main: July 2009 Archives

If nature is not enthusiastic about explanation, why should Tschaikowsky be?
- Ives, Essays Before a Sonata

I suppose I shouldn't be so enthusiastic about explanation. It's a reaction to frustrations of my youth, in which there was so much information I couldn't get access to: all those years of knowing the names La Monte Young and Charlemagne Palestine, and not being able to hear their music, all those hints of how Le marteau was written in Boulez's On Music Today, but the final key withheld. Composers like Boulez build up a mystique by keeping their methods secret, and I suppose it's a smart strategy, but I swore early on I would never do it, even to my own detriment. I may only be flattering myself in so imagining, but there might be a young composer out there curious to figure out how I did what I did in my new piece Solitaire, and I'd rather empower him or her to do something similar than pose as some unapproachable magus.

Solitaire (14:05 in duration) is a piece in which I extremely limited my materials, and vowed not to deviate beyond what happens in the first few measures. My sonic idea was a continuum between perfectly familiar chord progressions and perfectly strange ones. So I started with ii, IV, V, and vi chords in the key of E-flat. (I never use the tonic chord, of course.) I added a major seventh chord on flat III, because it filled out the scale nicely. The other chords are seventh or ninth chords on the 7th, 11th, and 13th harmonics and the 7th subharmonic. For maximum short-circuiting of aural understanding, I mostly go back and forth between the Roman-numeral chords and those based on harmonics, but I occasionally relax into a normal IV-V-vi progression which, I hope, takes the ear as much by surprise as a bizarre outburst would in a more conventional piece. The 29-note scale, for people who can read musical ratios, is as follows: 

1/1, 65/64, 33/32, 15/14, 35/32, 10/9, 9/8, 8/7, 6/5, 39/32, 5/4, 9/7, 21/16, 4/3, 11/8, 10/7, 35/24, 3/2, 99/64, 13/8, 5/3, 27/16, 12/7, 7/4, 9/5, 117/64, 15/8, 40/21, 63/32

Nine chords gave me 72 possible progressions from one chord to another. I made up a chart of all 72, and, listening over and over, subjectively characterized each one by quality: "weak," "piquant," "subtle," "strongly cadential," "save for special moments," and only one "wonderful," the progression from the 13th to the 11th harmonic (last chord change in the piece). About a fourth of the progressions I prohibited as ineffective. In short, I was merely replicating for this set of chords what hundreds of years have done for the conventional tonal system, learning that IV-ii is much stronger than ii-IV, that IV-I and V-I have different effects, and so on. Then, using those characterizations, I began composing chord progressions into phrases, and still found that whether a chord progression worked or not depended on context and voice-leading, and wasn't entirely predictable.  

The abundant computations I put into making a microtonal scale lead some people to conclude that I compose according to some quasi-serial, left-brain, precompositional scheme, but nothing could be further from the truth. Once I had the chords in place, I had to improvise my way through the piece by trial and error, constantly correcting by ear things that my brain had mistakenly thought might work. I had no idea where the piece was going, except that I was trying to keep it from going anywhere. 

To that end I severely limited my materials, giving leeway only to the melodic patterns in the piano, and adjusting the sustained oboe/flute line at a few places where the piano paralleled it too closely. One of my favorite quotations is Kierkegaard's "Purity of heart is to will one thing." I wanted, as I often do, to write a piece that was nothing more than one sustained idea. I'm proud of the fact that the piece has no climax, though various parameters hit their extremes at different points; the highest note comes at about six minutes out of 14, and is not an emphasized moment. The piece settles more and more into mid-register as it progresses. I'm even prouder of the fact that, to keep the piece going, I kept coming up with new things I could do that didn't violate my initial restrictions; the piece's inventiveness kept moving inward, toward the center. I also like that what form there is is global rather than linear. There is absolutely no logic as to why the piano does this and now that, though overall there are things in the second half that balance things in the first half; the same rhythm or microtonal effect will happen in the treble here and the bass there, or with one pitch here and two pitches there. I aimed for a "vessel of the eternal present," though certain connections become evident in hindsight. 

Clearly, I have a strong affinity for the kind of intense, immobile textural focus one finds in Phill Niblock, John Luther Adams, or Michael Gordon; but if I try to imagine my music as just harmony, rhythm, and texture, and can't hear the melody in there, the tune, it just doesn't sound to me recognizably like my music. The impulse that prevents me from retreating behind the objectivity of pure process is the same impulse that prevents me from magisterially keeping my methods secret. I have to have the melodic, the communicative, the human element in there, and it's not even an ideological decision: I'm not as good at process as those other composers, but I think I have a real talent for the melodic, the personal.  In short, there's something essentially in-between about me. A passage from the Upanishads reminds me of my composing:

In dark night live those for whom
The world without alone is real; in night
Darker still, for whom the world within
Alone is real. The first leads to a life
Of action, the second to a life of meditation.
But those who combine action with meditation
Cross the sea of death through action
And enter into immortality
Through the practice of meditation.
So we have heard from the wise.

