main: April 2008 Archives

Very big week for my music coming up next week.

First, Kate Ryder reprises my Paris Intermezzo in a second concert for toy piano this Sunday, May 4, at the Space Enterprise Festival in London, England, 269 Westferry Road.

Next Tuesday, May 6, my good friend James Bagwell will conduct the Bard College Community Chorus and Chamber Singers in my Transcendental Sonnets (2001-2), at the famous Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center. James commissioned the piece for the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir years ago. For this performance, I've prepared a new version with an accompaniment of two pianos, which I believe captures the orchestral original well. There was always a version with piano for rehearsal purposes, but one piano really can't do justice to the thick polyphonic textures. I think this new one - arranged mostly on trains around Europe and between Washington, D.C., and Montreal - will be effective. And the chorus has been working hard all semester and is singing beautifully. I'm grateful to James for his devotion to the work, which may be the best piece I've written. Also on the program are choral works by Bard students Ben Richter and Dan Whitener, and one by the chorus's excellent accompanist James Fitzwilliam.

The following Friday, May 9, will see the American premiere of my piano concerto Sunken City, performed by the Symphonic Winds of Williams College, under the direction of Steven Bodner. Two very good student pianists are playing the respective movements, and the program also include Revueltas's Sensemaya and music of Giya Kancheli and Michael Colgrass. In anticipation of the performance I'm giving a lecture on my music titled "The Music of the Spheres and Other Self-Defeating Paradigms" the previous day at 4:15 at the Bernhard Music Center on Williams College campus. 

In addition my profile of composer Alex Shapiro has just appeared in this month's Chamber Music magazine. She's posted it at her website here (PDF).

April 30, 2008 6:14 PM | | Comments (3) |
At long last composer Julio Estrada tells me that my book on Conlon Nancarrow is now available in Spanish, from the University of Mexico Press. I'm awaiting a copy in the mail. Here (in the right column) is the only advertisement I can find for it. Espero que seas ayudado por esta publicación.

April 29, 2008 8:10 AM | | Comments (5) |
brant.jpgNeely Bruce informs me that the great Henry Brant has died within the last few hours. He was a phenomenally creative figure, though one hard to wrap one's ears around, because his specialty was spatial music; his works, often involving multiple ensembles separated by distance, were too enormous to stage often, and recordings hardly do them justice. I was privileged to have heard his 500: Hidden Hemisphere live, a mammoth piece in celebration of Columbus for three wind ensembles and steel drum band, placed around the fountain at Lincoln Center in 1992. He was born in Montreal, and thus Canada gets to claim him, but his primary inspiration was Charles Ives, and he began composing for instruments widely separated from each other in an attempt to clarify dense, Ivesian polyphony. Even when not writing spatially he composed for unconventional ensembles, like the ten variously sized flutes of his delightful Angels and Devils (1931), or his Orbits (1979) for 80 trombones, organ, and sopranino voice. A work called Fire on the Amstel employs four boatloads of 25 flutes each, four jazz drummers, four church carillons, three brass bands, three choruses, and four street organs. Live performances of it remain rare, for some reason. His reputation as an incredible orchestrator (he made part of his living doing filmscores from the 1930s through '60s, but didn't like to talk about them) was confirmed with his 1994 orchestration of Ives's Concord Sonata, titled A Concord Symphony, a splendid reimagining of a great work. 

Brant was an odd character, always wearing a visor, bristling with energy, and not liking to sit down at public appearances. I interviewed him on the phone once and met him briefly, but didn't get to know him or his music as well as I would have liked. Combining diatonic, Roy Harris-y harmonies, frequent quarter-tones, and massive clusters in the most radical performance situations, he was a curious amalgam of mid-century populism and the post-Cage avant-garde. His output remains a discovered but yet unexplored musical continent.

April 26, 2008 5:51 PM | | Comments (9) |
This afternoon we were analyzing movement VII of the Quartet for the End of Time, and came upon a passage using, for the only time in the piece, the following mode of limited transposition, which I asked the class to identify:


Came the answer from the back of the class: "It's the Tchereptatonic!"

Some of you will get it.

The rest of you presumably have lives.

April 25, 2008 8:22 PM | | Comments (1) |
OK. I've finished The Planets, and so I'm listening, once again for the 30th time, to John Coltrane's closely related Interstellar Space album, with just himself and Rashied Ali on drums. I love Coltrane, of course, as who doesn't? Black Pearls, A Love Supreme, AscensionGiant Steps, My Favorite Things, Ballads, they're all among my favorite jazz albums. But Interstellar Space I admit I have trouble figuring out. Mars and Venus should be polar opposites, but I have trouble finding much variety of mood or method on this CD. What am I missing? Postclassic is possibly not the right venue, but can anyone tell me how to listen to this last Coltrane disc (1967) and find it as wonderful as his earlier work? 

April 23, 2008 10:15 PM | | Comments (5) |
The Stefan Wolpe Society has just sent out its 2007 newsletter (PDF), which is worth reading if you like Wolpe's music. I do, immensely. Of all the modernist-atonalists of the mid-century, he was my favorite, yet of all the composers whose music I'm nuts about, his is the most difficult to justify to people who don't get it. I think of his as the music I wanted Elliott Carter's to be, but Wolpe's seems tremendously more focused, more taut, more playful, and easier to follow intuitively - if still, at times, mystifying. I've always liked the story that Wolpe used to compose while watching fish in his fish tank, making his notes dart, freeze, and scatter as the fish would do. Sometimes he could use abstract hexachords in a way that jumped out and made you notice. Studying piano with a Wolpe student at Oberlin my freshman year (Tom Simon, anyone know his whereabouts?), I was assigned the piano piece Form, and fell in love. That opening little six-note motif - Ab F Bb A G E - returns so playfully as theme, chord, pitch set, riff, tone row, that you really hear it come back in a dozen unexpected guises. Form IV: Broken Sequences is even better, and I love the Trio, the Quartet with saxophone, the Chamber Piece No. 1, the elegant String Quartet, the enchanting Ten Songs from the Hebrew. Such brash, brainy, acerbic music, yet not afraid to be completely obvious at times. I like Enactments for three pianos, too, though without understanding it; I feel like an ant crawling across a late Jackson Pollock mural. I am told that the Mario Davidovsky crowd did not like to hear Wolpe's name mentioned - he wasn't systematic enough - and if true, I'm not surprised. He was out of their league.

