable in helping me produce my opera Cinderella's Bad Magic in Moscow and St. Petersburg. There was a panel discussion before the concert on the subject of how life has changed for composers since the fall of communism. Some claimed it had changed not at all, others that it was a little different, but all talked about the near-absence of support for Russian composers at home, having lost state support and having no tradition of private patronage.

In the question-and-answer period, I noted that those of us in new music are inundated these days with living composers from Estonia, the Ukraine, Georgia, and asked what was different about Russia that its composers couldn't match the relative visibility of those of its satellites. Responses exhibited a liveliness born of frustration and complete recognition of what I was saying. All pretty much agreed that since the Baltic republics had been occupied by a foreign power, they turned to nationalism to preserve their self-image. It became a point of honor for Estonian conductors like Paavo Jarvi, Finnish ones like Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Ukrainian ones like Virko Baley to go out and champion their countrymen. Since Russia was the central power, it had no national image to defend, and Russian conductors and performers feel no similar mandate to perform their compatriots. Thus the perceptions, at least, of Russian composers, who think that even we Americans - having some tradition of private new-music funding - are better off than they are.

Since then I've received a very nice e-mail from Erkki-Sven Tüür, the leading Estonian composer of my generation, letting me know (I hope he won't mind my revealing) that he reads my blog from his retreat on the Baltic island of Hiiumaa, which gives me even greater delight in recounting the above anecdote. From Moscow and St. Petersburg to rural Estonia via a small college in rural America - so travel the cultural perceptions of the internet age.

March 9, 2006 9:22 AM | | Comments (6) |

My Symphony magazine article on orchestral composer/DJ Mason Bates is now online: "Mason Bates, or someone like him, was bound to appear sooner or later...." Also, my profile of composer Melissa Hui is out in the current Chamber Music magazine, but not, alas, online.

And on a minor note, student flutist Sarah Elia performed my solo flute piece Desert Flowers tonight at Bard College. It hadn't been heard publicly (that I know of) since 1989. I was 23 when I wrote it. Carter was president at the time. Sarah did a lovely job.

March 8, 2006 10:04 PM | | Comments (3) |

Barbershop quartet music, like ragtime, is a great source of common-tone diminished seventh chords, when it’s time to teach those. It’s also full of parallel tritones in chromatic descent implying root motion around the circle of fifths. It actually has a lot in common with postminimalism: a use of voice-leading so consistently circumscribed that it tends to generate the same consonant (but not always functionally-related) sonorities over and over again. But the style contains one common chord I haven’t seen in any other context: a dominant seventh built on the leading tone, nominally a V7/iii but never resolved as such - rather, a chromatic neighbor-note chord to the tonic triad, given here at the two X’s:


Does anyone have a name for this chord? It often appears between two tonic triads, and the use of the seventh (G, here) helps avoid parallel octaves that might otherwise occur between two B-flats and two A’s. It’s almost identical to a common-tone diminished seventh and serves the same function, only the common tone is done away with, which drops down to the leading tone. The entire assemblage also occurs a perfect fourth higher - i.e., as a D dominant 7th making a neighboring chord to E-flat. Anyone have a name or term for these dominant sevenths used as chromatic neighbors? Anyone ever see them in any other context besides barbershop quartet music?

UPDATE: Allow me to emphasize, since it keeps coming up in the comments, that the entire song is in B-flat major, with no other key ever noticeably implied, and that the chord in question occurs in several varied contexts: quick, drawn-out, passing, neighbor, and so on.

March 7, 2006 9:52 PM | | Comments (18) |

A pessimistic dinner conversation with a musicologist friend about the patent incompetence of composers with highly visible orchestral careers brings to mind David Mamet’s classic essay “Decay: Some Thoughts for Actors.” A 1986 lecture given at Harvard, it’s included in Writing in Restaurants:

We as a culture, as a civilization, are at the point where the appropriate, the life-giving, task of the organism is to decay. Nothing will stop it, nothing can stop it, for it is the force of life, and the evidence is all around us. Listen to the music in train stations and on the telephone when someone puts you on hold. The problem is not someone or some group of people unilaterally deciding to plague you with bad music; the problem is a growing universal and concerted attempt to limit the time each of us is alone with his or her thoughts; it is the collective unconscious suggesting an act of mercy....

...[T]here is a reason our civilization grew, and there is a reason it is going to die - and those reasons are as unavailable to us as the reasons we were born and are going to die....

Let’s face it and look at it: how is our parochial world decaying? The theater has few new plays and most of them are bad. The critics seem to thwart originality and the expression of love at every turn; television buys off the talented; the art of acting degenerates astoundingly each year....

...Today the job of the agent, the critic, the producer, is to hasten decay, and they are doing their job - the job the society has elected them to do is to spread terror and the eventual apathy which ensues when an individual is too afraid to look at the world around him. They are the music in the railroad station, and they represent our desire for rest.

You might say what of free will in all this, what about the will of the individual? But I don’t believe it exists, and I believe all societies function according to the rules of natural selection and that those survive who serve the society’s turn, much like people stranded when their bus has broken down. Their individual personalities are unimportant; the necessity of the moment will create the expert, the reasonable man, the brash bully, the clown, and so on.