I get my compositional kick by mediating between the objective and the subjective, the public and private, left-brain and right. It's not enough for me to know secrets of postclassical music, I have to communicate and contextualize them. Similarly, that piano is bringing you (clarifying) the secrets contained in the harmonic structure.  

Another conundrum: all my life I've been trying to rewrite Harris's Third Symphony, and I think this is as close as I've gotten. If you can hear the connection between that piece and this one (and if it's impossible I can hardly blame you), my entire life will have just flashed before your eyes. The piece is dedicated to Bob Ashley, for whatever that tells you.

July 29, 2009 12:11 PM | | Comments (5) |
Every composer has his champions, and I'm always happy to see people leap to a favorite composer's defense. It gives me a warm feeling inside, actually, even if I don't much care for the composer's music myself, because I think, "Someday that could be my music someone like that is defending." A friend whose tastes otherwise often parallel mine recently admitted that Feldman's music drove him up a wall, which I find amusing, rather than threatening. I have lived all my life with musicians around me putting down my favorite music. One of my professors told me that Cage was a charlatan and minimalism was bunk. Another met Cage, and said afterward, "I wouldn't have that man at my house." My favorite professor got denied tenure for bringing minimalism to class. I've listened to famous composers dismiss most of the new music I love as not being music at all. Students at Columbia spat with contempt when I brought them a rare Meredith Monk score. I've been told Robert Ashley isn't a composer. I've eaten dinner with composers who regaled each other with Philip Glass jokes, while I took it in polite silence. I have spent my life analyzing and championing music that is despised and marginalized by the classical music world. 

And so, listen: If I listen to Piston's Seventh Symphony and don't like it, you can bloody well put up with it. There's no reason to pour vitriol on me. I've taken shit all my life for the kind of music I like, and I'll be damned if I'm going to also take it for the music I don't like. I'm especially not going to take it from establishment classical musicians, who tend to be the type who routinely damn and dismiss the music I love. I'm not in charge of Piston's reputation. I am not in a position to do him any harm, nor would I if I could. I've been interested in Piston since I was in junior high school, and The Incredible Flutist was the only recording you could find. So I don't like a piece you like. Feel that, multiply it by 20,000,000, and you'll start to feel what my entire life among classical musicians has been like. And then you can back off and suck it up.

July 28, 2009 10:56 AM | | Comments (15) |
I live 50 miles from Tanglewood, but I've never been there until today. Not my kind of crowd - too much Mozart and Carter, not nearly enough Glenn Branca and Eliane Radigue. But I've also never heard Leonard Bernstein's "Age of Anxiety" Symphony live until today, and the temptation smashed my resistance. "Age of Anxiety" is kind of a piano concerto, and I worked on the piano solo part in high school because I loved it so much. My old friend, former student (from 20 years ago), and sometime employer Tony DeRitis got me a ticket for the Boston Symphony concert conducted by David Robertson with his pianist-wife Orli Shaham, and as soon as Tony read me the program I canceled my previous engagements and went. Also on the concert was Roy Harris's Third Symphony, one of the most important works in my life, which I had only heard live once in a desultory performance, as well as Virgil Thomson's quirky but dignified Five Blake Songs and three Barber songs. The Bernstein performance was splendid, especially the pianist; the Harris was a little fast and not savored sufficiently for my taste, but it had a propulsive sweep.

I've long wanted to blog about "Age of Anxiety." Not a perfect piece by any means, and the sentimental ending degrades into ersatz Copland, but the first half is both scintillatingly clever and moving, with a theme and variations that exemplifies Schoenberg's concept of "developing variations" better than any other piece I know, especially by Schoenberg. In its day it was dismissed by musical intellectuals on account of its stylistic heterogeneity: its splashes of Brahmsian romanticism and brainy jazz in an otherwise diatonically modernist idiom. For years I listened to it in private, score in hand, as a guilty pleasure. But then in the '80s that kind of pastiche became the orchestral establishment's new hip trend, and "Age of Anxiety" is way overdue its rehibilitation. After the concert I talked to many musicians, and found only one, composer and BSO program annotator Robert Kirzinger, who shared my enthusiasm for the Harris. I guess my relation to that piece is atypical for my generation (what else is new?), but I discovered it at 13, and it became my most fervently envied formal model. There are some low-profile themes in that piece that run through it unobtrusively, and score study helps you understand why it sounds so ineffably unified. 

As I've said before, I leaped into Cage with both feet at 15, but before that I had already been indelibly imprinted by Gershwin, Ives, Copland, Bernstein, and Schuman, so while the Downtown repertoire left a thick veneer, the undercoating was pure American symphony. So sue me.

I've been thinking, all this year, about teaching a course on the American Symphony, and perhaps even writing a book. Last fall a friend bought me a score to Virgil Thomson's Symphony on a Hymn Tune, one of my favorite pieces in the entire world. About that time I was also writing a review of Joseph Polisi's new biography of William Schuman for Symphony magazine, which (the review) got bumped twice, but came out a month or so ago. The Thomson score made me realize that I could probably start finding scores I wanted on the internet, rather than buying merely what I happened to come across at now-defunct Patelson's in New York. So I started looking around, mostly at The Sheet Music Store, and ended up ordering the following symphonies: Harris 9, Schuman 3 and 6, Cowell 4, Piston 7, Persichetti 4, Hanson 2, and Glass "Low." I also found Thomson's Third and the St. Joan Symphony of Norman Dello Joio in a used book store in Hudson. (This was all back in October when it looked like my personal finances were going to be happily bypassed by the economic Fall of Civilization.) All of them arrived except the Hanson, which I'm still waiting for (and Hanson expert Carson Cooman tells me I should have gotten the First or Third instead). They weren't necessarily the symphonies I would have dreamed of, but they were ones I could find by composers who interest me.

