main: May 2009 Archives my middle name. Lucky I have a glacial attention span. After 15 years of working intermittently with the Relache ensemble, I finally got to hear the rest of my Planets last night, and I'm so happy with them. I'm posting mp3s for all the movements, at least until the recording comes out in the fall. There are a few patches from rehearsal takes due to note flubs and one violent stream of audience coughing:


The whole piece lasts 70 minutes and change. I recommend reading the program notes to understand how the process of each movement depicts the astrological force involved. The 35 MB score, if you're that interested, is here.

I'm tremendously grateful to the Relache ensemble for keeping faith in the project for as long as I did. Four of them - oboist Lloyd Shorter, bassist Douglas Mapp, bassoonist Chuck Holdeman, and keyboardist John Dulik - were in the original ensemble I worked with in Seattle back in 1994, and it's been fun every few years to pick up where we left off as though no time had passed. None of them seem to age, though I certainly have. The newer members are flutist Michele Kelly, violist Sarah Sutton, percussionist Chris Hanning, and saxist Bob Butryn, all dynamite players and a pleasure to work with. I must also say, though I shouldn't, that I'm pleased and relieved at the consistency of quality and style of movements written from 1994 to 2008; from the beginning I had a pretty firm idea how each movement would go, and I never swerved from my original conception (see long attention span, above). Aside from the two completed chamber operas of my Hudson River Trilogy (one of which hasn't yet been performed), it's my longest work to date. It's difficult to get a ten-movement work performed. I guess they don't do Turangalila very often, either.

May 29, 2009 6:23 PM | | Comments (4) |
ashley2.jpgIt's official: my next book will be on the life and works of Robert Ashley, one of my favorite composers, and one of my favorite people on the planet. It's for the University of Illinois Press's series on American composers, the first two of which are excellent books on John Cage (by David Nicholls) and Lou Harrison (by Leta Miller). I've gotten sucked into the short-book industry. I'm still grinding away on that Music After Minimalism book, which is a huge project and keeps changing shape, but it has seemed professionally expedient for me to get a few books out quickly, so I'm reluctantly letting myself get sidetracked. But what an inviting sidetrack: every time I hang out with Bob Ashley (which I've been doing since 1979) I get a buzz off of his laidback enthusiasm. Great man, great composer, vastly misunderstood, so I'll get to add a lot more new information to the world than I did in John Cage's 4'33" (coming out in the fall).

May 27, 2009 4:39 PM | | Comments (3) |
Chicago critic Marc Geelhoed nicely noted my upcoming return to Chicago, and in so doing, noted that some eleven of my articles for the Chicago Reader, starting from 1987, are available online. I had no idea. In fact, I'd forgotten that I continued writing for the Reader so long after I joined the Village Voice, up through spring 1989 - just three months before I left Chicago for good. I've linked the available articles from my web site (scroll down a little, the titles are in green) - interviews with Harold Budd, Peter Gena, Elodie Lauten, Nicolas Collins, Henry Gwiazda, Neil Rolnick, and others. Not of much interest to others after 20-odd years, but the Reader always makes me sentimental. In some ways I always thought it was the best organization I ever worked for, and my editor there, Pat Clinton, was a saint. 