...In this time of decay those things which society will reward with fame and recognition are bad acting, bad writing, choices which inhibit thought, reflection, and release; and these things will be called art.

Some of you are born, perhaps, to represent the opposing view - the minority opinion of someone who, for whatever reason, is not afraid to examine his state. Some of you, in spite of it all, are thrown up by destiny to attempt to bring order to the stage, to attempt to bring to the stage, as Stanislavsky put it, the life of the human soul.

Like Laocoön, you will garner quite a bit of suffering in your attempts to perform a task which you will be told does not even exist. Please try to keep in mind that the people who tell you that, who tell you that you are dull and talentless and noncommercial, are doing their job; and also bear in mind that, in your obstinacy and dedication, you are doing your job.

...[I]f you strive to teach yourself the lost art of storytelling, you are going to suffer, and, as you work and age, you may look around you and say, “Why bother?” And the answer is you must bother if you are selected to bother, and if not, then not.

March 6, 2006 3:45 AM | | Comments (7) |

If you hurry and look right... now, the playlist for Postclassic Radio is currently accurate and up-to-date.

Oops, too late! You weren't quick enough.

(New pieces by Frank Denyer, Peter Gena, Walter Zimmermann. At this point I've played well over 600 pieces, something like 130 hours' worth of postclassical music. And there's plenty more where that came from.)

March 4, 2006 10:41 PM | | Comments (0) |

I don’t understand why the electric guitar orchestra hasn’t become a compositional focus for more composers, for practical reasons alone. It certainly looked like it was going to in the 1980s, with works and ensembles by Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca, John Myers, Wharton Tiers, Phil Kline, and Todd Levin. The old joke is,

Q.: How do you get a guitarist to stop playing?
A.: Put some sheet music in front of him.

and certainly dealing with guitarists who don’t read was part of the challenge, especially starting in 1989 when Rhys Chatham initiated the 100-guitar tradition with An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, premiered in Lille, France. “Guitarists who can’t read can at least count,” Rhys liked to say, and this insight led the guitar-orchestra genre into totalist territory, however inadvertently. Glenn Branca couldn’t read music himself until he had finished several guitar symphonies, and at least his Sixth Symphony (also 1989), notated on graph paper, has rhythmic grids showing some players how to change chords every four beats while others are changing every five beats and still others every six. His 1994 Tenth Symphony for nine guitars, more normally notated, contains at one point an approximated Nancarrovian tempo canon at tempos of 7:8:12.

In An Angel Moves Too Fast to See Chatham solved the reading problem by dividing his 100 guitarists into an inner and outer circle, with the musically literate in the inner circle. In the fifth movement (he now calls the piece his First Symphony, though I think he avoided that at the time because Branca was for some reason being criticized for calling his pieces symphonies), he divided the orchestra into six rhythmic layers, each repeating a chord or phrase at diverse regular intervals (monomial or binomial periodicities). As you can see in the example below, one rung of guitarists played E and B every 7 beats; another E and G# every 8 beats; another an octave A every 9 beats; another, after a pause, A and F# every 5 beats, and then two more groups on longer patterns:


Put them all together, and the following process-generated melody is clearly audible:


What you can’t get from the recording (excerpted here, and available on Table of the Elements) is the totally original correlation of space and pitch that resulted. (I just missed the Lille performance by hours, but heard the North American premiere in Montreal.) A hundred guitarists, each with an amplifier and enough room to swing around and look cool, take up a tremendous amount of space; and since each group was herded together, the E-B chord might come from the middle, while the A-F# came from 60 feet away on the left, and the G# an equal distance on the right. Note by note, the melody bounced over wide distances as though the audience members were ants sitting in the middle of an enormous keyboard. Listening was like watching an arrhythmic tennis game.

This is not new information, by the way; it’s all in my book American Music in the 20th Century. Now that Branca is gathering 100 guitarists to reprise his 13th Symphony in Los Angeles, it may be worth recirculating at the moment.

At about the same time I was experimenting with a similar process to generate textures in a considerably more modest setting. My Windows to Infinity for piano (1987) was a reflection on Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence. I had been amused to read philosopher Arthur Danto parse out the statistical likelihood of eternal recurrance in his book on Nietzsche, and in response wrote a piano piece stretching out to infinity, tracking a recurring combination of notes as it gathered coincidences through millions of repetitions. As you can see below, there’s a middle D# every 5 8th-notes, a middle C# every 7 8th-notes, a lower F# every 29 16th-notes, and so on up through four-digit primes. Every phrase comes back to the C#-D#-E-G# “theme” found in the 4th and 5th measures (a motif also used in my two-piano piece Long Night):


In theory, this nine-minute piece would eventually repeat itself if extended for thousands of years. No one’s ever played the piece but me, and as I’m not terribly satisfied with my one recording, I think I won’t post it here. I used a similar technique soon after in the first movement of Cyclic Aphorisms for violin and piano. I’m sure others have stumbled across this interference of pitch-periodicities concept, but I don’t know of any examples of such an atomistic totalist technique past 1989. It may be worth noting that Nancarrow used the interference of much longer, more complex periodicities in his Study No. 9, way back in the 1950s.

March 1, 2006 4:30 AM | | Comments (3) |

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