And frankly, things don't look good for the class, let alone the book. More often than not, I was disappointed. Reading through a score usually changes my opinion of a piece a little for the better or worse, and most of these went through a negative reassessment. Most depressing was the Harris Ninth (1962), which is a terrific mess. It's as though Harris lost sight of everything that had been wonderful about his earlier music, all the broad themes and rhyhmic energy, and just started noodling randomly in what he considered "his style." After reading it through closely with the recording, no impression remained at all, just a morass of piquant polychords absent-mindedly distributed. Cowell's Fourth (1946) is a significantly more coherent piece, but similarly undistinguished - it could almost have been written by any mid-century minor pedant. Of course Cowell is one of my heros, but most of his symphonies were written after his unfortunate San Quentin experience, which turned him into what most people would have to consider a more conservative composer. I wished I could have found No. 16, the "Icelandic," which is a little more fun. 

The one piece that didn't suffer at all was Schuman's Sixth (1948), a tough, trenchant, impressively polyphonic work that may be, as some have said it is, the peak of his output. I had always been a fan of his Third (1941), and still am, though on close inspection it struck me as a little wandering. 

Persichetti's 4th (and I hate to say it with American Symphony expert Walter Simmons possibly reading) made very little impression on me after repeated hearings: expertly written, measure for measure, as he always is, but with no discernible throughline. The most disturbing score I found, though, was Piston's Seventh (1960): an absolutely joyless, dogged work, carefully crafted around unmemorable themes as in a grim determination to churn out another correct example of the genre. He proved that one didn't need 12-tone technique to suck all playfulness out of orchestral writing. A more interesting venture was the Dello Joio, which had the advantage of clearly outlined ideas. Thomson's Third, an orchestration of one of his string quartets, was also disappointingly uninspired. And while I love certain passages in Glass's "Low," it's a little watery, and even the stirring parts repeat until you start muttering, "OK, OK, I get it already."

The problem with a course or a book is that the great American symphonies, even by great American composers, are exceptions, not the rule. Symphony production swelled to emormous volume in the 1930s and '40s (I once did a survey course on symphonies and found 1946 as the climax year), and a kind of generic, upbeat symphonic style became the order of the day. Composers like Cowell and Thomson seemed to compromise most of their principles to get a monumental work out there, while obsessive craftsmen like Persichetti and Piston seemed to have no concept of epic sweep. The American symphonies I get tired of never teaching are all of Ives's; the Copland Third; the Harris Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh; The Thomson Hymn Tune; the Riegger Third; the "Age of Anxiety"; the Schuman Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth; the Rochberg Second; any interchangeable Sessions work, the Third would do nicely; and now I'd add Robert Carl's Third and Fourth. (I wouldn't be adverse to adding the Antheil "1942" and Bolcom 5; Wolpe's Symphony is one of his weakest works, though, and the Bernstein "Kaddish" is lush music wrapped in an embarrassing text.) Perhaps those are enough for a course, but the list seems a little cherry-picked, and while it would be nice to focus more on the pre-WWII search for a Great American Symphony, I'm afraid I would end up feeling too apologetic. An analysis class around Harris, Thomson, Schuman, and Bernstein sounds both peripheral to student interest and too ambitious. So I feel like the dream isn't ikely to come true in any forseeable future, but at least I can now say I heard Bernstein 2 and Harris 3 live, and drank in every note like nectar. 

UPDATE: Someone remonstrated with me that great pieces of music are always exceptions, never the rule. Of course, that's a truism. But in this particular context, why is Thomson's Hymn Tune Symphony so inspired, his Third so tepid? Why is Bernstein's Second a piano concerto and his Third a weird, '60s-ish theater piece? Even Ives's symphonies are cut from diverse patterns: the first Dvorakian, the Second a playful romantic romp, the Third unconventional in form but deeply religious and originating in organ improvisations, the Fourth mystical, philosophical, and presciently modernist. Compare with the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Bruckner, Mahler, who each possessed a fairly consistent concept of what a symphony is, developing it from work to work, so that if you like any one of those composers' symphonies, you're pretty much guaranteed to similarly appreciate at least all of its successors. In that sense, the great European symphonies are not the exceptions. Please read generously - there's often a meaning that can be teased out with a little thought, and one can't take the time to explain everything.

July 26, 2009 10:38 PM | | Comments (19) |
Anybody know the musicological significance of this location?:


[UPDATE] Wow, I'm glad I didn't promise an easy handout for that one. I suppose Partch didn't get a free meal there himself, just copied an inscription from someone who had. All these famous addresses in Partch's Barstow: I wonder if any of the people living there have any idea. You click on that blue square and it opens an information panel that says that house (next door) just sold for $449,000! In this economy!

