December 28, 2005

American Romanticism

One interpretation of history places Romanticism as a reactionary movement to the Enlightenment. After the French Revolution backfired, an elitist, anti-egalitarian philosophy must've made a lot of sense. The artist-as-prophet mentality of the Romantics has its remnants today, including the somewhat disdainful attitude that so many composers show towards their audiences.

On the other side of the Atlantic, however, the Enlightenment did not fail. For many, the American Revolution was a sign of the solidity of its ideals. Romanticism developed in this country, but its proponents (Emerson, Whitman, Ives) were raging populists. "I love to go to hear Emerson, not because I understand him, but because he looks as though he thought everybody was as good as he was." They had "prophetic" visions, but they also felt them to be within the reach of the common man.

Along with the composer-audience relationship, there is also the composer-performer relationship. The overly-exact notational habits of many 20th century composers did not help this one much. Some composers still think that it's okay to hand a performer an unplayable score and just have them "deal with it." Composer knows best. Lou Harrison on this issue: "Write what you want. Sooner or later a generation of musicians will come along who haven't been told that it's impossible to play. And they will play it!" He has some of the mindset that says that composers are only beholden to themselves, but he doesn't completely discount the capabilities of his performers. American Romantics may not believe in compromising themselves, but they never lose faith in their audiences.

High Art/Low Art

December 22, 2005

Meme of four

Four jobs you've had in your life: software tester, newspaper columnist, programmer, marketing intern
Four movies you could watch over and over: A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night, Julien Donkey-boy, Ghost World
Four Two places you've lived: Newton MA, Rochester NY
Four TV shows you love to watch: King of the Hill, Good Eats, The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm
Four places you've been on vacation: Chicago, southern California, southern France, Gaston County NC
Four websites you visit daily: Sequenza21, Ars Technica, Wired News, my school's library catalog
Four of your favorite foods: peanut butter, dried apricots, barbequed meat (the slow-cooked kind, not the kind that pours out of a bottle), anything that requires sauteeing onions
Four places you'd rather be: is music a place?

December 10, 2005

Criticising in Context

I've been mulling over this rather extended debate going on in el blogosphere. I was having some trouble crystalizing my thoughts on the function of musical criticism, when I found a neat & tidy(ish) interview quote that did some of the heavy lifting for me:
We study the history of music as though it starts with Gregorian chant and goes to [Machaut], Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Schönberg, etc. But rarely do we learn when we study those things. What these people were really thinking about, aside from musical questions. We talk about them and listen to their work as though they only thought about music, and were not subject to the conditioning forces of the society in which they lived. As though that was something unimportant. Whereas, it is known in many cases that these composers were very often passionately concerned with social and political issues. Beethoven is certainly a case and point, or Chopin, or Wagner just to name a few, so it becomes a confusing question when we try to think how music, which we are accustomed to thinking of as a fundamentally abstract form of communication, how that can be a vehicle not only for feelings, but for ideas. I think that perhaps, in order to answer a question like that one has to examine not only the imminent characteristics of a piece of music, one has to imagine the piece of music as consisting not only of notes or sounds, but as a process of communication involving groups of human beings on a very basic level of course involving the collaborative activity of composers, performers, and audience, but also as a larger process of communication which involves a much larger and more general context.
(Rzewski, again)

He gives the issue a slightly political bent, but I suppose that's part of his personality. Looking at it more generally, it's an issue of context. The quote could easily be rephrased to say that we commonly neglect religion, race, gender, whatever, in discussions of music. Context is the difference between a chord with an added sixth signifying kitsch or signifying prayer.

The NYT review of An American Tragedy was itself criticized for what some saw as a slew of short-sighted omissions. What I want to know is why didn't it discuss the context of the premiere more? The first paragraph:
For a company of such international standing, the Metropolitan Opera has had an inexcusably timid record of commissioning operas in recent decades. Consequently, when the Met presents a new work, the stakes are almost impossibly high.
The context of the production isn't really touched on until the conclusion, when Tommasini does a simple tie-in to make the piece feel rounded out. What of the fact that the Met has commissioned so few new operas? Is the mantle of Great American Opera still worth aspiring to, or has it dwindled to a pointless pursuit in our present cultural climate? Is the choice of libretto significant in any way? What audience is the opera reaching out to? Should anyone else care?