May 27, 2009 4:25 PM | | Comments (1) |
A student, preparing for her senior recital, asked me how to write program notes, and I knew just what to tell her. I'll pass on my recipe. You need three kinds of sources. First, copy (assuming you can computer-access it) the entire article on the composer from Grove Online, just so you have the accepted skeletal facts in front of you and won't go astray. Next, assuming the composer is moldy enough, check out books of two kinds: an old-fashioned biography, pre-WWII if possible, of the conventional myth-making variety, and then a more recent revisionist book of articles by musicologists, such as the Cambridge guides, or Bard's "So-and-so and His World" series. Then you find the date of composition of the work in question, and look through the old-fashioned biography for some colorful event in the composer's life immediately preceding, if possible, or at least proximate to the piece's creation - say, Saint-Saens's baby falling out of a window, or Brahms jilting that woman he was supposed to marry. Naturally, you lead with that event, not, "Cherubini lived from 1760 to 1842," or "Giuseppi Verdi was the towering figure of 19th-century Italian opera" - both deadly. If the biographical event has some actual connection to the work, all the better, but if not, proximity will do. You then play up the contemporaneous events found in the myth-making biography, but contrast them with some point of revisionism from the recent musicology book, so that you can get credit both for indulging the reader's need for heroism and romantic detail, and also for showing that you're not taken in by the démodé illusions of conventional hagiography. For instance, you mention the famous story of Alkan's being crushed by a bookshelf, before letting the reader know it never happened. 

Here's the opening of my program note for Cincinnati's Nutcracker Suite. I hate the f-ing piece, and the thought of it turning millions of children against classical music forever turns my stomach, but I found in it a connection to things I actually give a damn about:

There's a story from Tchaikovsky's last years so good that you'd think it's apocryphal, but it appeared in a 1912 Moscow newspaper, and none of the principals involved ever contradicted it. In December of 1890, Tchaikovsky's opera The Queen of Spades was premiered. He felt it was his greatest work, but he interpreted the audience reaction as cold, and, after the performance, wandered the streets of Petersburg despondently. Suddenly he heard music from his opera in the street, the first-act duet between Liza and Polina. He investigated, and found three students, who indeed had acquired a piano score before the performance and attended it, and were now enthusiastically singing through their favorite parts. Their names were Sergei Diaghilev, Alexandre Benois, and Dimitrii Filosofev, and they would become friends of Tchaikovsky for the brief remainder of his life.

Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), of course, was to become a great choreographer and impresario, a supreme figure in the world of ballet. Alexandre Benois (1870-1960) became a painter, graphic designer, and theater designer. All three men were associated with a movement to become known as Mir Iskusstva (The World of Art), which would start its own magazine in 1899 and usher in a new, 20th-century sensibility in Russian art.

What does this have to do with The Nutcracker, that simple staple of Christmas celebrations? According to Russian cultural historian Arkadii Klimovitsky, The Nutcracker (which Tchaikovsky wrote a year later in 1891/92), was the first "opera of miniatures," and its evocation of puppetry, its underlying dark symbolism, its mixture of humans and toys, and even its imitations of 18th-century music were all inspirations behind the aesthetic of Mir Iskusstva. Without The Nutcracker, it is unlikely that Diaghilev, Benois, the dancer Nijinsky, and the composer Igor Stravinsky would have gone on to create the puppet-show ballet Petrushka, one of the seminal ballets of the modern world. Now that we in the West have more open access to Russian scholarship, Tchaikovsky appears to have more direct ties to the formation of 20th-century aesthetics than his reputation as one of the 19th century's great sentimentalists would have suggested.

Tchaikovsky's reputation has changed in other ways, too. In 1891, the same year Tchaikovsky made a tour of America, a Carnegie Hall program presented Brahms, Saint-Saens, and Tchaikovsky as the three greatest living composers. By the end of the century, rumors of Tchaikovsky's homosexuality began to circulate outside Russia, and he came to be thought of in the English-speaking world as a dark, tortured individual, one who may possibly have even committed suicide to avoid scandal and exposure. Recent attention to Tchaikovsky's letters and diaries, however, shows that while he was certainly a deeply sensitive individual, uncomfortable in all but fairly intimate social situations, his sexual orientation was not nearly the burden on him that inheritance of a Victorian moral outlook would lead one to assume.