July 26, 2009 11:18 AM | | Comments (14) |
Here's a preliminary version of my new piece, Solitaire (14:05). It's the piece I wrote about recently that I agonized over the tuning for for a week, 29 pitches to the octave. It's both a solitary piece and a private game. The recording needs a little finessing. More about it later.

[UPDATE:] I think I've solved the problem of the inaudible bass line, and the whole thing sounds better on my laptop speakers than it did at first.

July 25, 2009 8:29 PM | | Comments (2) |
Draw a straight line and follow it.

Apparently I've just broken copyright law. I can't believe what's holding up my Cage book: you are no longer allowed to quote texts that are entire pieces of art. This means I've been trying to get permission simply to refer to Fluxus pieces like La Monte Young's "This piece is little whirlpools in the middle of the ocean," and Yoko Ono's "Listen to the sound of the earth turning." And of course, Yoko (whom I used to know) isn't responding, and La Monte is imposing so many requirements and restrictions that I would have to add a new chapter to the book, and so in frustration well past the eleventh hour, I've excised the pieces from the text. 

This seems not to have been the case 13 years ago. When I wrote American Music in the 20th Century, I quoted La Monte's piece about feeding hay to the piano, and several others, without even footnoting them because they were so famous, and no one at Schirmer batted an eyelash. But now, if something's changed and I can no longer quote Fluxus texts without getting permission, then I just have to write Fluxus off the list of things I write about. Some of these pieces are too brief to refer to without quoting them in their entirety. How do you use Nam June Paik's "Creep into the vagina of a living female whale" as an example without giving the whole piece away? How am I supposed to refer to it: "Creep into the vagina, etc"? Call it Danger Music No. 5 and tell you to look it up? Paraphrase it: "crawl into the birth canal of a matronly member of the order Cetacea"? And if the copyrights are held by unreasonable people who can hold your book hostage to their detailed demands, then it's just time to find a different research area. The situation is absurd, somebody under whatever questionable chemical influences scrawls seven words on a piece of paper and 50 years later I can't refer to that piece of paper without paying someone some money and following their prescriptions. A couple of years ago my Music Downtown book was held up because the designer had used the Village Voice font on the cover. The creeping tentacles of copyright law are paralyzing the arts and making intelligent scholarship and even creativity impossible. 

July 24, 2009 10:01 AM | | Comments (29) |
One of the things I needed to research for my Robert Ashley book was the Dr. Chicago films made by George Manupelli at the end of the ONCE festival era, 1968-71. I had seen them at Wesleyan University in, I believe, 1994, at a festival of Alvin Lucier's music - because they star Alvin Lucier. (At right are pictured Manupelli and Lucier during the filming of Cry Dr. Chicago, 1971.) Lucier had a famous and ferocious stutter which he and others made musical use of, and it is certainly part of the character here. Ashley did the sound and music for the films.

Well, I didn't know how I was going to beg, borrow, or steal these films, but it turns out they were made available on DVD last year, and you can get them at for only $50. Who knew? So I received mine yesterday. Manupelli decided not to use actors but avant-garde artists from other media, and so Alvin plays Dr. Chicago, a grandiose medical quack who kills almost everyone he operates on, and is continually on the lam; Ashley's first wife Mary, a photographer and performance artist, plays his long-suffering girlfriend Sheila Marie; experimental dancer Steve Paxton plays a mute who gets killed in every movie, like Kenny in South Park; and Pauline Oliveros has a bit part in Ride Dr. Chicago Ride as an accordion-playing desert rube who likes rattlesnake meat pizza. The films are intermittently hilarious. The first one, Dr. Chicago, makes Waiting for Godot look like an action thriller by comparison; it's mostly a 90-minute Lucier monologue, with bits of plot only at the beginning and end. The movies were made on a shoestring with low production values and no script, and it's often evident that Alvin is just talking off the top of his head. Nevertheless, the dialogue in Ride, Dr. Chicago, Ride made me burst out laughing several times. There was also a fourth film, Dr. Chicago Goes to Sweden, but Manupelli got pissed off at a film festival in Toronto and drove around town with the only copy of the film unreeling out the window of his car. The essays in the accompanying booklet give a lot of context from the people involved. I don't say they're the best experimental films I've ever seen (I'm a huge fan of Greaser's Palace - ever hear of it? - and Eraserhead), but they're a fascinating and intimate look at some of the people who put together the ONCE festivals, and at times they're really endearing. And, after almost 30 years, now you can just buy them. Amazing.

