September 28, 2006

Playing "In C"

Last night I played ringleader for about a dozen people who got together to play In C. The instrumentation was nicely eclectic: handful of string players, oboe, trumpet, sax, metal recorder, electric guitar, and percussion (a guy hitting a chair with yarn mallets). Three other pianists took an octave each on the piano while I beat out the pulse.

You read in books how the piece represents a different paradigm for performance practice, but it doesn't really set in until you play it. We were arranged in a ring, so everyone could see each other. However, the cave-like ambience of the room precluded being able to hear everyone well. As a result, little "cliques" formed. Instead of everyone playing off the group, people tended to respond mostly to the people immediately around them. Broader interactions occured occasionally, but they weren't common.

What stuck out to me was seeing how the players could be guided through the piece by their individual interest. People dropped off in places and picked up again when something seemed to grab their attention. Our performance had a very ephemeral, episodic flow. Every so often the group "clicked" and we got some intriguing interactions, but after a few moments it diffused back to murkiness. Hardly a unified narrative, but not boring either. From my vantage point, the experience was comparable to people watching on a busy street.

Though the piece is fully accepts the individuality and personality of all involved, it doesn't react well with diva personalities. Since everyone is of equal importance, you have to be okay with being another one of the unwashed. It's a self-policing system in a way. A spot in it is reserved for anyone who wants to make whatever contribution they feel up to, so long as they're willing to be co-equals. Anyone who wants to hog the spotlight will probably leave on their own, purely out of disinterest.

The followup question to this experience is whether this kind of social environment is implicit to open instrumentation pieces. Only one way to find out...

September 20, 2006

From the Vaults

[9/20 update: all download links now work properly]

Well, the metaphorical ones anyway. In reality we're talking more of a drawer. Composers often talk about "top drawer" works or putting their pieces away in a drawer. While we at times exaggerate our accomplishments for professional gain, I can vouch that I have a bona-fide drawer where I keep my completed scores (we composers lead such interesting lives).

I don't know why Kenneth Patchen is so neglected as a poet (...and a novelist...and a visual artist). Emily Dickinson offered a definition for real poetry, something along the lines of that it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. This is a regular experience when I sit down to read Patchen. His writing is deeply felt in a way that makes you question the clutter in your life, whether the things with which you occupy your time get in the way of living well in the world.

His poetry was set most notably to music by John Cage (a radio play: The City Wears a Slouch Hat). Charles Mingus performed with Patchen, though I don't believe any of their sessions together were recorded (though his work with other improvisers was). There are a few other composers I know of who have worked with his texts.

A couple years ago, I joined this fine bunch by using some of Patchen's poetry for a cycle called Four Affections. There's no elaborate concept to the sequence, just an exploration of different nuances of love. The following performance features Scott Perkins singing and yours truly at the keys. The score is available on request.

I. From Hovenweep
II. "The Snow is Deep on the Ground"
III. "I'd Want Her Eyes to Fill With Wonder"
IV. Geography of Music

September 16, 2006

More Musicking

From a BBC article on the social habits of music lovers:
Fans of musicals come out as the most mild-mannered group, with the lowest level of drug-taking and criminal acts.

They also drink less regularly than other music fans, and are among the most likely to do charity work.
But followers of hip hop and dance music are more likely to have had multiple sex partners over the last five years and were among the biggest drug-takers surveyed.

"It comes out in the study that, in these types of music, fans score worse in various behaviours, such as criminality, sexual promiscuity and drug use," said Dr Adrian North, who led the research.

"It was shown that this had nothing to do with their ethnic backgrounds," he added. "The behaviour was linked purely to musical taste in its own right."

September 08, 2006


What we need to keep in mind is that those taking part in performances of different kinds are looking for different kinds of relationships, and we should not project the ideals of one kind of performance onto another. Any performance, and that includes a symphony concert, should be judged finally on its success in bringing into existence for as long as it lasts a set of relationships that those taking part feel to be ideal and in enabling those taking part to explore, affirm, and celebrate those relationships. Only those taking part will know for sure what is their nature.
from Musicking, by Christopher Small

I can't remember the last time I've felt like I needed to lie down after reading a book. "Why do people do music?" is the broad and non-trivial question asked by Small. Its provocative nature comes mostly from its formulation: do rather than like, listen to, play, etc. He presents music not as a thing, but as an activity in which composer, performer, and listener play equal roles. It is a ritual where the ideal relationships of a community are lived out before its participants. The symphony orchestra is used as the main example.

Anyone prone to engaging in "whither classical music?" debates really should read this book.

In other news, Zoilus has a lovely round-up of conflicts in copyright law brought on by the "digital age."

September 03, 2006

Back to School

For all intents and purposes, summer ends when school starts. I've got a few more days before classes get going, but I'm back in Rochester and settling into this year's digs. Part of procrastinating from unpacking (besides writing this post) is checking out this year's concert calendar. New music-ally speaking, it would appear as if BoaC has annexed upstate NY. Only two Musica Nova concerts are without a piece by any of their composers, and one of them is a Steve Reich 70th birthday show (featuring Music for 18 Musicians, and hopefully the composer himself for some face time with us student types). Us American experimentalist student types can also look forward to an Ossia concert with Cage's The Seasons, Feldman's Rothko Chapel (I wonder if they've gotten a celeste player yet...), and a couple Lou Harrison pieces.