main: May 2010 Archives

I used to have an apartment in Queens, but I missed the grinding roar of power tools so much that I just had to move out to the country again.

May 31, 2010 11:16 AM | | Comments (2) |
Here's a common academicism that always irks me:

As is the case in the other works of Hartmann's maturity, the layout of the Horn Concerto is best understood against a background of formal conventions familiar from the music of the Classic and Romantic eras. This does not imply that the music merely conforms to the outlines of, say, textbook sonata or rondo forms; on the contrary, key features of such stereotypes are placed in focus just sufficiently for the listener to be alert to the ongoing play of near-repetitions, etc.

I have changed the name of the composer and the work because I have no wish to draw arbitrary attention to the offending author in this instance; dozens of other examples would have served as well. But this is clearly a book analyzing the form of some modern work. Anyone old enough to be reading such a book is also likely to be educated enough to know that textbook cases of sonata form are extremely rare, and, in 20th-century repertoire, almost unheard of. But here the author, like so many of them, starts out to say that the work, as is very common, makes reference to the conventions of sonata form. Then he has a sudden, disquieting thought: perhaps his reader is a college sophomore music major who has learned about sonata form just recently, and will jump to the conclusion that the piece is in textbook sonata form! No no, he must be dissuaded from this in the next sentence! And thus the author addresses me as though I must be reading a book waaay too advanced for me, and he must condescend to guide my little mind out of the ruts it doubtless fell into in my early undergraduate years. 

The other form this usually takes is in a discussion of some famous modern composer who uses a device common in classical music, or also used by other composers. BUT THIS DOES NOT IMPLY that he has used it unoriginally, or without putting his own delectably brilliant spin on it. 

And in my mind, I invariably interrupt the flow of my reading to respond:

OF COURSE it doesn't imply that, you condescending prick.

May 28, 2010 1:31 PM | | Comments (10) |
Muczynski.jpgOn the piano recital I gave as a high school senior, the composer represented by the most works was Robert Muczynski (b. 1929) - kind of a middle-of-the-road, unsystematically dissonant, respectable Americanist composer. I still have the Xeroxed scores my piano teacher gave me, in a box somewhere. Muczynski is primarily known for his flute music, it seems, particularly a sonata that still gets played. I am informed that he died Tuesday, in Tucson, whence whither he had emigrated from Chicago.

UPDATE: The redoubtable Walter Simmons gives a detailed tribute to Muczynski that reinforces and fleshes out the image I always had of him. His description of the music can't, I think, be bettered.

May 26, 2010 3:20 PM | | Comments (5) |
Four days into the summer, I've completed my first piece. Larry Polansky publishes an expanding book of rounds, and for years he's been bugging me to write one, so I finally did. Dodecaphonically. [UPDATE: Larry's put a better copy on the web here, and you can also see a lot of the other rounds in his collection.] [MIDI piano version here.]

It's pretty singable if you don't try the repeat. [UPDATE: It occurs to me that it would be more consonant and easier to sing if the repeat used P11 (down a half-step), the next repeat P10, and so on. Sort of like "12 Bottles of Beer on the Wall."] [Still other versions could use P10 on the repeat and descend via whole-steps, or repeat with P6. It's kind of amazingly flexible.]

I feel it's also a nice mnemonic device.

I'm donating all royalties to the Society for Minimalism Music.

May 25, 2010 7:23 PM | | Comments (4) |
Jason Gross, the tireless entrepreneur of Perfect Sound Forever, asked dozens of critics, myself included, what kind of advice they'd give to aspiring young critics, and he's beginning to post the answers here (critics A through D this week; I presume I'll be in the following alphabetic fistful). [UPDATE: Oops: E through K appeared while I was writing this.] My first thought was, there are still aspiring young critics? My second was, what advice would do them any good at THIS point? But on reflection I managed to come up with some, not nearly as practical as the average represented. Some of the advice is pretty good. I like this from Ted Barron at Boogie Woogie Flu: "Avoid hero worshipping. Musicians, however much you may admire their works, are just people. Know them personally, be one, be something." Peter Blackstock's rules are ones I followed instinctively, out of sheer terror of unemployment:

1) Be on time. 
2) Turn in clean copy. 
3) Be open to assignments. 
4) Familiarize yourself as fully as possible with the publication to whom you're pitching. 
5) Don't sell yourself short.