July 18, 2009 11:34 PM | | Comments (4) |
Speaking of titular colonicity (a term that has entered my vocabulary permanently), as we were, there's another universal constant in academic writing that sends shivers up my spine: "lies outside the scope of this paper." (I just Googled it and got 335,000 sites.) It appears so consistently once in every academic paper that you couldn't force me to write it with two thugs twisting my arm. And yet, when I wrote my article "La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano" for Perspectives of New Music, the editors inserted it: 

As one moves around the room, the audible overtones change markedly over the distance of a few inches, dependent on where one is among the nodes of pitches reinforced by the acoustics of the room. This aspect of the WTP is almost entirely unrepresented by the recording under average circumstances; since it is determined by room acoustics and position in space, no microphone can entirely convey the variety of audible phenomena the WTP generates. Analysis of such transient effects lies outside the scope of the present paper. (Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 31 No. 1 [Winter 1993], p. 149; emphasis added)

I never wrote that. I can just imagine the Perspectives editors poring over my paper, shaking their heads condescendingly, "He's just a music critic, he forgot the all-important 'lies outside' phrase. Find someplace we can stick it in to save the poor guy the embarrassment." They also found my paper lacking in sufficient five-syllable words and obfuscating dependent clauses, and kindly sprinkled in a few of those as well. That's why I've always been reluctant to send Perspectives a second article: that one went in more readable than it came back. (Thank goodness they didn't stick a colon in my title.)

For years I've wondered what the "lies outside the scope of this paper" clause signifies to the academic mind, since there is clearly no sane rationale for its mandatory appearance once in each paper. What possible purpose could it serve for every author to dutifully remember to refer to something he's not writing about? I always rather assumed it was a conventional mark of scholarly humility, a ritual rolling over to let the other academics rub one's belly: "I freely concede that there are aspects of the subject at hand that I haven't covered here, that are left for other researchers." But I've also wondered if it's just the opposite, a dark hint that one knows significantly more about the subject than can be covered in the relatively modest space provided. I can't decide. Young academics must pick up the phrase proudly, like a secret handshake, a token that they're now part of the academic fraternity and eager to follow its hallowed customs to the letter. But even before I went through the rigorous process of getting academicisms expunged from my writing style by editor Doug Simmons at the Voice, the phrase grated on me like a sour note.

July 18, 2009 12:41 PM | | Comments (4) |
Since my book for Yale is part of a series (first in the series: The Hamburger: A History), I didn't think I would have any choice over the title, but it turns out they wanted me to come up with one, and so it's going to be No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33". I'm not much of a fan of colons in titles, considering them an academic affectation, but I don't think this one was avoidable. I had been worrying about how I was going to finesse being "the author of 4'33"," or "the author of John Cage's 4'33"." Colons in titles of musicology papers are so ubiquitous that when I was in grad school, my teacher Peter Gena and I used to joke about the paper we were going to submit to the AMS: "The Colon in American Musicology: an Overview." Someone recently told me about a grad student she overheard saying, "I've finished everything about my dissertation except for the part of the title that goes after the colon." Seems to me that if it's not bleedin' obvious what goes after the colon, you don't need anything. Moby Dick: The Search for a White Whale. Bleak House: The Tale of a Long Legal Case. Colons in titles: Blech.

July 17, 2009 10:43 AM | | Comments (9) |
Curtis MacDonald has made a piece with samples of Conlon Nancarrow's player pianos, which don't sound like normal pianos. On one of them Conlon covered the hammers with steel straps, on the other he put leather straps capped with a metal tack. Like Lou Harrison's tack piano, they sound harsh and kind of honky-tonk, almost like harpsichords, and Conlon clearly came to rely on the extra clarity they gave his thick polyphony; I once heard Study No. 48 on a regular big Disklavier grand, and it sounded like mush. MacDonald's piece makes me realize that someone needs to go to Basel and sample the original Nancarrow player pianos, as Mikel Rouse did for the prepared piano of Cage's Sonatas and Interludes: partly so we can make our own true realizations of Nancarrow's pieces, and partly to compose with those wonderfully wacky tones ourselves.

July 15, 2009 1:14 PM | | Comments (4) |
Beethoven had to churn, to some extent, to make his message carry. He had to pull the ear, hard and in the same place and several times...
Charles Ives, Essays Before a Sonata

Ah, it's like the old days again - just when I think the blogosphere has finally resignedly inured itself to Kyle Gann, furor can again erupt. I apparently mortified a number of people by mentioning, in a brief aside, what I thought was one of the most bare-faced facts in the musical universe, that Beethoven was not a subtle composer. (You can look up the comments.) Some think I insulted Beethoven, which is a terrible thing, because I wield so much influence that now Beethoven will cease to be listened to, and the responsibility will be on my head. 

I guess those people find subtle a compliment, and I don't. When a student brings me an inchoate mass of 300 notes and I ask, "What's the main musical idea here?" and he points to five pianissimo notes in the vibraphone, I tend to deadpan, "It's a little subtle." By this I do not mean him to understand, "Bravo! What you've done here is so profound that only the cognoscenti will realize the extent of your achievement!," though in an unfortunately ironic sense the latter half of that may be true. I mean, "You haven't yet begun to be serious about getting your musical idea across to the audience." Subtle is for me an antonym of communicative, and communicativeness is, for me, a great virtue. We talk about the subtle wiles of a deceitful person. But apparently modernism has created a world in which subtlety is considered one of the unalloyed virtues, of which one can never have too much. Which would explain the mostly depressing state of contemporary music, all those composers glorying in their damn subtleties and everyone else wondering what the hell they're doing. In any case, when I call Beethoven unsubtle, and claim that my music sometimes achieves unsubtlety too, I am both holding him up as a model and claiming to be on the same side.

