main: August 2009 Archives

Kansas City ain't Wales, but it has its impressive features:


One of them is Luyben Music at 4318 Main Street, the kind of old-fashioned, full-of-obscure-scores-oh-my-god-look-at-this music store that I thought had ceased to exist. I bought scores to Milton Babbitt's All Set, Elie Siegmeister's Third Symphony, Max Reger's Requiem, Martin Bresnick's My Twentieth Century, Henry Brant's Ice Field, a slew of Arvo Pärt choral music, John Becker's Third, and Philip Glass's Arioso No. 2 (one of his pre-minimalist pieces), all for whatever prices they were marked at the day the music entered the shop, lo these many decades ago. The owner, Annette, told me more details about the tragic demise of Patelson's Music in New York than I had ever learned from anyone in New York. Then we stepped out the door, left the 1950s behind, and re-entered the sad 21st century.

The crew has begun to arrive - David McIntire (my co-director), Pwyll Ap Sion (director of the 2007 conference), Andy Lee (pianist and major help for this year), myself, and Tom Johnson:

First-night crowd.JPG

August 31, 2009 11:32 PM | | Comments (1) |
The Kansas City Star previews our minimalism conference

August 30, 2009 8:53 AM | | Comments (1) |
I am not the first person to play through Dennis Johnson's November, but on August 12 I became apparently the first person to listen to an entire recording of it. You can be the second. In honor of the sixth anniversary of this blog tomorrow (Saturday), among other things, I have uploaded a complete performance of November, one of the earliest (1959) major minimalist works. The first public performance of the piece since the early '60s at least will take place in Kansas City on September 6, with myself and Sarah Cahill alternating at the keyboard. I have recorded a version of the entire work here, conveniently formatted in four parts [UPDATE: I have replaced my private recording with the one Sarah Cahill and I made at the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music, Sept. 6, 2009, so the next paragraph no longer applies]:

Part 1 1:03:09
Part 2 1:13:48
Part 3 1:06:54
Part 4 1:05:19

It's not a professional-level recording, though I made it on my wonderful Sony PCM D-50, which has totally changed my life. I had to switch pianos at one point, because the freshmen arrived at Bard halfway through, and the piano I started on was in a room where high heels clicking through the hallways were too audible (and those were the guys!). But it's the first complete recording, with all the material contained in the score. It lasts only four hours, and I think I could have gone longer, but every note you hear is in the score, and there is virtually nothing omitted.

Dennis's surviving recording contained only the first 112 minutes of the piece. What I am playing is an exact transcription of those 112 minutes, as identical to the original as I could make it, and then I improvise the remainder of the piece according to rules I obtained by analyzing the relationship of the recording to the score. The reason for sticking to the transcription for the first 112 minutes is that there are aspects of the piece not ascertainable from the score; the score was derived from the original tape rather than the other way around, and Dennis's letter to me about it stated that "the recording must stand as the primary definition example of the piece." Subsequent performances need not be so slavishly faithful to the recording, but this first exposure has got to get the piece across as Dennis played it, so musicologists can know exactly what they're dealing with. Before you go there, the idea of this piece from the beginning was that it is a (loosely) notated piece, that any so-minded pianist could play it with complete authenticity. Dennis was not a great jazz pianist, not a jazz pianist at all in fact, and there is nothing technical nor idiosyncratic about his playing that another pianist couldn't sufficiently imitate. Dennis is flattered that Sarah Cahill and I are doing this, just as Harold Budd is flattered that Sarah is playing Children on the Hill. If the composers are thrilled, you have no theoretical basis on which to disapprove. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There is a hilarious sequence of situations in Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad in which Twain and his fellow tourists drive an Italian tour guide to absolute distraction with questions of surreal incomprehension:

Our guide there fidgeted about as if he had swallowed a spring mattress. He was full of animation - full of impatience. He said:

"Come wis me, genteelmen! - come! I show you ze letter writing by Christopher Colombo! - write it himself! - write it wis his own hand! - come!"

He took us to the municipal palace. After much impressive fumbling of keys and opening of locks, the stained and aged document was spread before us. The guide's eyes sparkled. He danced about us and tapped the parchment with his finger:

"What I tell you, genteelmen! Is it not so? See! handwriting Christopher Colombo!--write it himself!"

We looked indifferent - unconcerned. The doctor examined the document very deliberately, during a painful pause. - Then he said, without any show of interest:

"Ah - Ferguson - what - what did you say was the name of the party who wrote this?"

"Christopher Colombo! ze great Christopher Colombo!"

Another deliberate examination.

"Ah - did he write it himself; or - or how?"

"He write it himself! - Christopher Colombo! He's own hand-writing, write by himself!"

Then the doctor laid the document down and said:

"Why, I have seen boys in America only fourteen years old that could write better than that." 

"But zis is ze great Christo- "

"I don't care who it is! It's the worst writing I ever saw. Now you musn't think you can impose on us because we are strangers. We are not fools, by a good deal. If you have got any specimens of penmanship of real merit, trot them out! - and if you haven't, drive on!"

Half of the comments I got on my recent Harold Budd posting, several of them by people criticizing me while admitting that they hadn't listened to the music they were criticizing me for, were about on this level. It's not as funny from the tour guide's perspective. I'm offering you the minimalist equivalent of Christopher Columbus's handwriting, neither for your critique nor for your approval, but because I have the information, I enjoy disseminating it, and I know there are people interested. The claims I make for this music are that the tape said the piece dated from 1959 and the performance from 1962, and that La Monte told me that this piece inspired The Well-Tuned Piano. If you have evidence to confute these claims, I'll be curious to hear it; otherwise, criticizing me for this reveals a misunderstanding of the situation. This is musicology, not American Idol. If this recording or the piece isn't your cup of tea, that's OK, I understand, but I can't alter the results of my research to suit your squeamish and waffling tastes. If you want your comment posted - respond appropriately. 