And I fully endorse Jon Caramanica's "Have an opinion. Believe in it. It might be wrong--that's OK." Most emphasize that no one can make a living as a critic these days, and you'll have to have a day job in addition. That's probably true. Still, while I never lived high as a critic (my top salary at the Voice was a little over $30,000, plus I was free-lancing for other publications that added a fraction to that), in the '80s it gave me a living wage at a time when there was nothing else I could have done. I don't think Walmart would have hired me. I was only qualified for academia, and completely out of sync with what academia was mandating at the time. For me, criticism felt like a gold mine I'd stumbled across. But those were different times. 

The problem, of course, is that most of this is pop advice, and the criteria for pop and classical critics don't greatly overlap (making my contribution come off as pretty pompous in context, though I stand by it for anyone who wants to do what I did). A lot of what's offered has to do with developing your own literary style, which is not really expected of classical critics, and hardly feasible in any publication that gives you fewer column inches than the New Yorker. You become a pop critic by spinning wild fantasies about where some band's persona fits into the social scheme; you become a classical (or jazz, I think) critic by being a snob with a big record collection and pretentiously high standards. I'm a great believer in criticism, and consider it a potentially noble profession, but until we train people to do it, and teach them various modes of criticism, and hold them to rigorous standards, and give them enough space and scope in our publications to let them be intelligent, the bulk of it (the classical stuff, anyway) seems like a waste of ink. Alex Ross and his New Yorker space should be the pattern, not, as they are, the absolutely anomalous exception. The rest is, and can only be, little more than hit-or-miss PR. Thus my disinclination to put much energy into advice for a profession otherwise close to my heart. "Get Alex Ross's job" is pretty empty advice while he's still so young.

* * * * * * * * * *

Speaking of which, I got an advance copy of Alex's new book Listen to This (everyone still thinks I'm a critic), idly started reading it, and its bristling energy alone made it difficult to put down. He really is the classical Lester Bangs. 

Also relatedly, with the subject heading "'English' reviewers may suck but Irish reviewers ROCK!", wildly red-haired Irishman Bob Gilmore alerts me to a more factually accurate review of my 4'33" book in the Irish Times. I guess I'm going to have to read George Prochnik's In Pursuit of Silence, with which I keep being paired. 

May 25, 2010 7:38 AM | | Comments (0) |
Wow - Jay Batzner over at Sequenza 21 gave The Planets as insightful and complimentary a review (or are those the same thing?) as I ever expect to get. I especially appreciate: "I never feel as if I am receiving some grand and verbose lecture on How to Write Post-Minimal Music, even though this disc is a treasure trove of relationships and techniques."

May 22, 2010 6:06 PM | | Comments (2) |
I still have a couple of full days this week, but the bulk of my school work came to an abrupt halt last night, giving me today my first chance to breathe in weeks. Except for their orchestral performances this Friday, my seniors are pretty much packed off into the world to start figuring out, come Sunday, what they're going to do with their lives. 

I didn't get a chance to write about the contemporary music festival at Sam Houston State University at which I was the featured composer. I spent several days that week on the street that Kate Winslet runs up, trying to forestall Kevin Spacey's execution, in the film The Life of David Gale. I highly recommend the movie, and the surprise ending is too good to tell you much about it. It's about the Texas prison system, and the "walls" unit at Huntsville, Texas, where prisoners are executed and where the ending of the movie takes place, is two short blocks from the SHSU music school. A few years ago in real life, someone on death row shot a guard, escaped, and hijacked a car being driven by the music department's piano tuner, holding her hostage for a few hours. She's reportedly still in therapy about it. (Puts Bard's inconveniences in perspective, I guess.) At 1:55 in the film you can see a corner of the music building behind Kate Winslet as she's running - unfortunately, I forgot to take my camera, and can't give you a comparison shot. I got kind of a kick out of it, and also out of the excellent local barbecue.