While homosexual acts were officially illegal in 19th-century Russia, the laws were virtually never enforced, and potential scandals even among the highest nobility were simply overlooked. In 1876, however, at the age of 36, Tchaikovsky decided that his sexual decadence was a bad influence on his likewise homosexual brother Modest, and he decided to marry. Conveniently, he started receiving love letters for a former student, Antonina Miliukova, and after some courtship, they were married on July 6, 1877. The composer quickly realized that he had made a terrible mistake, and that his sexual preference was not something he could change at will. After 21 days, the marriage still unconsummated, he traveled to see his sister, and when he came home in September, he stayed only 12 more days before leaving Antonina forever. (It might correctly be inferred that Antonina had a couple of screws loose, and she indeed ended her life in a mental institution.)....

Of course, I go on to Tchaikovsky's mysterious patroness Nadezhda von Meck, and the guy died soon enough after Nutcracker that I could end by throwing in the allegation about him committing suicide by drinking cholera-contaminated water - before telling the reader that it never happened. 

Another effective ploy is to throw in some criticisms of the composer, contemporaneous or current. This has the double effect of making it seem that the composer labored heroically against a lack of appreciation, as all of us do, and also takes classical music down off its pompous pedestal and makes it seem OK to criticize it. The reader can then sympathize with the composer, and is primed to find the music not as bad as people say. For instance, here's what I had fun writing about Saint-Saens, a composer I heartily loathe:

The life of Camille Saint-Saëns spans ancient and modern France. [Disappointingly conventional start, but it's a setup.] At the age of 12 he played for the "Citizen King" Louis Philippe, yet he lived to write a cantata about electricity, the first film music by an established composer, and music in praise of the aviators of World War I. Liszt pronounced him the world's greatest organist, and he astonished Wagner and Hans von Bulow by his ability to sight-read the orchestral scores of Tannhauser and Lohengrin at the piano. Thanks in part to their influence, in youth he was more famous in Germany than in France - his opera Samson et Dalila, widely considered his greatest work, was produced in 1877 in Weimar, and not performed in France until 13 years later. In old age, England and America considered him France's greatest composer long after his reputation had begun to fade in his own country. 

In short, Saint-Saëns stands astride French music like a colossus, but a frail one, and everyone seems to find fault with him. He was a child prodigy who composed at six and played Mozart and Beethoven with an orchestra at ten, leading the older French musical giant Hector Berlioz to remark, "He knows everything but lacks inexperience." Unlike most Romantics - Schumann, Chopin, Wagner, Liszt - Saint-Saëns wrote best in the sturdy classical forms of sonata, symphony, and concerto, yet George Bernard Shaw dismissed his music as "graceful knick-knacks and barcarolles" (the barcarolle being a piece that imitates the songs of gondola drivers). The advent of the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel made Saint-Saëns seem like a dinosaur at the end of his life, and he railed against Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune: "I'd soon lose my voice, if I went round witlessly bawling like a faun celebrating his afternoon." Ravel returned the compliment: "If [Saint-Saëns] had been making shell-cases during the war, it might have been better for music."

Perhaps Saint-Saëns' difficulty in playing nice with others is responsible for the steep decline in his posthumous reputation. It's difficult to decide even how French he seems: extremely so in languorous melodies like "The Swan" and his fairy-like schrezo textures, the least so in his devotion to sonata form and full-bodied contrapuntal textures. (Gounod dubbed him "the French Beethoven.") He did fit, however, into a long and illustrious tradition of French organist-composers, most recently embodied in the late Olivier Messiaen.... 

And so on. Of course, if the composer is living, it's more difficult, because the only good biographical incidents are either dirty or humiliating, and no living composer will admit to them; in fact, few composers' lives today seem to have much of the really disgusting stuff that makes for good program notes. For Jennifer Higdon I once had to content myself with the fact that she once caught 41 fish in an afternoon's fishing. But I do often get compliments for writing livelier and more absorbing program notes than average, and the tricks I use are easily appropriated. It's a good thing for a young musician to know how to do. Too bad the thought of writing books about conventional repertoire bores me to tears.