August 28, 2009 8:57 PM | | Comments (14) |

Composer Mikel Rouse carries a sketch pad with him wherever he goes. Today I ran across this treasured cartoon he drew in 1993 depicting himself, me, and Ben Neill sitting at Rudy's Bar at 44th and 9th, as we did almost weekly (they with beers and me with a scotch, scrupulously so depicted), capturing the moment at which we went from merely talking about the kinds of multitempo structures we were interested in to actually considering it a new musical movement. Mikel and Ben look 16 years younger here than they do now, but somehow I already look as old as I do now - sort of a Dorian Gray effect? I'm only a few months older than those guys.

UPDATE: Several years ago Mikel and I went into Rudy's. Standing at the bar, I said, "Look, they've added some nice tile and decorations behind the bar." Mikel looked at me and said, "That's always been there - they've just outlawed smoking in bars." I'd never been able to see the back wall for the cigarette smoke.

August 27, 2009 6:38 PM | | Comments (1) |
I have been too busy to give timely notice to the nice attention that Galen Brown (whose paper on minimalist means and ends will be featured) has given to our minimalism conference over at Sequenza 21 via an interview with me, in my usual punchy style.

August 26, 2009 10:17 PM | |
Here's one of my prize possessions, that's always been in my school office but I moved it home today:


While I was working on the Nancarrow book, one of his cousins ran for judge in Dallas, my home town. I guess he won. (Nancarrow and I grew up only 180 miles apart, but 180 of the dreariest, flattest, least picturesque miles you can imagine - a true minimalist stretch of highway.) My dad, bless his heart, saw this sign in a vacant lot, stopped his car, and stole it for me. I asked Conlon about it, and I believe he referred to his cousin as a crook; whether he meant more by that than "Republican," I couldn't say. All of Conlon's family were true Arkansas conservatives except for him. I had a lovely dinner-interview with Conlon's brother Charles, a wealthy dry goods merchant (their father was mayor of Texarkana), and Charles enjoyed saying, "Conlon's to the left of Che Guevara, and I'm to the right of Attila the Hun." But they had an affectionate relationship nonetheless.

It's been weird keeping this in my office, because people who don't know about my Nancarrow (which includes almost everyone) get the idea that I'm a croo-, er, Republican. One of my favorite stories Conlon told me was that when he returned home after the Spanish Civil War, Texarkana welcomed him as a hero under the mistaken idea that he'd been battling Catholicism.

August 24, 2009 8:16 PM | | Comments (4) |
OK. The night was Friday, July 9, 1982. I was administrative assistant for the New Music America festival in Chicago. I had a big argument with my then-girlfriend (whom I later married nevertheless) which turned out, surprisingly enough, to be all my fault. In a huff brought on by my inability to invent a benign rationale for my behavior convincing enough to satisfy even myself, I sulked out and vowed to walk from our apartment to the festival. As the distance was something under three miles, I had an hour to make it in, and it was a mild summer day, this was a less self-punishing exercise than it may sound. As I trudged up to Navy Pier, Harold Budd had just started playing the performance of his piece Children on the Hill that you can hear here. I stood in one of Navy Pier's huge doorways simply transfixed. Rarely in my life have I heard another performance so lovely from beginning to end. Navy Pier is enormous, the crowd was huge and casual, and I have always been chagrined about the baby who wails like a banshee at many points during the recording. 

For many years I have toyed with the idea of transcribing this wonderful recording, but given the speed of Budd's cascading arpeggios in the 13-minute middle section, I doubted the feasibility until digital software rendered it possible to slow it waaaaay down (sometimes to 1/5th-speed) without changing the pitch, EQ-ing it to bring out selective registers. It's taken dozens of hours of ear-stretching work over the last two years, but I've done it, and the amazing Sarah Cahill will finally recreate this performance at Kansas City on Friday, Sept. 4, at the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music. It's the most difficult musicological feat I've ever attempted. The Well-Tuned Piano was child's play by comparison.

You may (and should) be familiar with the five-minute version of Children on the Hill on Budd's 1981 recording The Serpent (in Quicksilver) on the Cantil label, rereleased in 1992 on All Saints. That version never changes key or tempo, nor deviates from a B-major scale. This version is recognizably similar in motive and atmosphere, but enormously more complex. The main motive on the Cantil version is B-D#-E; here it is inverted, D#-E-G#. The opening section is based in B major, but abruptly shifts to D, C, and C#. The rapturous middle section, a torrent of Budd's trademark major-seventh chords, alternates at first between E and Db, but moves upward though D and Eb to an alternation of F and Gb before finally settling back to C# for the ending recapitulation. At no time does the key jump more than a minor third away. Interestingly, each key is associated with a particular textural configuration, so that every return of a key is also the return of a type of arpeggio and melody. Often transitions between keys are introduced by the right hand entering the new key first, so that the left hand resolves a poignant moment of bitonal dissonance. Budd says that he would sometimes use written-down motives on a scrap of paper as a guide, but that these notations are long gone. And, looking at my transcription, he wrote, "I couldn't play that in a thousand years."

Below I post my transcription of the segment from 10:30 to 11:32 on the recording. My rhythms are pretty conjectural, often simply an attempt to get all the notes in the right order. The fact that the piano is run through a harmonizer added to the difficulty. Sarah's working hard, though, and practicing along with the recording to get the unnotatable nuances of rhythm and pacing. I am thrilled that I'm finally going to get to hear this music live again, and get a recording without the crying baby. That kid must be 27 now, and in Kansas City bouncers will be on the lookout for a suspicious 27-year-old.



Comments closed. I thought this Budd was for you, but I guess it was for someone else.