The Wolpe newsletter's major offering is a detailed account of the origins of his one Symphony - not one of my favorite Wolpe works, and a little stiff, but the article (without admitting that) explains why: Leonard Bernstein insisted that he greatly simplify the notation, which, originally, was presumably in his usual metrically fluid style. It's difficult to orchestrate goldfish.

My fondness for Wolpe brings up a point about Bernard Holland's bittersweet review yesterday of George Perle's music, whose atonality-bashing will probably earn him another broadside from Counter-Critic (a website that, no longer being a critic, I thoroughly enjoy). I've always sympathized with Holland on this issue, yet I disagree with his terminology. Much of Holland's take is thoroughly common-sensical:

It sounds reasonable to say that Anton Webern's Piano Variations take up where Brahms left off. I admire the Webern; I even like it for its strangely satisfying space-age spirituality. I don't think it has anything remotely to do with Brahms.

Touché! On the other hand:

Until the 20th century musicians obeyed natural laws of physics. Pick up a rock, drop it, and it falls to the ground. Music was the same. Send a piece of music up in the air, doctor and twist it, make it major, minor or modal; in the end it wants to come down to where it started. You can call the process tonality or music's law of gravity.

Of course, almost no composer is going to accede to this. (In fact, psychological studies have shown that musicians couldn't care less whether a piece comes back to the same key it started in.) Atonality is not the problem. Taking my students as a pristine and unncorrupted audience, there's loads of wonderful atonal music that they glom onto at first listen, and beg for copies of (Ruggles's Sun-Treader, most of Varèse, second movement of Berio's Sinfonia, Stockhausen's Gruppen, much of Nancarrow, Babbitt's Philomel, Xenakis's Pithoprakta, Dallapiccola's Piccola Musica Notturna, Branca's Tenth Symphony), and a lot of atonal music that instantly turns them off (Schoenberg's Fourth Quartet, Webern's Symphony, Babbitt's Post-Partitions). Hell, there's a lot of atonal rock music. 

As Philomel, Sinfonia, Gruppen, and Piccola Musica Notturna show, even 12-tone organization is not the issue. It strikes me that the deciding factor is whether or not the listener senses that there is some organizational factor that you're supposed to be hearing that can't be located by ear, whether the meaning of the piece is buried somewhere underneath the surface. That quality seems to be more what Holland objects to about Perle than the mere lack of tonality. I was dumbfounded by the quotation Alex Ross in his book unearthed from Boulez; asked why the serial pieces of the '50s never became standard repertoire, the meister admitted, "Perhaps we didn't pay enough attention to how people listen." In general, and as evinced by a thousand film scores, atonality tends to express anxiety, and much of the music, like Sun-Treader, that freely acquiesces to that is extremely effective. But Wolpe's output is Exhibit A that music can be relentlessly atonal and also whimsical, jaunty, and attractive. 

Our critics need to find a rhetoric in which to discuss the issue that does not make atonality the fall guy. For a splendid counter-example, I highly recommend Justin Davidson's recent review of Elliott Carter, which elegantly captures, in words I couldn't better myself, my own disappointed feelings about that composer's post-1954 music.

April 21, 2008 4:01 PM | | Comments (1) |

I finished my magnum opus today: The Planets, for flute, oboe, alto sax, bassoon, percussion, synthesizer, viola, and contrabass, commissioned in stages by the wonderful Relache ensemble in Philadelphia. It's just over 70 minutes long, a 346-page score, in ten movements, my own personal Turangalila. I started writing it in January of 1994, sitting on a plane en route to Seattle next to Laurel Wyckoff, the ensemble's former flutist. They commissioned the first four movements as part of the Music in Motion project, by which ensembles and composers flew to distant cities to collaborate. The concept was that I would compose every morning and in the afternoons the ensemble would run through what I'd written. I used to be a fairly slow composer, and the plan terrified me. But, under pressure, I wrote the first movement, "Venus," in a week, and, realizing I could write as fast as someone told me to, I've been a fast composer ever since. In fact, I date the coalescence of my mature style from that trip. I was 38. 

I had always planned to write more movements than the initial four I wrote then, and in 2001 Relache came up with another commission. Their instrumentation was so odd (so difficult to keep that viola audible) that I was reluctant to write a major work for them without assurance that they would play the whole thing, and for years they were in such financial straits that I was afraid to proceed. Also, their instrumentation had changed before, and I feared it might change again before I could finish. But last fall they called and said they were ready to record the work for CD, and told me to get my ass in gear and get those other movements in. So I have, and we start recording next month. Of course, the obvious question is, had my compositional habits so changed over 14 years that the end of the piece would come out very different from the beginning? But I had formed a firm idea back in the '90s of what each movement would do, and I stuck to my original conception. It's pretty consistent. "Venus" remains, I think, one of the best movements.

This is my big astrological piece, and of course, there are always people disappointed or horrifed by an admission of any interest in astrology, because most people know next to nothing about it, and have a caricatural view of it associated with newspaper sun-sign columns. I came to the subject via a respectable route. Reading Cage as a teenager interested me in the I Ching and the idea of synchronicity. That led to an interest in several other forms of mysticism, and, eventually, a close devotion to the music of Dane Rudhyar (a far more important and fascinating composer than all but a few of us cult fans will ever admit) led me to embark on reading some of Rudhyar's 30-odd books on astrology, beginning - as one must - with The Astrology of Personality. Add to that an addiction to the writings of Jung in grad school, and I got caught up in a Jungian conception of the field, based on synchronicity rather than causation. The most important recent writer on the subject is Liz Greene, a brilliant Jungian psychoanalyst. 