May 27, 2009 5:04 AM | | Comments (4) |
Big rehearsal for The Planets today. "Mercury": lightning fast, ripping atonal scales, constant meter changes from 3/4 to 15/16 to 11/16, different tempos at the same time like 8-against-9 - went great, sounded perfectly secure. "Saturn": slow, plodding pulse, rhythms in quarter- and 8th-notes - had a hell of a time pulling it together. I remember this from my early days as a competent pianist: difficult music is a lot easier to play than easy music. Scriabin's fiery D#-minor Etude, with its relentless triplets and huge leaps, used to just fall under my fingers, while the Lento final movement of the Copland Sonata was a minefield of wrong notes. Why is that? Is it just because we practice hard music 20 times as much as easy music, or is it psychological, or what? Too much time to think in-between the notes?

It's like, someone recently wrote a book about traffic (titled Traffic, I think), and a review quoted the fact that there are fewer accidents at roundabouts than there are at regular intersections: because we all think roundabouts are dangerous, so everyone drives extra carefully. If you want to make people drive safely, you make driving conditions visibly unsafe. If you want music played well, make it horrendously difficult. Whatever effect you want to achieve, aim for the opposite. Reminds me of that Seinfeld episode in which one character decides to do the opposite of his usual impulse at every step, and everything starts to work perfectly for him.

Another rehearsal-inspired thought: you can write a piece in notation software and the MIDI version sounds like crap, making you doubt your sanity; then the performers play it and it sounds just like you imagined, even more glorious. I'm used to this because for the first half of my career I wrote in pencil and had to hear all the music in my head. But today's young composers who work in Sibelius from the beginning: how will they ever learn to trust their inner ears?

May 26, 2009 6:17 PM | | Comments (11) |
I'll be on the road and in the air all week, first Philadelphia and then Chicago. Thursday night, as the above poster indicates, will be the culmination of a 15-year dream - though the official premiere of all ten movements won't come until September. The Planetarium has arranged some awesome-sounding outer-space video to accompany my pieces. Sarah Cahill nudges me that I missed mentioning two recent performances: on May 8 she played my War Is Just a Racket again among the works in her "A Sweeter Music" project on the Wayward Music Series at the Chapel Performance Space in Seattle; and Aron Kallay played some of my microtonal keyboard works at the May 10 Microfest at Pomona College. Even though after the fact, I list them here because, as I've said before, when I come to redo my resumé this is the easiest place for me to keep track of my goings-on. Late April and early May are so hectic at Bard, with lots of 14-hour school days, student concerts, student boards, and student crises, that the rest of the world usually slips out of my grasp for awhile. It's great to have it all over. Sitting on my porch in the world's most beautiful weather, I lurched back into composing almost without realizing it.

May 25, 2009 12:20 PM | | Comments (3) |
I'm not one of the composers who's allowed to write for orchestra much, so I don't teach orchestration. But I do have my own little orchestrational experimentation sandbox, which is that my composition students write orchestra pieces that get played when they graduate. So for a year they double clarinets with oboes, and voice brass chords with the horn on top, and ask me what I think, and I mumble things like, "I dunno," "Looks good to me," "Yeah, that might work." And you know what? Almost everything works. I heard two of my students' pieces last night, and all the things we'd agonized over worked just fine. We were afraid the violins wouldn't be heard above the brass chords: well, they weren't at first, and the conductor just told the violins to play louder. One student, god bless 'im, had a long quotation in the winds and brass of "The Internationale" - a tribute to his deceased Communist father - doubled and tripled in 15 different combinations. Some were smooth, some were rougher, but the rough ones had their charm, and everything was clear and audible. He went through and revised some dynamics after hearing the rehearsal, which is the kind of thing Mahler did after hearing his symphonies, too. You need some common sense, and experience of instruments. I know better than to rely on high flute notes pianissimo, and that trumpets are louder than horns, and that the contrabass's lowest notes can sound flabby. I check the voicing of brass and wind chords to make sure they're well spaced. I'm sure there's a level of really exquisite orchestration one can develop with enough experience; but to orchestrate adequately is just not rocket science. I'm convinced that most of what critics praise as "superb orchestration" in new music is merely the colorful use of obscure instruments in music that has nothing more substantive to comment on. And I resent that composers get turned down for grants and commissions from lack of orchestral experience, because it's just not that big a jump from chamber ensemble to orchestra. If orchestration was some arcane technique that required loads of special training, then over all these years my students would have fallen into numerous traps and had disasters. It hasn't happened. 