August 19, 2009 6:15 PM | | Comments (6) |
Thumbnail image for Gannjkt.jpg
I got a big laugh out of Yale UP's jacket design for my Cage book (pictured). It's David Tudor's 1989 reconstruction of the original (but lost) score to 4'33". There have been so many delays on this book I had quit feeling like it was ever going to come out, but this makes it seem real again. 

We went to see Julia and Julie (or vice versa) the other night. Didn't realize half of it was about someone struggling with her blog, the other half about someone struggling to get a book out. Hey, Hollywood! - I go to the movies to escape.

August 17, 2009 2:04 PM | | Comments (6) |
David McIntire, Andrew Granade, Andy Lee, Scott Unrein, Jedd Schneider, and the UMKC gang have been doing magnificent work getting the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music (September 2-6) together, and I, in my role as wise WASP co-director, have been sending them good vibes and the occasional encouraging e-mail, and generally nodding sagely, even when they can't see me. Mikel Rouse will present and talk about his films Funding and Music for Minorities; Charlemagne Palestine will perform his organ masterpiece Schlingen-Blängen; Neely Bruce will play a Tom Johnson organ piece that consists of 70 percent silence; and Sarah Cahill and I will give Dennis Johnson's five-hour November for piano its first performance in what has to be some 47 years. In addition, Sarah will play the following concert:

Hans Otte: Das Buch der Klange (excerpt)
Harold Budd: Children on the Hill (long version, transcribed by me from a 1982 performance at New Music America)
Mamoru Fujieda: Patterns of Plants (excerpt)
Bunita Marcus: Julia
Meredith Monk: St. Petersburg Waltz
Elodie Lauten: Adamantine Sonata
Eve Beglarian: Night Psalm (world premiere)
John Adams: China Gates
Harold Budd: Children on the Hill (short version, from the recording)
Terry Riley: Be Kind to One Another

Kansas City's NewEar ensemble will perform the following pieces:

Tom Johnson: Twelve for solo piano
Terry Riley: Autumn Leaves for flute, violin, alto sax, bass clarinet, cello, piano, percussion (the piece just after In C, only heard once since the '60s)
Phill Niblock: Tow by Tom
Vladimir Tosic: Arios for cello and piano
Barbara Benary: Sun On Snow for soprano and mixed ensemble
Jakob ter Veldhuis: The Body of Your Dreams for piano and boombox
Tom Johnson: Narayana's Cows for flute, violin, alto sax, bass clarinet, cello, piano, percussion (Tom Johnson, narrator)

Tom Johnson and Robert Carl will give keynote addresses. And there will be 49 papers presented, on topics from Feldman to Eric Richards to David Lang to Phill Niblock to Jim Fox to Julius Eastman and many others. I'm excited. The papers are listed below, in approximately the order presented, though we're still moving things around. (Note the paper by my friend Dragana Stojanovic-Novicic: she's reporting on a Serbian composer, Vladan Radovanovic, who claims to have been the first minimalist.) Or you can just go see everything at the official web site and register to show up and join us. The student rate, by the way, gets you into everything for 90 bucks, so it's a steal. 

'The music you write is about the composers you like': Intertextuality in the work of Louis Andriessen - Maarten Beirens (KU Leuven, Belgium)

Metamorphic Meanings? Exploring Glass's Intertextual Soundtracks - Tristian Evans (Bangor University, Wales, UK)

'Taking a Line for a Second Walk': Mapping Intertextuality in Nyman - Pwyll ap Sion (Bangor University, Wales, UK)

Phill Niblock and identity in reductionism -  Richard Glover (University of Huddersfield)

Phill Niblock: Documentation, Analysis, Listening - Keith Potter (Goldsmith College, London)

Minimalism and the Moving Image: The films and music of Phill Niblock - Rich Housh (University of Kansas)

Same Music, Different Perceptions? Steve Reich's Six Pianos and Six Marimbas as Case Study - Kyle Fyr

Tehillim and the Fullness of Time - Gretchen Horlacher (Indiana University)

Early Steve Reich and Techno-utopianism - Kerry O'Brien (Indiana University)

Perceptible Processes in Reich's Ostinati: Arch Form and Multiple Downbeats in
Music for Eighteen Musicians - Brad Osborn (University of Washington)

Samples and the Material they create in Steve Reich's City Life - Abigail Shupe (University of Western Ontario)

Good Trains and Bad: Steve Reich and the Holocaust in American Musical Life - Sumanth Gopinath (University of Minnesota)

Images of Lincoln: Glass's Minimalist Contribution to American Historical Memory
of the Civil War - Thomas J. Kernan (University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music)

Meaning in minimalist opera: Investigating the subtext of Doctor Atomic - Sean Atkinson (University of Texas at Arlington)

Portraits of the Chinese Landscape in John Adams's Nixon in China
Timothy Johnson (Ithaca College)

From Arles to zaftig: an introduction to the operas of Michael Gordon - Jedd C. Schneider (University of Missouri - Kansas City)
Disorientation and Loss as a Response to Arvo Pärt's festina lente - David Dies

"They Just Go Round and Round": Circularity and Dystopia in The Truman Show - Rebecca M. Doran Eaton (The University of Texas at Austin, Texas State University-San Marcos)

A Postminimalist Analysis of Julius Eastman's Crazy Nigger - Andrew Hanson-Dvoracek (University of Iowa)

Julius Eastman's Musical Worlds - Ellie M. Hisama (Columbia University)

Becoming Temporal and Entropic: The aesthetics of time in Tenney's Having Never
Written a Note for Percussion and Robert Smithson's earth work - Joseph Di Ponio

David Borden's Double Portrait: Minimalist Aesthetic With Linear Time - R. Andrew Lee (University of Missouri-Kansas City)

