How Did We Ever Get By Without Justice?

I've been waiting for months for some kind of announcement, and I've seen nothing public about this at all. But through the grapevine I've long known that the Foundation for Contemporary Arts granted this year's Robert Rauschenberg Award to Elodie Lauten and the John Cage Award to Phill Niblock. Both carry pretty large cash components. Week after week I watch a myriad groove-made, even-measured, monotonous, non-rhythmed, indoor-smelling, priest-taught, academic, post-adolescent, conservatory-trained hacks win every golden prize in the … [Read more...]

Nancarrow Study RR

A keynote address I delivered in 2012 for the Nancarrow festival in London is going into Music Theory Online, the web journal of the Society for Music Theory. The above link [updated 3.25.14] was put up for my proof-reading convenience, and I don't know how long it will remain before being whisked behind some paywall or something [it won't be]. But it explicitly states that I own the copyright, so for now knock yourselves out. Readers of my Nancarrow book will not find anything particularly new here, though I do talk more, I think, about … [Read more...]

Where One Looks for It, Evidence Will Be Found

As research for next fall's Beethoven class, I just finished reading Barry Cooper's Beethoven. Excellent book: crisp, intelligently revisionist, scrupulously factual, devoid of any retro sentimentality. I highly recommend it. I'm going to take exception to examples in it of the way we talk about classical music, and I don't want to give the impression that I'm criticizing Cooper, or even disagreeing with him. He does something we all do, and it's not necessarily a wrong thing to do, but I think we should think about the ramifications. In his … [Read more...]

Typical Composing-World Disconnect

Esa-Pekka Salonen has significantly influenced the field of composition? As a conductor, I presume they mean? Or perhaps someone more au courant than myself can offer a list of Salonen-influenced composers? Or a characterization of how a Salonen-influenced piece can be recognized? Nothing against the guy, but I thought he fairly recently quit conducting to devote himself to composing, and already he's a major influence? … [Read more...]

The Timing of Rhapsodic Outbursts

This comment on the Concord Sonata by John Kirkpatrick, included by him in a July 25, 1937, letter to Ives, is very perceptive, attests to the depth of Kirkpatrick's aesthetic taste, and is well worth keeping in mind given the occasional charges of formlessness (unjustly) brought against the work: I don’t know any long work that is so triumphantly sure in the instinctive justness of its timing – and it’s not a piece that has anything to do with nice balances, but the kind of rhapsodic outburst of strong substances that ordinarily makes for … [Read more...]

A Giant Come Too Early

In the flurry of information going around on Robert Ashley, I just learned that Dalkey Archives, publisher of Ashley's libretto for Perfect Lives, has my introduction to the new edition available online. I've always been proud of it, and Bob told me at one point that he had read it over and over, because, he said, "it makes me feel good." Plus, via Carson Cooman, here's Ashley's Lullaby for violin and piano written in 2011, from an Australian recording I hadn't heard before. A fitting memorial and quite a surprise. There's been some … [Read more...]

Robert Ashley, 1930-2014


It's already speeding around Facebook, but Tom Hamilton wrote an hour ago to inform me that Robert Ashley died at 1:30 this afternoon. Around last June Bob got a confirmed diagnosis of cirrhosis of the liver, and he lost 30 pounds over the summer. I went down to see him one time after my book on him was published; I had hoped to see him around last Christmas, but my books always get delayed, and by the time it came out I was lost in the semester's maelstrom, and didn't see him until after the diagnosis. His butt had become so bony he had to sit … [Read more...]

Generational Perspectives

One of my visual-art colleagues asked me to come into his Art and Technology class today and lecture on John Cage, which I was looking forward to. I actually get to teach Cage very little; someone else at Bard has a course on Cage, and I am not really tempted to devote an entire semester to him, as I have done with Ives and Liszt and Beethoven and have considered doing with Bruckner or Partch or Ashley. But I can certainly fill a few hours talking about him off the top of my head. Since it was Art and Technology, I started with the 1966 … [Read more...]

Edge of a Slippery Slope


My surviving musical output (first half of it, anyway) from 1962: I must have quickly decided that two-part counterpoint was too much work. I'd love to know, though, how seriously I meant that A-flat key signature in the bass. I'm sure I thought I should fill out the end of each line with rests rather than leave it blank. The piece ends with a V6-I cadence in whole notes. Seven years later, at age 13, I still didn't know what a fugue was, but I embarked on a career in music with a tritone-filled imitation of the Bach inventions I'd been … [Read more...]

The Trajectory in the Rearview Mirror

Next month So Percussion is playing my Snake Dance No. 2 at Bard. They wanted the keyboard sampler part that I used to play when I joined in to perform the piece. I hadn't seen the thing in years, and in fact it was not notated in full detail, because whenever I played in my own pieces I tended to improvise somewhat (like Mozart and Beethoven). So that meant I had to go through the randomly-organized manuscripts in my music cabinet to find and upgrade the sheets of paper they needed. Going through my manuscripts is always a heavy … [Read more...]

My Own Secret Drone Program


Carson Cooman, Harvard organist, musical polymath, and extraordinarily prolific composer, wrote to me a couple of weeks ago after reading my blog and asked if I'd ever reconsidered writing something for organ. It was something we had talked about long ago. In the mid-1980s my friend Gerhard Stäbler, German political composer and also an organist, had told me if I ever wrote something for organ he'd play it. I had tried, but the medium defeated me several times. As much as I love a lot of music that uses drones, I had never come up with a good … [Read more...]

Ha Ha, or Perhaps Not

This morning I was looking through the evaluation file of a colleague who's up for tenure. He's someone who uses abundant humor in his work, and one of the external evaluators, noting that humor is always risky, said something so striking that I wrote it down: “Humor in art is an audience divider; you are automatically paring your viewership to a core that shares your sense of humor and sensibility.” Never thought of that before. I rather pride myself on some of my pieces being jokes, even if I think they're rather deep and extended and … [Read more...]

Professionalism as a Mask for Confusion

I liked what Nicholas Kristof wrote in the Times about academics using jargon to remove themselves from public relevance, and considered blogging it: A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance. Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who writes for The New Yorker and is an exception to … [Read more...]