To repeat a story, Feldman used to complain about his students who were proud of their subtlety. He'd describe some student who protested, "But you have to listen to the piece more than once!," and growl, "Kid's 20, and he thinks I'm going to listen to his fucking piece twice."

July 15, 2009 12:19 PM | | Comments (4) |
You know, I'm sitting here in my office doing creative work on Digital Performer, and I've had a couple of Nancarrow queries lately from people doing intensive analytical work on him, and it occurs to me that I've got all these Nancarrow player piano rolls as MIDI information on my computer, including more than 60 that were found in his studio that don't correspond to the canonical studies (and I do mean canonical, not canonic). Nancarrow was hypercritical of his own music, and, I think, consigned to oblivion some pieces just as good as some of the ones everyone knows. Many of the unidentified rolls are mere fragments or tempo experiments, and some, highly restrictive in pitch, are presumably for the roll-driven percussion machine he invented that never worked right and was abandoned. But some are fully fleshed out, quite impressive pieces. These tend to be a little more abstract than Nancarrow's usual style, and perhaps he thought the ideas didn't come across strongly enough. So here are five of the unknown rolls to listen to, lettered the way Trimpin lettered the rolls as he found them:

Roll A
Roll MM
Roll R
Romantic roll
Roll with "hello"

I don't necessarily swear by the tempos, which are conjectural, nor for the dynamics. Dynamics on Nancarrow's pianos were indicated by a few notes at the top and bottom of the register, and I edited the dynamics following those indications rather intuitively insofar as I understood his system: they sort of sound right. The first three sound like finished pieces. The "Romantic roll" is a conundrum - it's romantically tonal, might be something by Liszt or someone, but I don't recognize it, and I'm pretty good with Liszt. If anyone recognizes the piece, let me know, or we may have to surmise that Conlon wrote one piece totally out of character. I think a lot of the high and low functional notes are sustain pedal controls, but I didn't know what to do with them. The last example captures one of his playful moments in which Conlon punched the word "HELLO" on a piano roll:


A few years ago I offered to premiere some of these on Disklavier in conjunction with the Bard Music Festival when they did "Copland and his World," on the premise that Copland and Nancarrow had some contact; Copland wrote a favorable review of some early Nancarrow scores. The festival had no interest whatever. But that doesn't mean I can't share them on my own little ongoing internet Bard Music Festival, "Kyle Gann and his World."

July 14, 2009 8:37 PM | | Comments (7) |
Thumbnail image for aardvark.jpgWith some slight hesitation I post a new and rather comical work to the internet. It was supposed to be titled Triskaidekaphonia 2 because it uses the same tuning as my piece Triskaidekaphonia, but it turned out so programmatic that I couldn't leave it with such an abstract title. So it's The Aardvarks' Parade (click to listen, just over ten minutes), in honor of an animal with which I had a childhood fascination. For the first time ever I've written a microtonal piece in a scale I'd already used before, and it's the simplest one I've ever used: all the ratios of the whole numbers 1 through 13 multiplied by a fundamental, yielding 29 pitches. The form is AAAA: I was musing about a melody repeated over and over, in simple quarter-notes and 8th-notes, but so intricate in its tuning that several repetitions wouldn't be enough to make it predictable. If I Am Sitting in a Room is the conceptualist Bolero, maybe this is microtonality's Bolero. I tend to repeat things four times in my pieces: partly because it's an American Indian tradition, paying homage to the East, West, North, and South, and partly because my first college composition teacher, Joseph Wood, told me that you could only get away with repeating something three times in a piece, instantly stirring my innate rebelliousness.

It was a luxury not having to spend the first week working out the scale, and also returning to a scale whose properties I'm beginning to know pretty well. The scale's only limitation is that it tends toward tonal immobility, and I succumbed to a drone in this case, as I did in Triskaidekaphonia. I've already started two more pieces on the same scale, though, that move it around to different tonics a little. I've fallen in love with a couple of new intervals: one is 13/10 (454 cents), on which a phrase ends unexpectedly at 1:06; another is 13/9 (636), which ends a phrase at 1:15 and almost sounds like a slightly sour dominant; and I'm appreciating the double leading-tone pairs of 13/9 with either 13/7 or 13/12, for a deliciously out-of-tune yet consonant medievalism (heard in the resolution of the opening sonority). Part of the point, after all, is to train myself (and perhaps others) to hear and recognize the whole new color that 13 provides. Perhaps The Aardvarks' Parade will never be as popular as Bolero became after the movie 10, but when they finally make the movie 13, I've got the soundtrack ready.