A Personal Encounter with the Shaman of Vertical Temporality: Charlemagne
Palestine - Phillip Henderson (The University for the Creative Arts)

La Monte Young: Time and identity of the work - Jean-Pierre Caron

Reconstructing November - Kyle Gann (Bard College)

Mikel Rouse's Failing Kansas - David McIntire (University of Missouri at Kansas City)

An Ethnography of Acoustical Positivism - Jeremy Grimshaw (Brigham Young University School of Music)

La Monte Young's 1960's: The Black LP - David McCarthy (University of Minnesota)

Process as Means and End in Minimalist and Post-Minimalist Music - Galen Brown

Prime Times - Paul Epstein

Beyond Drumming: Process in the Music of David Lang - Kevin Lewis (College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati)

Metal as a Gradual Process: Minimalist Rhythmic Practices in the Music of Dream Theater - Greg McCandless (Florida State University)

David Lang's Postminimalist Work: the so-called laws of nature and the Influence of
Steve Reich - Andrew M. Bliss (University of Tennessee at Martin)

The Fear of Forgetting: Decasia and Contemporary "Memory Culture" - Jason Hibbard (University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music)

Morton Feldman, Proto-Minimalist
Brett Boutwell (Louisiana State University)

Dialectic of Dialects: American Minimalist Composers Talk Tradition - Sara Melton (University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music)

Minimal Music and the Influence of Abstract Expressionism - Elisa Weber (Florida State University)

Painting in Time and Music through Space: A Comparative Analysis of the Music of
Phill Niblock and the Art of Ad Reinhart, Mark Rothko, Richard Serra, and Carl Andre - Erika King (Bennington College)

An artistic paradigm realised: Negative space, musical minimalism and
compositional technique - Christopher Garrard (University of Durham)

Speaking Through Singing: The Spoken In the Vocals of Steve Reich's Different
Trains and Arnold Schoenberg's Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, Op. 41 - Andrew McIntyre (Indiana University)

"How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" - John Pymm (University of Wolverhampton)

The Reductionist Model as the Forerunner of Minimalist "Action": Six Two-part Chorales by Vladan Radovanovic - Dragana Stojanovic-Novicic (University of the Arts, Belgrade)

Jim Fox's The City the Wind Swept Away: Considering Juxtaposition and Decay as
Structure - Scott Unrein (University of Missouri-Kansas City)

Sample Savvy: Identification and Structure in Electronic Dance Music - Travis A. Allen (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Phasing and Form - Ryan Tanaka

Maximizing Minimalism in Michael Torke's Four Proverbs - Kathy Biddick Smith

Eric Richards and the Empirical Search for Truth and Beauty - 
Eric Smigel (San Diego State University)

The String Theory of Repetition in Sound: From the mid-20th century to the Post digital - Greg Shapley (University of Technology, Sydney)

August 12, 2009 3:53 PM | | Comments (9) |
Words from a great composer:

There was an agreement among journalists after about 1970, when America took a sharp turn to the right, to call all music that did not use traditional instruments - the orchestra or combinations of orchestral instruments - "experimental." This was a greater disappointment to me than most things that journalists do, because it showed a deep misunderstanding of the way things were. There were noble aspirations among a few younger conductors to revive the relationship between the composer and the orchestra, but there were no orchestras to speak of... there were no commissions of the sort that might be valuable to the composer, in the sense that a commission involves some sort of discussion between the composer and the orchestra; and most important of all, there was never any rehearsal time, in case an idea did not work. Orchestra commissions of the time always sounded like they were being sight-read, which in fact they were. I am sorry to say that this is still largely the case....

I think that even for the best composer (better than I am), ideas don't always work. That is why the orchestra pece without lots of rehearsal is in some way doomed. And dreaded by the composer...

[A] friend told me that a distinguished violinist told him that in his youth he had played La Mer with Ernest Ansermet's Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and had remarked to Ansermet that the violin part was not the same that he had known with other orchestras. Ansermet replied that Debussy said that he had always regretted the published violin part, and so with Ansermet's approval had written a new violin part. (Which one do we hear now?)

So, in this situation it is actually the American orchestra music that is truly "experimental." When you have thought about other kinds of musical ideas, and worked with, say, electronic music for most of your composing life, the composition is anything but experimental. It is the epitome of expertise. It may be aleatoric or purposefully unpredictable in its specific sounds, or purposefully exploratory of a sound, but experimental is the wrong word, and its use has more or less divided composers among themselves....

It is a problem to write orchestra pieces that can be played after one or two rehearsals. I can't even learn my own compositions in a six-hour rehearsal. (Recently I was listening to a performance of La Mer on the radio and remarking to myself on its difficulty and it occurred to me that is a composer wrote La Mer today, no orchestra could play it. Not enough rehearsal time.) If it were not for this drastic restriction, orchestras and orchestra literature would not be in such dire straits. And there would probably be a very different idea about electronic music, and so probably a different kind of electronic music....
- Robert Ashley, liner notes to Superior Seven, 1995

In 1997 the American Composers Orchestra, urged by board member Tom Buckner and with evident reluctance, commissioned Bob to write When Famous Last Words Fail You, for singers and orchestra. The orchestra members in the piece are cued by the lead singer's words, so the conductor merely adjusts volumes, as at a mixing board. Dennis Russell Davies ran through the piece Thursday morning before a Saturday performance. The parts had just been handed out, so everyone was clearly sight-reading. There was a planned meeting afterward to discuss the technique of the piece; that was cancelled. There was a scheduled dress rehearsal; that was cancelled. The performance was the second run-through of a piece that had never been rehearsed, and sounded awful, not at all the way Bob imagined it.

A classical music world that treats great composers that way deserves the worst that can possibly happen to it.

Comments closed.