(Years ago when I had an piece played by a sub-professional orchestra, I showed the score first to a famous orchestral composer and asked for advice. This esteemed personage suggested three changes - two of which didn't work out in rehearsal, and I had to retract them.)

The problem of writing orchestra music is the same as writing any other kind of music: fashioning a continuity in which the ideas make themselves clear, take time to breathe, and lead from one to another with a plausible logic, resulting by the end in a meaningful and satisfying large-scale shape. Errors in these areas get writ large in an orchestral format, but the orchestra also provides lots of colorful toys to compensate and distract with. Places where the orchestration seems awkward are almost always places where the musical idea wasn't well thought through, and wouldn't have worked any better in a string trio. Writing orchestra music requires a ton of work in checking parts, deciding whether to go solo or "a 2," and so on, but the common idea that only those in some upper echelon with special experience should be trusted with an orchestra is ridiculous.

May 23, 2009 1:31 PM | | Comments (10) |
The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago has an ongoing art exhibition called "Several Silences," and they invited me to lecture in connection with it Sunday, May 31, at 2:00. Here's their description of the exhibition:

Titled after an essay by the late philosopher and literary theoretician Jean-Francois Lyotard, Several Silences is a group exhibition exploring various kinds of silence. As a discourse, the aesthetic of silence has been thoroughly domesticated within the visual arts. Although silence as a discourse in art arose out of conditions calling for the negation of art, it has subsequently become familiar subject matter no longer operating as the avant-garde ideal it once was. This is not to say silence has lost significance. If anything, it has become a more potent antidote to a culture of distraction. Silence, however, is not the absence of communication. It is dialectically opposed to communication, so that one sustains and supports the other. Inextricably bound to communication, which it tacitly evokes, silence itself is a form of communication with many meanings. There are voluntary and involuntary silences--some comfortable, others not. There is Cage's silence, which calls for the distinction between clinical and ambient silences. There is silence as conscious omission or redaction. And then there is memorial silence.

I'll be speaking, surprise surprise, about Cage's 4'33": mostly excerpts from my upcoming book, though with a little more latitude for opinion, theorizing, and anecdote. 

After 12 years of living in Chicago, and six of writing there, I left in 1989, and I've only been back once, for a friend's wedding. I can't wait to have some authentic deep-dish pizza, which left me with a permanently jaundiced view of all other pizza in the world. Of course, the University of Chicago, down in Hyde Park, was "the other Chicago," not the one I lived and worked and misspent my student years in, though as a young critic I did orbit around Ralph Shapey down there periodically. Musically, we used to refer to the U. of C. world as "Uptown," even though it was down south, back when people used such words. It'll be a trip to go back.

May 22, 2009 2:04 PM | | Comments (2) |
I'm not initiated into the MySpace phenomenon, and have no MySpace page nor any wish to have one. But it has finally dawned on me that my son's "black metal" band Liturgy has one. They have a CD coming out this fall - with accompanying vinyl 12-inch - on the label 20 Buck Spin, which is apparently a big deal in black metal terms. (Larger or smaller than "new-music" terms? I wonder.) If you watch the video at the bottom of their page, Bernard is the guitarist in the white shirt. I think maybe I shouldn't have played those Borbetomagus records for him when he was 3.

UPDATE: I call Liturgy "my son's band," but I ought to note that the band was founded solo by his long-time friend Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, and Bernard just joined this year. The drummer, Greg Fox, was a Bard student as well; I served on his impressive senior board. Brooklyn boasts enough recent Bard graduates to people a small city.