Also from the honor and the performances, highlights of which came from John Lane's superb Percussion Ensemble, which played all three of my Snake Dances on one concert; and from my old friend Rob Hunt, who was among my inner circle at Skyline High School in Dallas (back when it was the arts magnet school), and who now teaches piano and accompanying at SHSU. I also enjoyed meeting SHSU composers Brian Herrington, Carlo "Vini" Frizzo, Kyle Kindred, John Crabtree, and Trent Hanna, who had pieces performed. All are considerably younger than me (while at 54 I'm still the youngest composer at Bard), and it was refreshing to spend a few days among young music professors with new initiatives and ideas. It's quite an active and varied music scene down there - and I found it similar to music schools in the 1970s midwest in terms of being very stylistically open-minded. It's so ridiculous, in 2010, to be otherwise.

As a result of that and other events, I've got a spate of new recordings up on my web site. While I was in Texas, John Kennedy conducted my orchestra piece The Disappearance of All Holy Things from this Once So Promising World at Oberlin, creating my first usable recording of that piece; and at Ball State guitarist Derek Johnson made a nice studio recording of my electric guitar quartet Composure (with Collin Marone, Zachary Barr, and Andrew Cowling). From SHSU I got a recording of the premiere of Snake Dance No. 3 and a couple of early songs no one had ever sung before (Jacklyn Kuklenz and Rebecca Costillo, singers). So here's some 38 minutes of new recordings:

Snake Dance No. 3 (11:29)
Composure  (13:43)
The Disappearance of All Holy Things (11:38)
I Slept and Dreamed that Life Was Beauty (1:45)
In the Busy Streets (0:43)

The final two songs, with texts by Ellen Sturgis Hooper and Henry David Thoreau respectively, are from a projected song cycle of Transcendentalist songs that I never got very far with. Their stylistic anachronism may seem puzzling; I was much taken, at one point, with Ezra Pound's concept of setting poetry to music as a species of literary criticism, and I always tried to fit the music to the style and milieu of the poem. 

I didn't finish the song cycle, though, because it is difficult to get singers to give time to new repertoire, and as a student I had absorbed Cage's advice about never writing a piece without a performance prospect in mind. He had seen Adolph Weiss become bitter because he had produced so many scores that never got premiered, and he advised young composers not to fall into this trap. I took the advice perhaps too seriously, and have almost never written anything without setting up in advance the means of its performance. I'm changing my mind about this. If there's anything I'm bitter about today, it might be the pieces I thought of writing and never did because no performance opportunity ever came up. Instead, when faced with a commissionless period I wrote only Disklavier pieces and electronic ones I could perform myself. I think I'm not going to limit myself this way anymore. After all, performances aren't everything; they're often disappointing (though the ones above are lovely), the recording doesn't come out well, the critic doesn't show up and if he does the reviews are stupid or meaningless, and I get sufficiently excited from hearing the music in my head and knowing what I've achieved. Anyway, I'll be spending the first part of the summer writing a string quartet for which I do have a performance lined up, and afterward I'm thinking of embarking on some more quixotic projects. I may even set to music a few of those poems I never got around to.

May 17, 2010 1:05 PM | | Comments (8) |
[UPDATED BELOW, + FINAL UPDATE] Literarily, if not always musically, I am something of an Anglophile, a frank worshipper of that scepter'd isle, that earth of majesty and seat of Mars, the land of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Dickens, and Trollope. But I have now had three book reviews from English critics, and they have been appalling in their incompetence.