August 11, 2009 11:57 AM | | Comments (15) |
Dave Seidel, who makes some of gentlest and most natural-sounding purely-tuned music around (sort of in the Eliane Radigue/Phill Niblock vein but with even softer edges, kind of happier), has a beautiful new album on the web called Elementals. I was about to write him and say it's too bad I don't have an internet radio station anymore, or those would go right on it. Then I had a thought. "Wait a minute!," I said to myself. "If only I possessed some means of communication with other new-music lovers, I could alert them and they could listen to the music themselves, without me as intermediary!" Brilliant, and only my second cup of coffee. Enjoy Elementals.

August 10, 2009 11:20 AM | | Comments (6) |
You know, this health care debate is setting the groundwork nicely. Everyone is familiarizing themselves with the concept that for-profit insurance companies cannot possibly act in their customers' best interests because they're trying to maximize profits, which means giving minimum service for maximum return. The obvious next step is that art is the same way. The corporations that produce most of our art and entertainment (one of those distinctions I don't make, sorry) are trying to maximize profit, which means they give us art (entertainment) that appeals to the widest number of people on the most superficial, attention-getting level. To make that art thoughtful would be counter-lucrative, because they want us continually unsatisfied and coming back for more as quickly as possible. So our television and movies consist largely of pretty people mouthing innocuous banter; we can't stop watching, but we don't get anything from it. (Well, I haven't had TV reception in 20 years, but even I reflexively glance at Jennifer Aniston when she catches my peripheral vision.*) Art that feeds us, that sustains us, that makes life worthwhile, cannot be reliably produced by an organization whose primary goal is profit. Europe offers a lot of examples that art is one of those things that the social collective, represented by government, can do better for us than people trying to turn a buck on it. Next: socialized, government-supported art. Watch how health care does, keep an eye out, and be ready to strike.

*(I keep asking her to go home, but she hangs out on my front porch.)

August 7, 2009 11:50 AM | | Comments (12) |
The composer friend I referred to recently who loves most new music but doesn't like Feldman told me why: he doesn't care for his harmony. Well, I had to grant him that. Your typical late Feldman piece starts out with a pitch set like B-C-C#-D, and while sometimes there's a third thrown in so it's C#-A-C-D, he doesn't vary a lot in that respect. I don't even think it's a fault: Feldman needed to create a floating musical stasis, and harmony tends to mooooove somewhere, so to do what Feldman needed to do, he had to put harmony on the back burner and turn it down to simmer. His sonorities are in technicolor, but when you reduce them to pitches and ignore timbre and spacing, there's not a lot there. In fact, I would charge that some of the young composers who picked up where Feldman left off, like John Luther Adams and Bernadette Speach and Peter Garland and me, did so thinking: "Hmmm, I could do the same thing and use funner harmony." So if one of your ear's big things is harmony and you hear everything in Feldman but that - well, case dismissed. You're off the hook.

Truth, as has been said, is in the details.

There have been some comments to this blog lately lamenting relativism in aesthetic judgments, saying that if we give up the idea of objective musical standards, then we can't argue that classical music should be supported over pop music, everything is relative, and our entire art is doomed, everyone will listen to rap and pop because there's no factual standard on which to defend classical music. I believe there is no such thing as complete objectivity, but I also believe there is no such thing as complete subjectivity. There's always something there that our perceptions did not create. (Had a fun e-mail argument about this with Glenn Branca, once. He proved to me there was no complete objectivity and I proved, I think, the impossibility of total subjectivity. It ended amicably.)

I've alluded here before to an unforgettable conversation I once had with John Luther Adams, trudging in high winds and freezing cold through the snowy woods around Fairbanks, and I've promised to tell you about it someday. Maybe this is the time. John and I put together a registry of musical virtues that was isomorphically analogous to a classification of audiences. 

For instance: there are people for whom the best music must involve innovation. These people are likely to value Varese, Partch, Cage. There are others who value craftsmanship above all else. These people tend to like Hindemith, Sessions, perhaps Ligeti. Other people feel that music should be, above all else, emotionally true; perhaps they gravitate toward Barber, Vaughan Williams, maybe Messiaen. There are people who love music for its sonic lushness and sensuousness, who may relish Takemitsu and Feldman. There are people who value clarity, who value simplicity, who value intellectualism, who value memorability, who value physicality, who value theoretical rigor. Most people value several of these virtues, and we could create Venn diagrams of audiences who love different new musics because of the specific virtues they possess. The innovation + emotive sincerity intersectors love Ives. The intellectualism + sensuousness people love Takemitsu. That's what John and I were coming up with. 

I think these virtues could be categorized, and I think it would be a worthwhile and revealing musicological exploit. I think it could become the prolegomena to a sociology of new-music (and other) audiences. 

Where subjectivity comes in is that there is no objective criterion by which we can proclaim that craftsmanship is a higher virtue than innovation or sensuousness. We just can't. One type of personality will value the careful, revising craftsman over the visionary innovator who comes up with something radically new, and that's what makes horseraces. There is no way to objectively rank the artistic virtues. They are too closely allied to the structure of personality. Where objectivity comes in is in determing what innovation or craftsmanship is. Say you love innovation but don't believe Varèse was innovative? Good luck. I want to read the treatise proving your point, but if it doesn't grab me in three sentences I'm trashing it. We can prove on paper that Varèse was an amazing innovator, whether that impresses you or not. I happen not to care much for Varèse because, for me, innovation is kind of wasted if the music doesn't grab me emotionally, and his doesn't; but I grant he was innovative. You think Crumb is a better composer than Sessions? You have my blessing. You think Crumb was a better craftsman than Sessions? You're an idiot. If there was a virtue that Sessions nailed to the floor immovably and for all time, it was craftsmanship. Maybe lacking in spontaneity, lacking in originality, in imagination, in goal-directedness, in sensuouness, arguably, but craftsmanship? If craftsmanship means anything in music, Sessions had it in spades. We can argue whether Partch's music shows good craft, and give examples; that's a still partially subjective but more limited and rational dispute than whether he was a "good composer."