May 20, 2009 10:23 AM | | Comments (8) |
"When I hear gentlemen say that politics ought to let business alone, I feel like inviting them to first consider whether business is letting politics alone."
- Woodrow Wilson

May 19, 2009 8:31 AM | | Comments (2) |
A composition student of mine, mature and centered beyond his years, wrote a song cycle this semester. He wrote all the voice lines first. When it came to write the accompaniments, we threw around a lot of ideas. His ultimate choices were the simplest ones possible: arpeggiated triads in one case, changing drones in another. I had two impulses. One was a sense of disappointment, that I hadn't been able to get him to try something a little more complicated and "artistic." The other was that his solution was effective, that it would be immediately grasped and allow the emotionality of the vocal line to come through. In performance, my second impulse proved right: the songs sucked the audience in with their nakedness and vulnerability, their reception exhibiting none of the distanced listening that other, more clever and complicated pieces elicited. I admired his courage for selecting ideas that would foreground the depth of the poems, not the impressiveness of his compositional bag of tricks. 

I wonder if this is what Feldman meant in saying, "For music to succeed, the composer must fail."

May 18, 2009 7:11 PM | | Comments (8) |
Two recording projects I was excited about got delayed for a year for economic reasons (and this was before the crash), but they're now back on track. 

First, on Thursday, May 28, at 7 PM, the Relache ensemble will give a partial performance of my The Planets at Fels Auditorium in Philadelphia (222 N. 20th St., 215-448-1254). They'll play the six planets we hadn't recorded yet: Uranus, Mercury, Moon, Venus, Saturn, Pluto. It's in conjunction - to use the astrological term - with the Planetarium's exhibit, "Galileo, the Medici, and the Age of Astronomy." Yes, the Planetarium knows my piece is about astrology, and they don't care. Then in June we'll finish recording all ten movements (not nine as per the press release), and the CD will appear on the Meyer Media label in time for the complete world premiere in September. 

Just as exciting, the Orkest de Volharding has recorded Sunken City, my concerto for piano and winds, for an upcoming two-CD set on Mode, with soloist Geoffrey Douglas Madge. (I keep running into Americans who haven't heard of Madge, but he recorded the complete Busoni piano music, 6 discs's worth, for Philips, and played Sorabji's five-hour Opus Clavicembalisticum back when no one'd ever heard of it. He's a very big deal in Europe and among record collectors here, and a lovely gentleman.) Other pieces on this two-CD set supposedly will include In C, Steve Reich's City Life, John Adams's Short Ride in a Fast Machine, David Lang's Street, and Louis Andriessen's Worker's Union. I'll keep you apprised of the release date. 

That'll be another 100 minutes' worth of my music sent out into the world. Based on my experience of previous CD releases, I'm all poised for my life to continue pretty much as it did before. But very grateful to the performers.

May 16, 2009 9:10 PM | | Comments (3) |
I taught Mahler today in my 19th-century harmony class. I never teach Mahler without teaching Hans Rott. Rott (1858-1884) was a fellow student of Mahler's at Vienna Conservatory, and for a time Mahler's roommate. Rott went mad and died at the age of 25, after completing a symphony that sounds remarkably like Mahler. Rott wrote his symphony in 1878-1880; Mahler's First Symphony dates from 1884-1888. If you heard the scherzo of Rott's symphony without identification, you would swear it was some unknown Mahler work: it is identical in style, orchestration, and melody to the scherzos of Mahler's First and Third Symphonies. The long introduction to Rott's final movement has much in common with the finale of Mahler's Second. Mahler inherited the manuscript of Rott's symphony after his friend died. Mahler later called Rott 

a musician of genius ... who died unrecognized and in want on the very threshold of his career. ... It is completely impossible to estimate what music has lost in him. His First Symphony soars to such heights of genius that it makes him - without exaggeration - the founder of the New Symphony as I understand it. To be sure, what he wanted is not quite what he achieved. ... But I know where he aims. Indeed, he is so near to my inmost self that he and I seem to me like two fruits from the same tree which the same soil has produced and the same air nourished. He could have meant infinitely much to me and perhaps the two of us would have well-nigh exhausted the content of new time which was breaking out for music.