In retrospect, it's occurred to me that there was a model for the piece in one of my favorite memories as a music reviewer: One year Skip LaPlante's microtonal group in New York, Music for Homemade Instruments, played a melody over and over in 13-tone equal temperament, and then at the end everyone sang it, a thrillingly simple yet ungodly weird achievement. Sometimes I feel like my music is a deliberate caricature of new music, all the expected subtleties quantized, pixelated, and translated into quarter-notes and 8th-notes. I like hard, clean lines and bright colors. I hate vagueness and violence, am sick of emotive gesturalism, and only like ambiguity if it's sharply drawn and unmistakable. I warn my students that subtleties tend to get lost in performance, and that the reason Beethoven was so successful is that there are no subtleties in his music. Thus the naivete is intentional. Composers hate naivete, but most other people like it. 

July 14, 2009 2:15 PM | | Comments (6) |
I have to say, this has become one of the most richly fulfilling summers I've ever had. On one hand I've done all this work on piano recordings by Harold Budd and Dennis Johnson, plus a long John Luther Adams analysis I'm finishing and my Robert Ashley biography (3000 words written today, after hours of composing); on the other, recording my piece The Planets with Relache, and then a slew of music rushing out of me lately, with a ten-minute microtonal piece written this week (of which more soon), and two other new pieces begun in the same span. 

Cage wrote a mesostic for Nancarrow that reads, "oNce you / sAid / wheN you thought of / musiC, / you Always / thought of youR own / neveR / Of anybody else's. / that's hoW it happens." I think I probably could have been as reclusive as Nancarrow, had not economic necessity forced me into the public life of music criticism. But I certainly am not like Nancarrow in this other respect. A life exclusively focused on my own music seems unimaginable. My musicological work feeds my composition, and vice versa. When I've been doing too much critical work and not composing, I get cranky; and when I've been composing continuously, I dry up a little, and I start to need the interaction with the music of others. It's not that I steal so many ideas from other composers, though of course I never scruple to do that. Nothing about the other people's music I'm working on went into the piece I just finished, though I do absorb inspiration from the brilliant things Ashley says, and Budd always reconfirms my love for the major seventh chord. I just need that rejuvenation from other artist's ideas, the mere presence of simpatico music I didn't write.

I seem not to be unique in this respect among my close contemporaries. Larry Polansky, a far more prolific composer than myself, has done loads of important musicological work on Ruth Crawford, Johanna Beyer, and Harry Partch, not to mention running Frog Peak Music for the publishing of other composers' music. Peter Garland, in between writing his own wonderful pieces, published the crucial Soundings journal for many years, and made available the music of many who didn't seem so obviously important at the time as they do now. Some of us need this close interaction with the music of our contemporaries. Nor does it seem like just an American thing. Schumann certainly spent a lot of his career inside other composers' heads, and seems to have enjoyed having a trunkload of Schubert's manuscripts in his apartment, from which to draw for the occasional world premiere whenever he fancied. Liszt played the piano music of every significant contemporary except Brahms (who offended him by falling asleep at the premiere of Liszt's B minor Sonata). 

Part of it is what I think Henry Cowell sensed: that there's no such thing as a famous composer in a musical genre no one's heard of, and so one's personal survival depends on a rising tide raising all boats. But Morton Feldman also tells a story of an artist in the '50s who, after seeing Jackson Pollock's first astounding exhibition of drip paintings, remarked, "I'm so glad he did it. Now I don't have to." And Feldman adds, for thoughtful emphasis, "That was not an extraordinary thing to say at the time." Some of us do have this feeling that art is a collective activity, that it's not all about ourselves. I hear an exquisite piece like John Luther Adams's The Light Within, and I do think, somehow, "I'm so glad he did it, now I don't have to" - partly because I want to hear that kind of ecstatic wall-of-sound genre, and he can so it much better than I could. Mikel Rouse's music is so much more sophisticated than my intentionally naive fare, but listening to him gets me back on track. I listen to Eve Beglarian's music, and I hear things I might have been tempted to do, but she's got them covered. These aesthetically close colleagues free me up to pursue what I do best, but I somehow need to participate in their achievements by analyzing them and writing about them. 

We Americans are taught to worship individuality, in art above all, but there is a strong collective aspect to creativity that many composers strenuously ignore or deny. I have no idea why I'm so attuned to it, especially being as anti-social as I am by temperament. But I do know that if anyone ever regrets that I had to write all these books and articles instead of working non-stop on my own music, they will have missed the point. It's all the same thing.

July 11, 2009 11:55 PM | | Comments (5) |
If you have a friend who's considering becoming a microtonal composer, and you are frantic to spare him a life of agony and unfulfillment, I'm about to do you a big service: just have him read this. All day yesterday and this morning I spent hours filling my little sketch book with pages of notes and numbers like this:


I was looking for a series of fractions between about 1.5 and 1.9, and then trying out different ways of harmonizing them so that 1. you don't get any parallel chords close together in the series, 2. the same chord roots don't get repeated, 3. a variety of different kinds of 7th chords are available, and 4. the harmonies use the smallest-number fractions conveniently available. I think of it as kind of like a four-dimensional sudoku puzzle. Yesterday I ended up with the scale from complexity hell, that was going to require maybe 80-something different pitches. This morning I woke up with all these numbers in my mind, along with a sound: and that sound gave me the key to simplifying the principle of the scale. So I jumped out of bed and compiled a new, far more economical, more tonally-centered scale with only 29 pitches (because the more centered a microtonal scale is around a certain tonality, the more different pitches can serve as pivot notes among different harmonies). Having made another few pages like the above, I ordered the pitches and compiled them into a MIDI chart:


I generally seem to end up with scales of 29 or 30 pitches. With the kinds of harmonies I favor, more than that and I start to have pitches closer together than 15 cents, which I've found are a pain to work with, and when they're within five cents (a 20th of a half-step), I just merge them, unless one is part of a perfect fifth I need in tune. Then I had to write out my MIDI-scale correspondences in musical notation:


and then group them into harmonic areas. In this case, upon doing so I realized that I had come up with two chords parallel and only 27 cents apart, a fourth of a half-step: too small to make meaningful distinctions between even in my music. I took a few hours off, doodled with fractions on the back of someone's business card at dinner (you'd be amazed at how much of my composing takes place on the back of business cards and on restaurant napkins), and after an hour or two of analyzing gaps in the scale (a gap being anything more than 60 cents), I came up with a substitute chord - after which I had to take some pitches out of the scale, add new ones back in, and go through all but the first couple of steps all over again. 

It used to be so much worse. At least now, with Lil Miss Scale Oven software, I can generate the scale and hear it played on a Kontakt softsynth in less than a minute; this part alone used to take about an hour. But I have to do all this before I can compose a note, and I still haven't done the grouping into harmonics areas yet, which I leave for tomorrow. That's not always true, because occasionally, as with my recent piece New Aunts, I just start composing in Sibelius, adding pitch bends to the notes and figuring out what pitches I want as I go along, though I tend to get greedy and end up with too many pitches that way, and have performance problems. (Also, those Sibelius pitch bends don't always catch the onset of a note, so the audio result is full of irritating tiny glissandos.) In this case, I wanted a closed gamut for a longer, more involved piece. If you're a microtonalist, also being a postminimalist helps. 

But I love it. I have enough experience to savor in advance the pungent pitch-shifts I'll get between harmonies, and the sound of the piece in my head really does guide me toward the right numbers, through a convoluted logical process. If you don't have the head for this, and an intimate feel for numbers, you shouldn't try it. I started studying just-intonation microtones with Ben Johnston in 1984, and didn't finish my first microtonal piece until 1991, filling multiple notebooks during those years with hundreds of pages of fractions. I figure it delayed my composing career at least five years. I can't even play you a sample yet because I'm several hours of work away from hearing the chords I've been hearing in my head. I guess it's a little like the weeks of pre-planning the total serialists went through in the '50s and '60s, except that once I finish all the math work I can start composing freely from the chords and scales I have available. Often I compose from the charts without really knowing what pitches I'm using, just knowing what melodic contours and harmonic shifts will work, sort of like painting with seven-foot-long brushes and your back to the canvas - and mirabile dictu, it almost always sounds the way I'd imagined. Every microtonal piece I write takes about an intense week of all this before I can actually write notes. Afterward, it's inspiring feeling that I'm doing something no one's ever done before: but boy, is it obvious why no one's ever done it.

July 7, 2009 9:42 PM | | Comments (7) |
I'm transcribing my interviews with Bob Ashley (kind of in shorthand, I don't have time to do a real transcript; some student can do that someday if he wants). A name of one of Bob's contemporaries would occasionally come up, and he'd give me a frank appraisal of the person's music. Sometimes he'd asked me to switch off the tape recorder to do so, sometimes he'd instead hesitate a moment and then say, "You can put that in the book." After one of those, he said, "There's got to be somebody who says something about somebody." Amen.

July 7, 2009 1:55 PM | | Comments (1) |
July 4, 2009 12:16 PM | | Comments (3) |
InC.jpgWhat a pleasure it was to find Robert Carl's new book about Terry Riley's In C (from Oxford) in my mailbox today (or actually, on top of it, which was poor judgment on the mailman's part, since it's rained here every day for the last month). I wrote a blurb for the back cover and shouldn't say anything more, but I'm impressed once again with the smoothness and non-academicism of Robert's writing style - I thought composers had to work for a newspaper for years to achieve that. Also with the number of people he interviewed in great detail about Riley's early career, which is stuff that I'll surely end up quoting. There are people I won't have to interview because Robert's already done it. It's about time we had a book on In C, which was my generation's Rite of Spring. My Long Night (1980), though quite opposite in atmosphere, was, formally, closely modeled on it. My only thought was, if some card-carrying musicologist had written the book, and Robert had written his Fifth Symphony instead, I would be twice as happy. Why is the musicology of new music (and not all that new at that) being left to us composers? It's a question to bring up at the minimalism conference, at which Robert will be giving a keynote address. 

Robert includes a long quote about In C from me, which reminds me of an anecdote I just read, and I've completely forgotten where. Some author, it seems, sent a copy of his latest book to a friend. The friend opened the book, and was peeved to find no personal inscription in the front. But then he looked up his name in the index - as those of us in certain fields and at a certain time of life admittedly tend to do upon seeing a new book in our specialty - and next to his name, the author had written, "HI." I can't wait to pull that on someone.

July 2, 2009 8:28 PM | | Comments (7) |

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