Great Moments in Teaching, part 2


I don't know if this constituted a great moment for my students, but it did for me. My favorite piece by the British postminimalist Gavin Bryars, although I doubt that I've heard everything he's recorded, has always been his 1990 piece for ballet Four Elements. I once started analyzing it on my own and didn't get far, but we spent our entire minimalism class (two and a half hours) on it the other day, and I was quite impressed with what we found. The entire piece is drawn from a three-note motive heard in the chimes in the first two measures, a … [Read more...]

Great Moments in Teaching

I played the first several minutes of Elliott Carter's Double Concerto. Student #1: Who decided that this work was one of the great pieces of 20th-century music? Student #2: It's just like what happens in popular music. Student #1: But no, popular music becomes popular because people like it. Student #2: No, popular music is made popular by the industry. Somebody decided that Miley Cyrus could be popular, and so they poured a ton of money and publicity into her. Her career was completely orchestrated. Me: Between the two of you, … [Read more...]

Minimalism Has Arrived, Academically Speaking

When I arrived at school today I found a box of copies of the Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music, straight off the press. (With all due deference to my esteemed colleagues Pwyll ap Sion and Keith Potter, I would like to point out that the first eleven pages of the book's Introduction, credited to all three of us, were written by myself; they wrote the conclusion detailing the book's contents. But they did more of the editing than I did, and provided more of the impetus behind the book.) As I write in the … [Read more...]

Niblock Under the Microscope


I'm teaching my Analysis of Minimalism seminar this semester, and I have never had a group of students (eight of them) who came in already knowing so much about the repertoire we were dealing with. They bring up pieces I hadn't planned to mention and occasionally even one I hadn't heard of, and I have to think quick to stay one step ahead of them. What I enjoy doing most in my analysis seminars is figuring out music I'd never analyzed before. I let them do the work for me (or if I end up doing it myself, I assume they'll learn from watching … [Read more...]

Vertiginous Plastic for Sale


I received in yesterday's mail several copies of pianist Aron Kallay's new CD Beyond 12: Reinventing the Piano, the first installment of his project of playing microtonal music on virtual pianos. (I love the unmatched black keys on the cover art.) The disc includes my own Echoes of Nothing, which I wrote for him in 2011; also non-12 pieces by Isaac Schankler, Aaron K. Johnson, John Schneider, Tom Flaherty, Vera Ivanova, Jason Heath, and Brian Shepard. It's a disc of remarkably delicate and gentle and colorful music, though ranging from the … [Read more...]

In Which Exception Is Taken to Various Common Practices

Here is a quotation from a document I had to discuss with my academic colleagues today: The school should continue moving forward in its attempt to formalize more structured processes for planning and the allocation of resources. It is important that a more structured planning process involve various constituencies, provide increased opportunities for collaboration across units, communication, and shared governance, and that it should integrate multiple programs and sites into a coherent whole. I know all these words, but this is so vague … [Read more...]

Hearing the Symphony without Going to Boston


Next Sunday at 2 (Oct. 20, Ives's birthday) I will present a lecture, "Thoreau's Flute and Charles Ives's Concord Sonata" at Henry David Thoreau's birthplace in Concord, Massachusetts. Drawn from my upcoming book on the Concord, the talk will trace a simple argument, based on the manuscripts, that the sonata's "Human Faith" melody was originally conceived as being Thoreau's flute over Walden Pond, and from there made its way into the other movements of the sonata. This will be a welcome chance to present to non-musicians, and I'm enjoying my … [Read more...]

“Fatally Attracted to the Complexity of Speech”


I didn’t anticipate that I would arrive at anything new to say about Robert Ashley in my paper about him at last week's minimalism conference at Cal State Long Beach. But as it happened, the attempt to talk about him in a minimalist context elicited some insights I hadn’t had before, and as some previously Ashley-dubious audience members claimed to find them persuasive, I decided to post the paper here. Also probably at the Society for Minimalist Music website as a PDF, but here I can link to the audio examples. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * … [Read more...]

“Your Name Here” As Minimalist

I will be spending next week in warm, sunny Long Beach, California, at the Fourth International Conference on Minimalist Music, sponsored by the Bob Cole Conservatory at Cal State Long Beach. It's the great biennial social event of my life, and I wouldn't miss it for the world. I'm delivering my paper "'Eventfulness Is Really Boring': Robert Ashley as Minimalist" on Saturday morning, October 5, at the 11:30 session, and there's another Ashley paper as well, by Charissa Noble. In addition, on Oct. 3 pianist Bryan Pezzone is giving a piano … [Read more...]

A Teacher Fondly Remembered

Today at a local hangout I met Hudson Valley composer Brian Dewan. I knew the name. We got to talking, and he mentioned a composition teacher of his who had enlarged his view of modern repertoire. Idly curious, I asked who it was. "Joe Wood," he replied. I think my glass of wine hit the bar with a thud. "Joe?! Wood?! You went to Oberlin?" He had, eight years after I did. Joseph Wood (1915-2000) was a composer who had come mainly from the commercial music world. Wikipedia credits him with an arrangement of "Chiquita Banana" for Xavier … [Read more...]

Our National Corporate Racket


I am in receipt, today, of a few copies of pianist Sarah Cahill's new compact disc on the Other Minds label, A Sweeter Music. It's a compilation of eight pieces from her project commissioning composers to write music that protests war and urges peace - out just in time for our Nobel-winning president to bomb the hell out of Syria. On it Sarah plays (and speaks) my War Is Just a Racket, on a 1933 speech by General Smedley Butler, along with other pieces by Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Carl Stone, Phil Kline, Yoko Ono, and the … [Read more...]

The End of Music History

Why are good teachers strange, uncool, offbeat? Because really good teaching is not about seeing the world the way that everyone else does. Teaching is about being what people are now prone to call counterintuitive, but to the teacher simply means being honest. - Mark Edmundson, Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education, p. 181 At the request of my department chair - and he so rarely asks me for anything, I could hardly have turned him down - I am teaching a 20th-century music history survey course, or rather, music since 1910. I've … [Read more...]