This is the great classical music movie waiting to be made. Two friends, Hans and Gustav (surely Hans and Gustav will be the name of the movie), enter Vienna Conservatory together. One is brilliant but insecure, the other ruthlessly ambitious. Both are obsessed with finding some fusion of the styles of Wagner and Brahms, thus bringing one of the great feuds in the history of music to a felicitous close. One of the friends writes a wonderful symphony, nearly achieving their common aim. It is attacked and dismissed by the conservative Conservatory faculty; only the socially inept Anton Bruckner (played by John Malkovich) expresses sympathy for it. The friend takes his work to the great Johannes Brahms (played by a bearded Jason Robards if he were still alive), who tells him it is worthless, and that he should give up composing. The friend goes mad, becoming totally paranoid, convinced that Brahms is trying to kill him by dynamiting a train he rides on. The friend dies in an asylum, still composing but destroying his sketches, convinced they are no good. Mahler keeps the manuscript, studies it, and starts composing the symphonies his college friend didn't live to write. From the marvelous insights of his tragic friend he guiltily creates an incredible new universe of music. It could be the great classical-music movie of all time, rivaled only by Farinelli, the wonderful Gerard Corbiau film about the 18th-century castrato with Handel as its deliciously Machiavellian villain. 

May 13, 2009 8:52 PM | | Comments (8) |
From a student's music-history senior project about Japanese Noise artist Yamataka Eye comes what is surely one of the most magnificent understatements in the literature: 

By destroying a club with a bulldozer, Eye, in a very direct way, called into question the way music is consumed by the public.

May 12, 2009 2:03 PM | | Comments (0) |
The young Dutch composer Renske Vrolijk (young relative to me, anyway) is in New York this week, and she's making an appearance at Bard College this Thursday. She's the composer of the delightful cantata based on the wreck of the Hindenburg, titled Charlie, Charlie, which I wrote about from Amsterdam a couple of years ago. She'll play her music and show video examples at 4 PM in the Blum music building at Bard, room 217. She's a fabulous composer, somewhat at odds with the ironic, Stravinskian idiom that all Dutch composers are expected to write in, and I hope she'll tell the story about the time John Adams admitted that he stole an idea from a piece of hers. 

May 4, 2009 10:07 PM | | Comments (1) |
Despite it being the busiest part of my school year and busier than usual, I have taken advantage of odd moments to complete my transcription of Harold Budd's 1982 piano solo Children on the Hill. A friend asks if I couldn't persuade Harold to transcribe his own damn solo, but that's beside the point: there is nothing, I think, more educational than transcribing or arranging a work of art you particularly admire. I could never have internalized the piece so deeply from playing through another person's transcription. And I do a lot of such work for no practical benefit beyond the enlargement of my own musicality. I have a full, playable piano transcription of Ives's Third Symphony that I wrote several years ago and presumably can do nothing with, because of copyright issues; and also partial piano arrangements of Harris's Third Symphony and Sibelius's Fourth, works whose inner logic I wanted to imbibe in full. Mozart learned to compose by copying out the works of others and turning sonatas by lesser composers into his own early concertos. I don't know a more efficient way to become a composer.