There were other, more personal influences as well. I once worked for an arts organization whose entire staff were clients of the excellent astrologer Doris Hebel. Arts-world interest in the subject is vaster than people talk about. Almost any composer on the New York scene can tell you, if asked, their sun, moon, and rising signs. It's a social thing. Cage himself was a long-time client of the New York astrologer Julie Winter. I've collected music based on astrology, including Holst's eponymous work (one of my favorite orchestral warhorses), Constant Lambert's Horoscope, George Crumb's pieces, and the Interstellar Space recording of John Coltrane, with pieces entitled Mars, Leo, Venus, Jupiter Variation, and Saturn. I took courses in astrology at (apparently defunct) Isis Rising bookstore in Chicago, and, like Holst, I've done readings for many a fellow composer. In fact, in 1986 my income as a freelance critic was dwindling, and, having failed (I thought) in that field, I was looking into how to get started as an astrologer when from out of the blue Doug Simmons called me from the Village Voice and offered me a job. (If you know something about astrology, it may interest you to hear that on that very day, Saturn crossed my ascendant and Uranus transited the ruler of my house of employment. Very significant.) 

I used to fantasize about reviewing concerts astrologically, in advance, like: "Don't bother attending Nic Collins's Roulette concert this Friday, Mercury is retrograding over his midheaven, and it's a sure bet his equipment will malfunction."

I have to add, too, that with 12 zodiac signs divided into 30 degrees each, with a wealth of experimental aspects like quintiles and septiles calculated within certain degrees of orb, astrology offers a number of delicious parallels with the 12 fluidly-defined pitch areas and continuum of consonances in microtonality. I've long savored the feeling of moving smoothly from one to the other without seeming to change the kinds of geometry I'm dealing with. And then, my fascination with rhythmic cycles going out of phase with each other, much manifested in The Planets, was always partly driven by a "music of the spheres" paradigm. Whatever mathematical way my brain is hardwired that drew me to Henry Cowell's rhythms and Ben Johnston's scales made me a sucker for astrology as well. Jupiter circles the sun every 12 years and Saturn every 29 years, with a conjunction approximately every 20 years? Now that's a rhythm, cut me off a piece of that! It's not all just, "Oh, you're a Libra, so you have trouble making up your mind." There's as much math as you want.

So comments challenging me to defend astrology will be ignored. I never defend astrology, nor proselytize for it, nor say I "believe" in it. I have no idea why astrological transits sometimes seem startlingly relevant, but, like the I Ching, it is an ancient worldview containing a wealth of psychological insight that greatly widened my understanding of human behavior. There are even astrologers who consider it no more than a kind of elaborate Rorschach test, which is certainly one way to understand it. Like anyone who knows anything about the field, I never read newspaper sun-sign columns except for amusement. If you want to bash me for taking an interest in it, go ahead and blast Cage and Coltrane, and feel free to throw me into their camp. I'll be honored. 

My mother likes to say, "I don't believe in astrology; Aquarians never do."

In any case, as I say in the program notes to the piece, music may not have progressed since Holst wrote his Planets, but astrology has. Rudhyar ushered in an era of "free will" astrology, according to which transits are psychological forces which, if understood, can become channels to new understanding, by which otherwise fated-seeming actions can be avoided. As astrology is now understood as process rather than fate, and minimalism created a new musical paradigm of process-oriented composition, it was time for a new set of Planets to fuse musical processes with planetary ones, rather than the more conventional melodies and atmospheres of Holst's grand work. I have three more movements than Holst: I include the Sun and Moon, which astrology refers to as "planets," and also Pluto, which wasn't discovered until 13 years after Holst finished. (The demotion of Pluto by astronomers has had no effect on astrology.) Each movement follows a process that expresses the idea of its planet. "Sun" is an additive process in the shape of a sunrise. "Moon" is full of melodies and rhythms going out of phase. "Saturn" is a chaconne in which harsh, immobile dissonances are gradually replaced with gorgeous lines of counterpoint. "Uranus" is a jolting collage of constant surprises. The fog of "Neptune" (pictured) has the performers in eight unsynchronized tempos. And so on. John Luther Adams and I agreed that he'll write music about the earth, and I'll handle the rest of the solar system.

So after 14 years (half a Saturn cycle), I've finally completed the longest instrumental work I have any thought of writing. You can hear the movements that Relache has already performed here. They premiere the entire work in Philadelphia and possibly New York September 26 and 27, by which time we're hoping to have the CD available as well. It's a weight off my shoulders. I have dreams of orchestrating the work, but what would I do with a 70-minute orchestral score? Make a nice MIDI realization?

April 20, 2008 5:28 PM | | Comments (4) |
I'm in a quandary. Oh, not much of a quandary, just a little composer's mini-quandary.  In the last year, performers have started asking me for MIDI mockups of pieces I've written for them. I don't recall this happening before. Of course I provide MIDI versions in the case of the occasional acoustic microtonal piece, in which the performers need to learn pitches they're not used to hearing, and my microtonal music consists only of MIDI "versions," in which cases I humanize the hell out of the file and avoid instrumental sounds that don't sample well (no arco violins, ever). But I have misgivings doing it for "normal" music.

Personally, I don't mind listening to MIDI versions of pieces not yet performed. I have enough performing and rehearsing experience that I feel I can "hear through" the stiff MIDI limitations and imagine what the piece will actually sound like. It's an aid, and you have to know how to use the aid and not mistake it for the reality. But I've also had enough bad experiences playing MIDI versions for people - people who didn't seem to possess that ability, and who reacted with a visceral dislike to the piece based on its synthesized version - that I avoid playing MIDI versions for others. 