The only question then is, how high is craftsmanship in the list of musical virtues? For me, personally - and no one else is bound by this - craftsmanship is one of the secondary virtues. I fancy that there is considerable craftsmanship in my music, but I do not want it calling attention to itself, and I try to keep it in the background. Though I do value craftsmanship, I'm not a fan of the sound of exposed craftsmanship, but a believer in Mozart's "artless art." I feel that what an artist has to say is more important than how well he says it, and for an impetuous sincerity or an uninhibited imagination I will easily forgive a shortage of craftsmanship. If you disagree I cannot refute you, nor can you argue me out of that position because there's no objective basis to do so with. It's just my personality. Or at least, having made more defensible determinations about which music possesses which virtues, perhaps we can have a different argument about which virtues should be accorded a higher place. After all, I have reasons for placing imagination and convincing emotion above innovation, and innovation above craftsmanship, and if I have reasons (as opposed to irrational personal preferences), I can be wrong.

There are people for whom depth is the major musical virtue - and by depth in this context I mean not profundity per se, but the ability of music to reveal more and more layers of meaning on repeated hearings. Depth is certainly a virtue. Many people use this virtue to prize classical music above popular music. I have often had the experience, though, of listening to a pop record and not really appreciating it the first time, but having it grow on me more and more. I've had that experience with pop music as often as I've had it with classical music. Many people who push this virtue use it to prop up the reputation of complex music. But in the early 1980s I turned off a recording of Carter's Double Concerto on what must have been my 75th listening with the score precisely because of that: I wasn't getting any more out of it than I had at the last ten listenings. I had milked it dry. It wasn't yielding anything else.

You want a composer with depth? Robert Ashley. There is so much in his music that pieces I've listened to and even studied for 30 years are yielding up phrases and patterns I've never noticed before. He is utterly inexhaustible. And yet, I don't think Ashley is the kind of composer the depth advocates have in mind. In general I think depth is kind of a red herring, a nice virtue but not truly at the top of anyone's list. The last time I listened closely to Beethoven's Appassionata sonata, I savored it, but I don't really think I found anything I hadn't heard ten years ago. Satie is one of my favorites and I find him extremely profound, but I don't think I'll hear things in Embryons Desséchées the next time I hear it that I haven't noticed before. What's important to me is that I can keep listening to a piece without growing tired of it. 

This is where some pop music I like, but not all, falls apart for me. I'm a Waylon Jennings fan, which I don't often admit - must be something in the Texas water. I find his songs inventive and emotionally satisfying, but I can't listen to them often because the production values - canned audience shouts, instrumental bridges so identical that they sound cut and pasted in the audio software - seem plastic and articifical. Once every other year I can ignore that for the great word/tune relationship and the fuck-you attitude, but too soon a second listening and I feel sick.

But in the pop music I love best, like Brian Eno and the Residents, the virtues I enjoy are exactly those I love in the classical music I love best: imagination, inventiveness, emotional connection, memorability. Earlier in my life I searched hard for the DNA that separates pop music from classical, and you know what? I never found it. The more I looked at the pop music I loved, the more exactly its virtues resembled those of my favorite classical music. I never found a line I could draw. The only pop/classical distinction that ever made sense to me was the one Bob Ashley told me on a bar stool in Chicago in 1986: "Over five minutes it's classical, under five minutes it's pop." Accordingly, I've always thought of Schubert's songs as really, really good pop music. And of Brian Eno's Evening Star album, with its long tone poems, as utterly classical. Imagination is near the top of my virtues list, and I hear more imagination in almost any Eno song than in all the Elgar I've ever heard put together.

So all these bloggers who reel on endlessly about the pop/classical problem, and how we have to protect classical music in a pop-oriented world: I simply will not partake. I believe in genres defined by specific, pin-pointable qualities, from reggae to heavy metal to totalism to postminimalism to impressionism to spectralism to to space-age bachelor pad music to bluegrass, but "classical" and "pop" are industry-created categories, economic categories, and they leave no traces for me in the music. Whether I'm listening to a song by Loudon Wainwright III or Brian Eno or Charles Ives or Sir William Walton, I want the relation of melody and accompaniment to words elegantly and creatively handled. 

What I will defend is the right of people with different values to have the music of their favorite virtues preserved. Thus I suppose I end up having the same aim as the elitists, but I will not use elitist rhetoric to achieve it. I will not say that "depth," or length, or complexity, or intellectualism - or simplicity, or communicativeness, or innovation, or memorability, or sincerity - is a higher virtue than some other. But I do feel strongly that minorities have their rights, and that those who want to hear craftsmanship, or sensuousness, or intellectualism, or depth have the right to have their music supported. Insofar as most pop music is songs, there are some virtues that no pop music has, virtues that can't be demonstrated in three minutes. The "objective standards" that some of my commenters use against pop music has just as often been used against minimalism and a lot of the other music I love. There are no objective standards. But there is an infinity of objective facts, there is a quasi-infinity of musical virtues, and no majority or plurality has the right to proclaim that we all have to content ourselves with the music that embodies their particular favorite virtues. That is as true for those who would defend classical music from pop-music encroachment as it is for those who would defend minimalism against the classical snobs.