My success in getting a good 98 percent of Harold's notes on paper, I flatter myself, has emboldened me to start similar projects with other composers. People forget how much early minimalist and postminimalist music was improvisatory: besides Budd, Elodie Lauten, "Blue" Gene Tyranny, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Curran, among others. Back in the 1980s I was criticized by New York musicians for being allegedly anti-improvisation. Actually my views on free improvisation (I'm not talking about jazz or rule-based Indian-type improvisation, which are entirely different matters to which no general objection is conceivable) were pretty nuanced and targeted case-by-case. It seemed to me at the time - and free improv was almost all you could hear in New York City in the '80s - that many of the improvisers did a lovely job when playing solo, but that the group improvs often fell into the most patent clichés unless some structure was agreed upon beforehand. There were exceptions like the fearless AMM group, who seemed to truly stay in the moment with no preconceptions, thinking and feeling with an egoless and unsentimental independence. But in general I quickly tired of the inevitable group climaxes 3/4 of the way through, and every piece ending with a long trail-off, each performer trying to be the one to add the last little flourish. What I especially objected to was a collective philosophy which excused all improvisation, however poor or unsuccessful, on the grounds that it was "risk-taking," and therefore should never be criticized. But if criticism was disallowed, then the risks, it seemed to me, were only assumed by the audience, and not by the performers, whose philosophy gave them an automatic safety net. And, lacking self-criticism, they had neither the means nor the incentive to improve as improvisers, to benefit from what did and didn't work and use the knowledge to push their art to a new level.

And now that I'm involved in a big project to preserve minimalist improvisation for posterity, a composer writes to tell me I'm wasting my time, that improvisation can't and shouldn't be preserved, that if Sarah Cahill (the pianist who'll be playing the Budd) can't improvise herself, I should just get a pianist who can. You truly can't win: if I criticize improvisation I'm bigoted, and if I analyze and try to immortalize it, I'm wasting my time. But actually this is the same attitude I encountered in the '80s: someone who doesn't want to analyze improvised music and learn from it how to improvise even better, but who thinks improvisation is somehow sacrosanct and should only be experienced in the moment and then forgotten. It is not through such willful ignorance that jazz produced a Miles Davis, a John Coltrane. I'm proud of what I've learned from living inside Budd's recorded notes for so many months, and eager to let it bear fruit in my own music. And to refrain from sharing what I've learned with other listeners, audiences, and composers would seem absolutely churlish.

UPDATE: Harold responded with a nice note after I sent him the score, and added, "I couldn't play that in a thousand years!"

May 3, 2009 12:58 PM | | Comments (3) |
Here's a query that came up with a student the other day. Decades ago, in the early '80s, my wife and I attended the wedding in Chicago of a couple of Hispanic friends. The reception was marked by the most amazing music played by a huge mariachi band: over half a dozen brass players, multiple guitars, wild percussion. It was hot, rhythmically intricate stuff whose meters were difficult to parse, and whose melodies took several repetitions to pin down. Le Sacre's complexity paled before it. If it wasn't in meters like 13/8 or 17/16, I couldn't have proved it myself. The counterpoint had more voices than I could count. I was spellbound. I had never heard anything like it.

And I haven't since. I've bought various recordings of mariachi music, and never found anything particularly more challenging than "Cielito Lindo." I've consulted experts, I've taken recommendations, and I can't find any recorded mariachi music remotely as difficult or sophisticated as I heard at that wedding. Some of it's rhythmically lively, of course, but none of it had that level of metrical complexity. Does anyone know where such mariachi music can be found? And why the recorded examples seem so ridiculously watered down? Did I stumble across the one Mexican group whose musicians had all studied with Nancarrow?

May 2, 2009 5:47 PM | | Comments (9) |
My review of American Muse, Joseph Polisi's biography of William Schuman, is just out (after some delays) in Symphony magazine. The book is a solid and detailed summary of Schuman's life as administrator of Juilliard and Lincoln Center, but I found it a little lacking in appreciation of, and insight into, Schuman's career as a brilliant symphonist. A couple of week ago I noticed Lincoln Center had posters up advertising the book, so I'm glad he and it are getting some attention. Polisi, of course, is president of Juilliard and holds the post Schuman long occupied. We still, I think, need a book on Schuman by a composer, or at least by someone who relishes the music as much as I do, but Polisi's is well worth reading.

May 2, 2009 5:40 PM | | Comments (1) |

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About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
On the Record
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
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