Further than that, while it's one thing to listen to a MIDI file to get a sense of a colleague's new piece, it strikes me that to listen to a piece that way with the intention of performing it later is an entirely different thing. I've had some bad experiences with it. Sibelius (the software) playback has trouble with fermatas, which sometimes get applied to notes they weren't intended for, and it doesn't always portray arpeggiated chords or grace notes elegantly; the result being that I have sometimes had to go back and remedially convince the performer that I meant what I wrote in the score, not what he heard on the MIDI file. Of course I could import a Sibelius file into Digitial Performer and sculpt every note, but that's an awful lot of work for something that isn't a final product, just a temporary convenience, and the results are still imperfect. Even when such details aren't a factor, I'm uneasy with the idea that a performer's first audio experience of a piece will be through a stiffly metronomic version with no nuance. There's a wonderful process that happens in rehearsal as the players slog through notes whose interrelatedness is still a mystery to them, and then suddenly they hear other parts correctly played in hocket with their own, and everything clicks, and the music emerges from chaos. Then they create the piece from the notation, and it has personality, rather than trying, however unconsciously, to replicate a lousy artifact they heard an mp3 of. 

But that process takes time, and when an ensemble is short of time, they ask for a MIDI file to speed the process up. As I've written here before, "Efficiency in the pursuit of music-making is no virtue." But I hate to turn down a request from people enthusiastic about playing my music. Perhaps I'm being too sensitive and old-fashioned about it, and this is the way things are done these days, and I'm curious what other composers do and how they feel about it. 

April 15, 2008 11:26 AM | | Comments (14) |
For months Postclassic Radio has chugged along with no help or intervention from me, playing its little heart out with Dutch, British, and Irish new music. Last night I found myself with some unexpected free time after bringing several long projects to completion, and ripped about ten hours' worth out of the rapidly aging 17-hour playlist. I've been building it back up with the following:

- Renske Vrolijk's complete theater work Charlie Charlie, her well-researched and mesmerizingly beautiful postminimalist story of the wreck of the Hindenburg. That was the major Dutch premiere I flew back from London to hear last November. It's on as I write this, and I can't stop listening. (Note - if it sounds like the recording is playing on well-worn vinyl, it's because Renske sampled vinyl noise and plays it in the piece's background to evoke the milieu. Charming idea.)

- Canadian music, since I'm trying to convince even the Canadians themselves that there's a lot of good stuff. To that end I've put up some pieces by Paul Dolden, whose music is parallel to M.C. Maguire's in that it hits you with an overload of hundreds of tracks running at once. Just between the two of them, Maguire and Dolden pull the geographic center of North American hair-raising crazy-mad fanatical sonic complexity up to somewhere around Fargo. I also add some major works by that "totalist of Canada" Tim Brady, including his half-hour piece for 20 electric guitars and his Symphony No. 1, which sounds a little like Olivier Messiaen started messiaen' around with some of Glenn Branca's MIDI files. That's pretty high-energy stuff too, so the station's going through a definite uptempo phase. It must be too cold up in Canada to write the kind of slow, soft, mellow, depressing music a lot of us favor down here. You got to keep even those inner-ear follicles moving.

- Pieces by Jeff Harrington, Ben Harper, Eve Beglarian, some brand new John Luther Adams, Steve Layton, and David Borden, including several installments of his Earth Journeys for Composers (including, so far, For Alvin Curran, For Paul Chihara, and For Kyle Gann). (Hey, it's another way to get my name on the station.) If you hear some unexpectedly conventional-sounding songs, those are Corey Dargel's "Condoleezza Rice Songs," so focus on the lyrics. My concept for Postclassic Radio was always as a way to get my CD collection out on the internet, and I was reluctant to use content that could already be found online, but considering so many good composers don't have CDs out these days, I'm starting to rethink that a little.

- Some of my recent pieces that premiered lately. Since I never repeat pieces (well, almost never), my own music hadn't had much of a presence on the station in several months. 

More to come. Part of the hurdle is always the thought of updating the playlist, so I've finally decided to quit trying to make it a guide to the current station, and instead simply list all the pieces I've played - which I like to do as a public reminder of the incredible volume and diversity of postclassical music. I finally realized why I've suddenly gotten tremendously busy the last few weeks, because next month my three largest non-operatic works are being either performed or recorded. My piano concerto Sunken City needed a few minor revisions prior to its American premiere at Williams College May 9, and I've been making a new version of Transcendental Sonnets with a two-piano accompaniment for a May 6 performance at Bard. And I've been finishing The Planets, a 70-minute work I started in 1994 and which had laid dormant since 2001. The Relache ensemble is putting it on CD this summer. More of that later, soon, when everything's finished. Meanwhile, it'll be safe, and maybe even enlightening, to return to Postclassic Radio.

April 14, 2008 12:26 PM | | Comments (3) |
The estimable Warren Burt (whom I believe I have run into in more different parts of the world than any other composer), American born but long resident in Australia, writes in to clarify, correct, and complete the picture of the Australian scene I alluded to in writing about Canada. He agrees that Australia treats its composers better than the U.S., but not as well as Canada. In particular, he says, 

your implication that there are orchestral commissions aplenty down here is mistaken. The orchestral scene here is a closed shop, and only members of a certain class get access to it. In my 33 years in Australia, I've had access to an orchestra once - and that was when I was a composer in residence with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1987, and I got access to the Adelaide Symphony for 1 day for a recording session. (It's true I'd never have gotten even that in the US, which is why I say the situation here is better than in the US.)  But I've never had a commission for an orchestral work here, despite repeated attempts at getting one. My best rejection was when I got a rejection letter that said "please do not send us work of this calibre again." Felix Werder, currently 85, and still composing (plug: check out the current CD of his electronic music from the 1970s on Pogus) got the same rejection letter for his 7th Symphony, which had just been played in Russia. (The bureaucrat who wrote those letters was later fired, but Felix still hasn't had an orchestral performance since the mid-90s, when his 1st Symphony (written in an Australian migrant concentration camp in 1942) was premiered.)

The best difference between the Australian and US new music scenes is that Australia has Medicare (socialized medicine) and unemployment benefits without time limit. Those two things make life easier, and less stressful here. That's why flourishing new music scenes can exist in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, and Adelaide, and Perth.