August 6, 2009 11:46 PM | | Comments (19) |
I've loved Robert Ashley's Perfect Lives for 30 years, but I'd never gone through it line by line until this last couple of weeks. I frequently teach scenes 1 ("The Park") and 4 ("The Bar"). But scene 6, "The Church," is the climax of the piece in terms of word density and everything else, and while I had certain passages memorized, I'd never pieced the throughline together. It is absolutely astonishing. The scene is Ed and Gwyn's elopement in Indiana, and the marriage sermon gives them the three rules, which represent three eons of human history: 

1. Don't talk to yourself
2. Speak only when you're spoken to
3. Make sense

"Don't talk to yourself" is a reminder that talk isn't a part of understanding, but a habit, an arrangement of sounds. The arrangement requires a partner, and thus, historically, marriage followed conversation. "Don't talk to yourself" means to stop arranging things when you're alone, and to not use for yourself what belongs to all of us: sounds. "Speak only when you're spoken to" represents the dilemma of the second historical eon, in which humankind struggled to reconcile its arrangements of marriage and religion, leading to the third eon, in which we make sense: "we have accomplished ourselves, / (Or invented man, as The Philosopher says)." 

The background here is that Ashley was, at the time, immersed in a 1976 book that I also read when it was new, Julian Jaynes's The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes's theory was that the ancients, for example the ancient Greeks, had no communication between the hemispheres of their brain, and received messages from the right hemisphere that seemed to come from outside, and they interpreted those messages as the voice of gods. So, for instance, Agamemnon hearing the voice of Apollo was actually hearing an auditory hallucination from his own brain. Later man learned to integrate the two hemispheres, so the voices no longer sounded like they were coming from outside. The book was controversial at the time, but the nitwits at Wikipedia seem to suggest that it has withstood scrutiny. (All the cockeyed ideas I ingested about left brain/right brain theory started with that book.) At the other end, Ashley was convinced at the time that he had a mild form of Tourette's Syndrome, in that he sometimes had to leave parties to let off an involuntary stream of words - and it was in recording those words that Perfect Lives began. So he's actually tracing a presumed history of consciousness from when speech was involuntary and hallucinatory (the eon before "Don't talk to yourself") to its use in creating social connections to its reflexive function in a narrative that gives life meaning - the increasingly conscious employment of language. Ed and Gwyn's wedding is thereby contextualized at that point in human evolution; on top of which, the vegetarian Theosophist Ed is modeled on a guy Ashley knew in high school who wanted to marry his sister, and who is further described in his opera Dust, and so on. The levels never end.

Also Ashley, let us not forget, was kept from getting a music doctorate by my book's arch villain Ross Lee Finney, so instead he worked at the U. of Michigan Speech Research Lab, funded by Bell Laboratories, doing groundbreaking research on the causes of stuttering. And so Ashley's given a lot of thought to the purpose and origins of speech for several decades, and the basic idea of his life's work since 1978 is that language is music. Some people refuse to consider him a composer because they can't understand this simple, crucial, and scientifically defensible point. His opera Foreign Experiences is full of profanity because profanity is how we slow speech down and attend to its sound rather than its sense; and one of my favorite Ashley lines is one I haven't retraced to its source yet: "Who could speak if every word had meaning?" And threaded through his operas you find fragments of an epistemology and a philosophy of language, as in "The Church":

Language has sense built in. It's easy to 
Make sense. To make no sense is possible,
But hard. Language does not have truth built in.
It's hard to make truth, which is to stop the search. 

So for Ashley language is an arrangement of sounds ("Sound is the only thing we can arrange") that is really music, and its meaning is secondary to its interpersonal and aesthetic functions of binding us together and clarifying our arrangements. He says that Jacqueline Humbert (Linda in Improvement: Don Leaves Linda) and his son Sam pick up the intentions of his operas instantly because they're both from southern Michigan and can catch his inflections: in other words, his operas are about the music of the way southern Michiganders speak.

Now, there are three reactions you can have to all this, and I have all three at once: This is crazy; This is unbelievably profound; and, There's some scientific or historical truth being presented in this oblique way, and I ought to be able to tease it out. But it's all poetry, and so resists both paraphrase and explanation. Perfect Lives is, I've become convinced, one of the great epic poems in the English language, the Paradise Lost of postmodernism. Ashley is the perfect new composer for nonmusicians, because his operas deal with crucially essential stuff outside the music world. You have to read a lot of books to fully trace Ashley's steps, and I'm going to have to write my own book and then read those books: otherwise I won't know what I'm looking for. For instance, I read in Lama Anagarika Govinda's introduction to The Tibetan Book of the Dead that the "illusoriness of death comes from the identification of the individual with his temporal, transitory form, whether physical, emotional, or mental"; and it hits me that, in "The Park," Raoul de Noget muses, 

Everything in the transitory category turned out to be
the particulars of our existence,
and these were divided into physical, mental, and others
that were neither physical nor mental.

The more I read Ashley and listen to the details and try to thread it all together, the more awestruck I am. What some commenter here said of Charles Ives is true of Ashley too: he's so incredible that people can't believe someone can be that brilliant and insightful and prophetic, so they just assume there's some hoax going on: the confederacy of dunces phenomenon. I don't believe I've ever encountered a more profound figure in the history of music.

August 4, 2009 10:03 PM | | Comments (5) |
Recognize the style?


I was looking for some old papers and stumbled across this piece that I wrote as a first-semester freshman at Oberlin, in 1973. It's a setting of a poem by Jean Valentine, The Knife, which I've written about here before. This isn't the final score, which is lost, but a first draft - and since we did actually perform it, I hope to god I was forced to put in bar lines and rhythmicize all those damn grace notes in the piano. I was somewhere between Berio's Circles, Stockhausen's Klavierstücke, and George Crumb, with lots of piano pizzicato and the flutist and pianist whispering certain words in echo of the soprano. Geez. I think somewhere I may even have a recording of it. I promise to destroy it before I pass on to a better world.