The first was by composer Thomas Adès, who reviewed my Nancarrow book for the London Times. He accused me of having squelched, for some nefarious reason, the third of Conlon's Three Canons for Ursula. In fact, Conlon had told me he had given up on the third canon as too difficult; he showed me a sketch, and told me to disregard it, though apparently he completed and released it later. Adès also noted that Study No. 31 was the only one whose tempo canon lines didn't converge until after the piece was over, and puzzled over why I failed to notice the fact; meanwhile, the diagram of that study, on page 31 of said book, is accompanied by the note, "the only canon whose convergence point lies beyond its temporal frame," and I reiterate the point in my fuller discussion of the piece on page 129. Overall, Adès's review contained more mistakes than my entire book.

The second was even worse, a review in Music and Letters by some hack whose name I have taken the trouble to forget. He claimed that for me, every Nancarrow work was a masterpiece, and that I conceded no faults to even the least offerings of his output. Actually, about half of Nancarrow's works I characterized as "merely experimental," or "not his best work." (And I was more generous than Nancarrow was to himself, who was more self-critical than he needed to be.)

And now a purported Englishman yclept Nikil Saval [UPDATE: turns out he's Asian-American from California, but it's the lousy editorial policies of English publications that are at issue] has reviewed my book on Cage's 4'33" in a magazine called The New Statesman. Mr. Saval claims that in my book I say that Cage explained the piece to the audience before its premiere; that the piece was met with polite applause; that I compared that premiere to the premiere of The Rite of Spring, forgetting that Stravinsky's work precipitated a riot; and that I claim that 4'33" blurred the difference between art and life. Of course, I wrote none of those things. The first three are patently untrue, and the fourth an opinion to which I would not have committed myself.

I have had American critics disagree with things I've written, sometimes snidely, but no American reviewer has yet made up things I never said (or claimed that I didn't say things that I did) in order to chastise me for them. I never wanted to generalize based on only two examples, but after three out of three, I am moved to conclude that English book reviewers are perhaps the most incompetent and mendacious book reviewers in the world, or at least to ever disgrace the English language. And I wonder how a country that has produced such a glory of literature can abide such pathetically low standards in its literary magazines.

UPDATE: I did a little checking on Saval. He's a grad student in English at Stanford, and a fan of Brian Ferneyhough, the big composer at Stanford and someone absolutely unsympathetic to Cage [or perhaps not - see comments]. This sheds a little light on why Saval would waste his time reviewing a book about a piece he obviously didn't respect in the first place. I hope his idol gave him a pat on the head. Whether Saval is man enough to print corrections of his misstatements, I'm waiting to see. [UPDATE: He never did, the little weasel. Not a true critic.] I, meanwhile, while still wondering why English magazines have such low standards, must retract my generality about English critics. 

FINAL UPDATE: Let me be clear: this is not about me getting a negative review. I've gotten negative reviews in the last few years and have never mentioned one on this blog before. This is about professional ethics. I have said here before that when critics make factual errors, they need to be called on it, to keep them honest. When you get caught on a factual error, you automatically print a correction, no quibbling about it. I followed that rule as a professional critic for 23 years - indeed, my editors would never have let me do anything else. When I brought a couple of factual errors to Saval's attention, he quibbled, and admitted I hadn't written what he attributed to me, but thought it was close enough. That would not have been acceptable behavior at the Village Voice in my day, and if it is acceptable at The New Statesman, I'll never look at The New Statesman. It was at that point that I wrote the blog entry. Had he responded professionally and responsibly, you would never have heard about it. A critic who is not embarrassed about factual mistakes and who will not reflexively correct them is a disgrace to the profession, and should be called out.

May 10, 2010 6:53 PM | | Comments (13) |
Thirteen Sixteen kids have signed up for my 12-tone Analysis seminar, and only 6 7 for my Beethoven class.

UPDATE: And by the way, for those of you who were getting malware warnings when trying to access my blog, Fearless Leader Douglas McLennan explains. Sorry about that.

May 2, 2010 3:26 PM | | Comments (6) |

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This page is a archive of entries in the main category from May 2010.

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