The main thing to say is that except in Melbourne (where groups such as the Astra Choir, Speak Percussion, and the Melbourne Composers' League buck the trend), in Australian new music, there is in general a wall of apartheid between music written with notes on paper, and everything else. And composers who work with "everything else" very rarely get a look in, or a chance, to deal with acoustic musicians playing professionally. So we have two (mostly) very distinct scenes here - a scene much like the US, where we make our own instruments, ensembles, improvisers collectives, installations, etc; and a scene of people writing fully notated scores for instruments, which are played by professionals (usually on a charity or pro-bono basis.)  There is limited financial support for this stuff (but proportionately more than in the US), and commissions go to both groups ("everybody else", and "notated for professionals"), and in recent years, when there has been much less funding around, and more competition for it, the funding has been pretty evenly distributed between "everything else" and "notated for professionals."  The funding is not enough (it never is), but it does enable a certain level of activity to keep going.

Nice to have it on such good authority. Nevertheless, when I performed in Brisbane in 2002, I commiserated with Aussie composer Rob Davidson on the problems faced by Downtown music. "Do you know," he lamented, "that in Brisbane there are only five groups that play this kind of music?" "Rob," I looked at him incredulously - "that's how many we have in the entire U.S. of A." "Oh, I hadn't thought of that," he said.

April 12, 2008 11:01 AM | | Comments (0) |
Students are finishing up their orchestra pieces. We're going through scores and parts with a microscope, making sure every entrance has a dynamic, breaking up undotted half-notes in 6/8 meter, deciding almost arbitrarily whether one oboe or two on a given line, figuring out how far to extend cautionary accidentals, and so on and so on. We're so petrified that a question about some ambiguity will arise in our allotted 20 minutes of rehearsal. We split hairs to make lines lightning-fast to sightread that aren't at all difficult to play. It reaches the analogous point of de-italicizing commas in a text document. It's the most exhausting thing I do during the year. 

This student's piece was based on William Blake, and, once finished, we started chatting about Blake. The student had run across a reference to a piece by Eve Beglarian based on Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I plucked a score of the piece out of my file cabinet, and we opened it. There on the inside cover was a notice from Eve:

EVERYONE: I am definitely interested in hearing suggestions for improvement in the notation & orchestration of the piece. Please tell me of ANY difficulty or confusion or whatever....
[A phone number follows.]
Thanks, and I hope you have fun playing this piece!

What a refreshing jolt back into a less pretentious musical world! Only a woman, or perhaps only Eve, would have the balls to put a disclaimer like that: a note that says not, "I am a professional, I know all, and you must follow my every notated whim," but, "I am an artist and I'm trying something no one's ever done before, if it doesn't work out for you give me some feedback." What a dreary mausoleum the orchestra is. What a breath of fresh air Eve is.

April 10, 2008 2:46 PM | | Comments (3) |
I got back from Canada the other day, again. I'm trying to cure Canadian composers of their American-composer envy. My standard line is that an unsuccessful Canadian composer gets more commissions than a successful American composer. And they always reply (or maybe I just keep talking to the same guy over and over again), "That's not true, look at John Adams!" Well. 

"Blacks in America face a lot of discrimination."
"That's not true, look at Halle Berry!"

The point, as I patiently explain, is that the American composer scene differs from the Canadian in the same way our societies differ economically: inequality is through the roof. Here, I know composers who can't keep up with their commission schedules and others, just as accomplished and hard-working, who can't keep their rent paid; in Canada, no one composer's a superstar, but every one of them seems to be getting along fine. Montreal post-grads half my age muse about how they wish they could make it in the U.S., and then excuse themselves because they have to go finish their third orchestra piece because it's being recorded next week. I've only found one Canadian composer who wouldn't admit to any orchestral performances, and she was into electronics. I told one young thing that many of my friends go years between commissions, and many had never had an orchestra piece played at all. She looked at me in wide-eyed wonder: "What do they do instead?" I wanted to laugh incredulously, but I said, "Well, they play their own music, the make electronic realizations, they write pieces and get their friends to play them, they form their own ensembles." Of course, things are going downhill in Canada as everywhere, and the tragedy this week was that CBC radio has announced that it will no longer make CDs of studio recordings of Canadian works, only live recordings. Well - imagine if NPR announced it was going to start publishing even live recordings of American works! We're so far down everything looks like up to us. 

Canadians feel that they can't get arrested internationally. In this respect they're much like Australians, and I have to wonder if in both cases it isn't partly because those two countries do such a good job of creating a viable music scene for their native composers that there's not a huge incentive to tour elsewhere. (Ireland may be the same way: I signed up my name at the Irish Music Center in Dublin, and they're so assiduously promoting local music that somehow they sent me four copies this week of Volume 7 of Contemporary Music from Ireland.) I realize that Canadians like Tim Brady, Denys Bouliane, and Gordon Monahan, and Australians like Vincent Plush, actively promote their music internationally, and it's difficult to gauge a metric for success in individual cases. But in general, Canadians and Australians can all make some kind of living staying home writing pieces for local orchestras, and no sense of collective desperation drives them to other continents in search of recognition. The U.S.'s experimental jazzers and composers of the (ahem) Downtown persuasion have to go to Europe to find audiences and support, and Europe has been very good to them. Hell, if I were kept busy writing tone poems for the Albany and Buffalo Symphonies, my little jaunt to Amsterdam last fall would have felt more like a vacation and less like a last-ditch career effort. I see what the Canadians mean about not being lionized in Europe like many Americans are, but the option of being able to stay home and have your music played strikes me as a decent trade-off. To live in a viable, functioning musical society, however humdrum, is no small shakes.