Anyway, you can see that I was a nice, enthusiastic, obedient modernist at one point. I so impressed people with the complexity of this piece that I was admitted to private lessons my second semester, instead of spending a whole year in the composition class, which was the intended norm. But in summer of '74 I discovered Glass and Reich, and though I wrote one more cerebral, dissonant, unfinished piece after this, I wrote a piece called Satie in spring of '75, entirely in the C major scale - I had acquired a new girlfriend, always the impetus behind a major creative breakthrough for male composers between 17 and 23, and I leaped into minimalism like a man leaping from a sinking ship to a fragile raft. It may have been the most sensible move of my life.

Of course, what made my atonal music so awful in that period was my monochromatic criterion for choosing each next note: as dissonant with the preceding as possible. The moratorium I truculently upheld on fifths, sixths, and thirds is absurd. Today if a student brought me crap like this I'd try to show him or her some second-level way of working with pitch sets or interval sequences that would allow for more harmonic nuance and variety. By the time I wrote Satie I had had, however briefly some of them, six composition teachers: Howard Dunn, Alvin Epstein, Joseph Wood, Randy Coleman, Karl Korte, Greg Proctor. I don't remember any of them dealing with this issue, though it's entirely possible that they did and I was just too immature to grasp the problem or take the bait. I have never felt comfortable with the mechanical or algorithmic generation of pitches, though ironically it seemed more acceptable in a diatonic or pitch-restricted context, where the results had a simpler profile. I do wonder how things might have been different had I found a simpatico teacher as an undergrad, which I never did. I am far closer to some of my composition students than I ever was to an undergrad composition teacher, and I give them a hell of a lot more encouragement than I ever received.

August 3, 2009 12:13 AM | | Comments (8) |
I don't know that I have a musical style, but I think that one of my compositional strengths - for those who consider it a strength rather than a limitation - is that I draw out the idea of each piece, each movement, very clearly. That is, given recordings of the first five measures of most of my pieces, plus a random measure from later in one of those pieces, I think even a child could match the random measure with the correct opening. The first conductor of my Transcendental Sonnets expressed amazement at how clearly the five songs were differentiated from each other, no two having the same approach to harmony. Many composers are language-based; by many, I mean almost everyone from Bach to Schoenberg and beyond, and by language-based, I mean that they have a continuing musical language evident in piece after piece, in which their ideas are expressed. But I'm more image-based, meaning that for each piece I choose a handful of elements, some of which appear nowhere else in my music. I've got pieces entirely in 2/4 or 4/4, some with constantly changing meters, and some with 2 or 4 or 7 tempos always going at once, so characterizing "my rhythmic language" is a fool's errand. (On the other hand, I think I have a certain melodic style that no one has ever drawn attention to, and I am a little overly addicted to encompassing my music between high, sustained flute tones and a pizzicato bass line.) One of the main questions I'm always asking my composition students is, "What is the idea of this piece?" It's one they are often reluctant to answer, sometimes even seem to resent, and perhaps it's not as universally applicable a query as I try to make it. But, for instance, one could ask Beethoven for the idea of the Appassionata sonata, and I would imagine the answer having something to do with going from the tonic precipitously to the Neapolitan chord and working one's way back. That answer would not explain as much about the piece, though, as my answers about my own pieces tend to do, because Beethoven was implementing that idea within a common classical language. 

There is a broad continuum, of course, between language-based and image- or idea-based, with most composers in-between somewhere, but I think I am nearer the latter extreme. Moreover, I think the same is true of many composers of my generation, particularly those who once got excited about minimalism or conceptualism. 

So I habitually explain this phenomenon in terms of postminimalism, but I also regard it as something of a pop sensibility in my music. That may, indeed, only relate to Brian Eno. I was excited, back in the '70s, to discover Eno's instrumental albums Music for Airports and especially Another Green World. It would be too simplistic to say I got the idea from Eno, but I immediately grasped something I wanted to copy in Eno's little instrumentals that simply repeated the same motif over and over, with a characteristic rhythm and timbre. It was also far more true of his songs than of most pop songs, too: songs like "The Fat Lady of Limbourg," "Julie with...," "Blank Frank," "King's Lead Hat," "Here He Comes," were remarkably distinct in their identities, each with a characteristic, instantly recognizable accompaniment pattern and sound. I saw that distinctness as a delightful virtue that set Eno far above the other pop music I heard. I thought Another Green World's vignettes were perfect in their way but shorter and more simplistic than what I wanted to aim for; I imagined pieces like his but lasting for ten or 20 minutes, with the materials revealed less repetitiously, more intuitively or permutationally. A composer's education being what it is, I remained wrapped up in the more classical language-based paradigm through the '80s (I'itoi Variations, The Convent at Tepoztlan), but I've kept that goal in mind, and seem to be getting closer and closer. 

The thing is, I don't think we have much of a tradition yet for discussing music in such terms. We recognize Feldman's musical language, and Xenakis's, and Ligeti's, and Glass's, and we talk fluently about composers who develop the same language in piece after piece. We have more trouble discussing in general terms composers like Larry Polansky, Jim Tenney, Eve Beglarian, Clarence Barlow, and myself who may write atonal pieces, microtonal pieces, tonal pieces, world-music-influenced pieces, process pieces, idea-based pieces, and who devote more creative energy to the specific world of each piece, the working out of each idea, than to the development of a general language in which one could sit down and write a song, a concerto, and a quartet using similar textures and materials. I believe there is a throughline (though I don't worry about it much) to the types of ideas I grapple with, even though the surface materials change radically from work to work. It's a fairly new, piece-based rather than style-based paradigm that I hope writers on music start to wrestle with, because in discussions of style, I and some of my favorite composers are likely to be left out - for reasons that are entirely intentional on my part, and that I have no desire to reverse.

August 1, 2009 4:36 PM | | Comments (7) |

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