A Long-Lost Name Resurfaces


I guess I've long been the biggest Roy Harris fan left. In my youth I would occasionally run across a vinyl record of music by one of Roy Harris's students, who wrote in a similar style, named Robert Palmer; I remember his cantata Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, but no longer have a recording. Recently, in my research into Ives, Blitzstein, and other composers, I'm starting to run into Palmer's name again, partly because John Kirkpatrick championed his piano music and would occasionally mention him to Ives. So I went to see what remains of … [Read more...]

Happy Day, Ben


Via Facebook, microtonal composer-guitarist David Beardsley posts this wonderful photograph by William Gedney, circa 1966, of composer (and, much later, my teacher) Ben Johnston for his 88th birthday today: Still near the beginning of his microtonal period, around the time of his Quintet for Groups, Sonata for Microtonal Piano, and Third Quartet, he's probably juggling 80 different pitches in his head.   … [Read more...]

Minimalists Win Awards, Too


All right, it looks like, once again, the fate of postclassical music rests in my hands. So gather for the official announcement: The 2014 John Cage Award ($50,000) from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts has been given to Phill Niblock. Phill Niblock (b. 1933) started as a conceptualist filmmaker and, untrained as a composer, began making musical scores for his films based on charts of pitch frequencies in cycles per second. In so doing he pioneered the use of small pitch complexes and very slow glissandos (pitch slides) often moving … [Read more...]

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...]