What seems to poignantly gnaw at the Canadian soul, I think, is the lack of a major, internationally recognized Canadian symphonist, some towering archetypal figure that represents the country like Elgar does Britain or Tubin does Estonia or even Sculthorpe does Australia, a Glenn Gould of composing, some font, some Charles Ives, from whom the national music flows. They've got R. Murray Schafer, a very interesting experimentalist whose music, I admit, in all these years, I've never managed to get a firm overall sense of. They've got Claude Vivier, one of the stars of the Spectralist scene, whose reputation is on a real upswing lately, and whose output, however tragically truncated by his early death, is nevertheless highly varied, fleshed-out, and well recorded. And whom they nevertheless seem to resent for some reason, and you have to wonder to what extent the perception of musical politics is muddied by troubled Anglophone-Francophone relations. Vivier has acquired the enviable reputation of being the one Spectralist composer whom even those who are dubious of Spectralism in general manage to admire, but perhaps he is seen more as Quebecois than Canadian, and certainly not as someone whose music represents something distinctly national. It reminds me of Morton Feldman's rationale for why Elliott Carter became famous: "America needed a WASP Copland."

As someone who was once the designated Canadian music reviewer for Fanfare magazine, I've long admired the country's unique blend of French sophistication and New-World free-wheeling experimentation. (I tell them I'm more in touch with my Inner Canadian than most Americans.) It is, indeed, difficult to get a sense of what could be archetypally "Canadian" about Canadian music. We have that same problem in the U.S. too, but each subgroup claims that what it's doing is the real American music, and we ignore all the others and feel fine. I'm sure there is some glass ceiling that the Canadian composer thinks himself helpless to burst through. But I'll tell you the advice I've been most often giving my composing students lately: go to grad school at McGill, or York University, or the University of Toronto, or Simon Fraser, establish residence, and spend the rest of your life writing music and getting it played, and waving bye-bye to your indigent, day-job-slaving American cousins.

April 8, 2008 10:55 AM | | Comments (6) |
Well, I can't complain about David Lang winning the Pulitzer Prize for his The Little Match Girl Passion, based on Hans Christian Andersen. Score one for postclassical music. Of course, I have to retract my boast about Postclassic Radio being an entirely Pulitzer-winner-free station. 

April 7, 2008 8:32 PM | | Comments (1) |
Lawrence Dillon posts a charming anecdote from when he was in grad school, of having had three professors in a row begin classes by asking every student to define "music." The first funny part is that all three thought it profound to begin with that question. The second funny part is that, after the students had stumbled through various answers, all three professors gave their own definitions to the effect that music is a form of personal expression. Lawrence calls this "nonsense" and "tough to defend as a thesis," but it is one of those things that I've heard tumble out of composers' mouths many times over the years as a well-learned cliché. Poke a preoccupied composer in the ribs unexpectedly, and certain phrases emerge spontaneously: "Program notes aren't important, the music should speak for itself"; "Labels and -isms are limiting, it's all just music"; "Music's importance is as a form of self-expression." None of these mean anything, and I've never seen anyone arrive at one of them through actual cogitation, they're just things that composers pick up from the culture and learn to parrot in self-defense, or to avoid responsibilities they don't want to deal with. 

The "personal expression" meme may be generational; it seemed particularly intense back in the '70s when many composers were threatened by the "mathematical" techniques of serialism. I theorize, though my knowledge of the history is vague, that it got a tremendous boost from the "express yourself" philosophy of child education in the '50s and '60s. I remember as a child having colorful orchestral music played on a record in art class, and being told to paint whatever the music inspired. The liberational trends of the time decreed that discipline was stultifying, and that the glory of art was the freedom it allowed for self-expression. Zip ahead 20 years and you get the identity politics art of the '80s: that lesbians make lesbian art, Blacks make Black art, and so on. Eventually even White men make guilty-White-male art, and I write an opera about Custer.

But in the more august tradition of the history of aesthetics, Lawrence is right: that's not a thesis. Back in the '50s, while we toddlers were being encouraged to slap paint onto posterboard to reveal what kind of mood we were in, one man was going to extreme lengths to remove any mark of his personality from his music: I mean, obviously, John Cage. If you read Cage's Silence, compiled from essays written in those years, it's curious how much of what he says was cribbed from ancient, Christian, and Eastern sources, from Meister Eckhardt, Diasetz Suzuki, Dame Julian of Norwich, Gita Sarabji, Zen writings. One of Cage's models, whom I discovered through Silence, was the Ceylonese philosopher Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), who became curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and one of the leading early explicators of Eastern art for the West. (I quote in my previous blog entry a wonderful passage of his I ran across researching this one.) 

Coomaraswamy had written an important little book titled Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, in which he claimed that up until modern times the Eastern and Western worlds had shared a unified philosophy of art, from which the Euro-American world departed in favor of a shallow individualism. You get the impression in Silence that Cage and Lou Harrison were combing through this ancient worldview for some more permanent base for their aesthetics of music than contemporary culture offered. In Coomaraswamy's view, which they encountered, beauty is "the attractive power of perfection." (p. 28) He continues, is objective, residing in the artefact and not in the spectator, who may or may not be qualified to recognize it. The work of art is good of its kind, or not good at all; its excellence is as independent of our reaction to its aesthetic surfaces as it is of our moral reaction to its thesis. (pp. 28-29)

This sounds like great comfort for 12-tone composers, but the Perennial Philosophy of which Coomaraswamy speaks also entails that every work of art be made for a social purpose, not as mere decoration or for aesthetic contemplation. Here's what he has to say about self-expression:

There is also a sense in which the man as an individual "expresses himself" whether he will or no. This is inevitable, only because nothing can be known or done except in accordance with the mode of the knower. So the man himself, as he is in himself, appears in style and handling, and can be recognized accordingly. The uses and significance of works of art may remain the same for millennia, and yet we can often date and place a work at first glance. Human idiosyncracy us thus the explanation of style and of stylistic sequences: "style is the man." Styles are the basis of our histories of art, which are written like other histories to flatter our human vanity. But the artist whom we have in view is innocent of history and unaware of the existence of stylistic sequences. Styles are the accident and by no means the essence of art; the free man is not trying to express himself, but that which was to be expressed. Our conception of art as essentially the expression of a personality, our whole view of genius, our impertinent curiosities about the artist's private life, all these things are the products of a perverted individualism....

In all respects the traditional artist devotes himself to the good of the work to be done. The operation is a rite, the celebrant neither intentionally nor even consciously expressing himself. It is by no accident of time... that works of traditional art, whether Christian, Oriental or folk art, are hardly ever signed: the artist is anonymous... In traditional arts it is never Who said? but only What was said? that concerns us....

You'll recall Harry Partch saying something similar in the documentary The Dreamer that Remains, that, "Of course, I'd prefer to remain anonymous... Who cares what the name was?" 

Well, thank goodness we have this ancient philosophy to rescue us from the panicky responsibilities of self-expression. Because who among us has a personality fascinating enough that audiences will still want to hear an expression of it fifty years hence? Certainly not me. Balding, pot-bellied theory professor with few social graces, ranked as a scintillating conversationalist somewhere between Conlon Nancarrow and Calvin Coolidge, I've got no self-expression to offer that an experienced psychotherapist wouldn't have heard dozens of times before. If I relied on my self-expression to make my music remarkable, I might as well quit writing it today. John Luther Adams is a lovely guy, but not the kind of larger-than-life character toward whom all heads turn as he enters a room; his music is great not because it tells us all about JLA, but because it takes on some of the largest issues the human race can tackle. His music is huge because he himself is so modest. Bill Duckworth is not so Oscar Wildish that his witticisms, once uttered, ripple through New York social society, but every time I play his music for friends they buy the CD: because his music achieves a kind of perfection of proportion and appropriateness of melody to form. He puts his music together from elements - chant, the Fibonacci series, bluegrass patterns, shaped-note singing, Messiaen-like rhythms - he found outside himself. Some of the most eccentric personalities I've met produced forgettable music. Yet Cage had one of the 20th century's most fascinating personalities, and went further than anyone else in an effort to keep his music from expressing it. He was the living embodiment of something T.S. Eliot said: 

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

One might compare another quotation of a quotation from Charles Ives's Essays Before a Sonata:

"The nearer we get to the mere expression of emotion," says Professor Sturt in his Philosophy of Art and Personality, "as in the antics of boys who have been promised a holiday, the further we get away from art."

Clearly, it's the things outside ourselves that our music expresses that give it importance. The finer gradations of harmony that microtonality offers, the wheels-within-wheels implied by different tempos rotating against each other, echoing the motions of the planets, were there long before I came to them, and would have remained had I never paid attention. That Michael Gordon, Mikel Rouse, and I manifest those rhythmic constants differently is inevitable given idiosyncrasies in training and personality, but the random idiosyncrasies do not account for the effect of the music. Lawrence's teachers may have been among those who feared that music would become too "mathematical," but how much recent music is as lovely to hear as Jim Tenney's player-piano piece Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow, based on a mathematical algorithm that anyone else could have calculated, had they thought of it? It is perfect of its kind, the number system made audible. By grasping something from the world of Platonic ideals and making it perceptible, we attempt on behalf of others that bridging of the subjective and objective realms that humans yearn for to ease the contradictions of conscious existence. To remain in our own subjectivity would be of no help to anyone. The nature of language makes it easier to express the principle in terms of mathematical phenomena, but I don't mean to exclude those whose creative paradigms are more emotional or psychic than arithmetical. 

It's tempting to argue that music has gone downhill with the arrival of the "music is self-expression" trope, that for too many composers music has become merely self-expression, and therefore forgettable. One could argue cases, but I think it more likely that most composers talk one way and vote another, chattering about self-expression but actually, instinctively, probably continuing to do what musicians have always done. Even if self-expression were good philosophy, it's ineffective rhetoric, and I think composers should drop it. It's trivializing. Who cares if you express yourself? That might have benefits for you, but how about the listener? That's what we tell kids in kindergarten to go do. We are important as composers not because we get things off our chest, but because we ascend into the supersensible world, bring parts of it down, and make them audible. If in so doing we accidentally express ourselves, well, it's hard to avoid.

April 7, 2008 11:50 AM | | Comments (7) |
We need hardly say that from the traditional point of view there could hardly be found a stronger condemnation of the present social order than in the fact that the man at work is no longer doing what he likes best, but rather what he must, and in the general belief that a man can only be really happy when he "gets away" and is at play. For even if we mean by "happy" to enjoy the "higher things of life," it is a cruel error to pretend that this can be done at leisure if it has not been done at work. For "the man devoted to his own vocation finds perfection... That man whose prayer and praise of God are in the doing of his own work perfects himself." [Bhagavad Gita] It is this way of life that our civilization denies to the vast majority of men, and in this respect that it is notably inferior to even the most primitive or savage societies with which it can be contrasted.

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, p. 26 

(ellipsis in the original)

April 7, 2008 8:24 AM | | Comments (0) |
I haven't been blogging as much lately. Frankly, the blog has become less fun. The reason is the comments. The nature of them has altered over the last several months, and I feel like a habit is forming to try to tear down everything I say.

Let me explain before you react. I realize that I have very unconventional ideas about music, and that a lot of conventional musicians who believe what they were told in grad school get angered by my ideas. I've always believed that the people made angry by the things I say deserve to be made angry, that their protests were evidence that I'm hitting a nerve, and I relish going at them again and again. This isn't about that. This is about, I mention that I enjoy Emerson, and someone writes in to tell me Emerson was a lousy writer. This is about, I mention something in passing, and that something Must Be Brought Down. If I mention an author I like he must not be very good, if I publish a transcription it must be inaccurate, if I refer to a piece of music that's meant a lot to me it must be inferior, if I refer to a theory from another discipline it must be bogus, if I apply a term to music I've spent my life studying it must be misapplied, if I bring up a hypothesis it can't be something I've been thinking about for decades based on continual experience, it must have a simple flaw in it I'm teasing you to catch. This is about being unable to say anything so innocuous that someone doesn't write in to disagree. The comments aren't adversarial or disrespectful. On the contrary, it's almost flattering, like Postclassic has become a popular game show. Each entry is the ten pins I set up every few days, and once the item pops up on the RSS feed, all of new-music country moblizes to see how many they can knock down. But if the question is "I've always liked Jane Austen," the answer "Jane Austen was an overrated writer" doesn't knock down as many pins as you think. 

I've deleted a record number of comments lately, most of them on the basis of a principle I've stated here before: I will not allow people I admire to be denigrated simply because I gave an example of their work on my blog. The example is necessarily out of context, the author has no control over the presentation, and I will not place the reputation of friends or strangers in a gratuitously vulnerable position. On the other hand, some comments attack peripheral points or issues that have nothing to do with new music. I am happy to debate the merits of so-called "irrational" meters, the definition of postminimalism, pop music's influence on new music - where better than here, and in some cases, where else than here? But this is not the forum in which to decide whether Emerson was, in fact, a writer whose reputation deserves to survive. Certain musical matters might well be revolutionized in these pages, but the world will little note nor long remember what we say here about long-dead essayists. 

What perplexes me most, I guess, is the willing and gratuitous disparagement of my lifelong enthusiasms. If I admit here that a certain author (or book, or body of music, and so on) has been crucial to my intellectual development, has helped make me the arist I am today, what could you possibly gain by writing in and informing me that my affections have been grievously misplaced? Do you imagine a comment from you will change my mind about a lifelong passion, or achieve anything besides making me consider you a scoundrel? If you want to insult me, why not do so outright? Why beat around the bush? I visit a lot of music blogs, and I see a lot of writers express boundless enthusiasm for artists and subjects I care nothing about, and it would never occur to me to barge in and leave a comment to the effect that their favorite composer was a talentless fraud. Authoritarian statements and presumptious mandates piss me off, and I have a certain reputation for being overly brusque in replying to them, but I have never believed in spitting on enthusiasm. In my Village Voice days, if I seemed to be the only audience member not enjoying a concert, I simply wouldn't write about it. I had no impulse to rain on everyone's parade. I am grateful for enthusiasm whencesoever someone derives it, no matter how little I could be inspired by the same source. 

And then, while writing blog entries is somewhat too self-indulgently fun, responding to lengthy negative or quibbling comments is a laborious chore. Of course I could just print the comments and let the reader sort it out, but too often that amounts to ceding the field to the commenter, who may have cherry-picked examples to quasi-triumphantly disprove the general principle on which my entire entry was based. And so I'm left with the discouraging choice between deleting the comment (which often these days comes from a valued frequent correspondent), dropping my other work to write a point-by-point rebuttal, or writing the person privately to explain why I'm not publishing it, by which time I might as well have chosen option number 2. I've actually given a lot of thought in recent months to simply turning off the comment button in hopes of making blogging more fun again. Some of my favorite bloggers, like Alex Ross and (until very recently) Jan Herman, don't allow comments, and no one has seemed to think the worse of them. But I really do value the comments part of this site, which more than half the time is funny, entertaining, insightful, and informative. 

We haven't figured out how this internet behavior thing works yet, and we're all still learning. I don't notice the same problem on other blogs I visit, and it does seem to me that the tone of comments on this blog has taken a truculent turn in the last, oh, eight months or so. I ask those commenting to back off a little and ask themselves why they're commenting. When I enjoy something you don't, what do you hope to acomplish by letting me know? Don't such subjective preferences more rightly belong on your own blog? If your blog isn't well known or you don't have one, are you trying to take advantage of a larger audience here? The web's combination of newness and egalitarianism makes it look like all of us who write here are eager 25-year-old grad students, but in fact I'm 52 with white hair and a D.Mus., have published three books, possess a CD collection that covers three walls, and am a tenured professor at a slightly well-reputed liberal arts school. For almost any statement I make about music I have more mountains of evidence than I could possibly adduce in the constrained format of a blog. I am sometimes wrong; I may even be slightly insane. But either you concede that my cockeyed opinions carry a certain inherent weight, or I can't imagine why you would bother reading them, let alone responding. In any case, they are not the daydreaming hypotheses of a novice, as the level format of the internet seems to lead everyone to assume, nor am I wet enough behind the ears that your advice is likely to lead me out of the path of error. It has often occurred to me that I was too old to go onto the internet, which still seems like a young person's medium, but it's one I found congenial to my skills and personal habits. 

I really do enjoy an energetic back-and-forth discussion of musical minutiae: the recent controversy about meters like 4/3 and 7/5, which spilled over onto Darcy James Argue's blog, was right up my alley. It saddens me that I've been losing enthusiasm for the blog. I still have impulses to write a blog entry almost every day, but now instead of yielding I stop and think what objections are likely to arise, what argumentative e-mails I'll be called on to answer, what further time commitment I'm courting - and more often than not I take a breath and let the impulse go by. I don't take any of it personally, I think it's a general aspect of blogging that we haven't collectively learned how to deal with yet. I repeat that I neither perceive nor return any animosity from my correspondents. On the contrary, it's like I'm Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and everyone wants to challenge me to a knife fight. But as Mark Twain quoted the guy who was being run out of town on a rail, "If it weren't for the honor I'd just as soon walk."

And if you don't like Mark Twain, I don't need to know about it.

April 6, 2008 11:02 AM | | Comments (15) |
Montréal's Voir magazine features an interview with me in French in advance of the premiere of my electric guitar quartet tomorrow night. It's by Réjean Beacage, described by local composer/entrepreneur Tim Brady as "the last important new-music critic left standing in Montréal." I can read French except for the verbs, so the description of me looks accurate, but I can't tell what he says I'm doing. The photo is more than a decade old. The interview got off to a funnier start than he seemed to expect. He asked me if it was a difficult job being an advocate for new American music, and I replied, "Well, in a way it's easy, because there's damn little competition."  

I love the French word for composer, compositeur, because when you run it through a translation program it comes out "typesetter," compositor. I've perused many a web bio with statements like, "Guillaume Connesson is typesetter-in-residence for the National Orchestra of the Loire."

April 3, 2008 3:51 PM | | Comments (2) |

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