Alternatively, you can go in the opposite direction and only discuss context. Pitchfork is an easy target, but a failing of a lot of rock criticism, particularly when you get into indie rock circles, is favoring "hot or not" "issues" over whether or not the music's any good. As usual, a median between the two extremes, "objective" and "subjective" reactions, is what should be pursued.

Returning to the Rzewski quote, his final point is worth taking note of: in the production of music, you witness an intersection of a multitude of extensive and interconnected social relationships. Jeremy Denk posted some thoughts on a review of a Richard Goode recital. The issue was that the critic was harsh on Goode, faulting him for making an unusual (perhaps daring?) performance. In playing the music, Goode was continuing a thread of relationships that began with the authorship of the music, led through all of his experiences with the piece, touched on whoever may've been involved in those experiences, and took a stop at his recital.

Rather than contemplate and consider this very extended train of thought, the critic (at least as Jeremy suggested) cut it off with a cold and slightly ambivalent response. Speaking from my experience as a performer, you know whether or not you played well on any given night. It's flattering and all to get compliments on how you did, but really, no one needs to tell you. Similarly, I'll know if I lost control in any spots. Saying that someone "[let] his passion surge ahead of his judgment" ... what does that really mean to a reader? I'm not being dense here; how much does that statement inform a reader's understanding of what went on that night?

Contextualizing the playing, though, talking about it in relation to the pianist's past performances, common practices on how the composer's music should be played, what kind of relationship the performer had with the audience... these comments can make up for not being at an event. They continue the discourse that started way back whenever the piece was written. They, to me, are the makings of good criticism.

December 03, 2005

Giving Up to Time

I'm an inveterate improviser. I can't sit down at the piano without experimenting with something: chord progressions, a piece I'm learning, or something new entirely. For me, the impulse to improvise is distinct from the compulsion to compose. I won't say that things I learn from one activity don't find their way into the other, but the music that arises from each is very different in character.

In an interview, Fred Rzewski distinguished the two activities by saying that when improvising, one is engaged in continuous reinvention. Composition, however, has a memory. When composing, you reference and reconsider past ideas, attempting to make them into an integrated whole. Building on this thought, the memory in composed music is in the music itself. And by music itself (here at least), I mean notation. When I contemplate this conceptual networking, I inevitably refer to what I've previously written down. This fixed, visual presence exerts its own force over the progress of a piece.

Though the final act of performance exists "in time," the work leading up to it, to some extent, does not. The idea of creating a hermetic, self-explanatory score is a false notion, but it persists nonetheless (a realization is impossible without a Western musical education and an immersion in its very specific culture). The seduction of the self-sufficient score is that the music gets placed out of time. It can be performed today, in two hundred years — whenever — using the information provided by the notation.

The act of composing is, in many ways, a resistance to the passage of time. It's saying, "You can take me, but you can't take this part of me, this music." Improvisation says, "I know you're going to take me, and I know you'll take my music, too." Defiance against time would just be completely delusional here, because its effects are so immediate. The music is gone as soon as it enters the world. Improvising has its own kind of dare and danger, but it also can allow one to face up to the realities of living in a way that is harder to achieve within the realm of notated music.

November 29, 2005

Subversive Songwriting

Randy Newman seems to me like a completely unlikely person. Whereas so many singer-songwriters work in the heart-on-the-sleeve, confessional mode, his songs are mostly cynical and distant. His voice is nothing to write home about, plus his appearance doesn't scream "big star." Somehow, these factors add to his music. His songs about sexual deviants and con artists wouldn't be as powerful if they came out of a more conventional personality.

His ability to create rhetorical distance between author and narrator is right up there with Stravinsky. A song like "Rider in the Rain" is so absorbed in being "cowboy music," but this involvement is matched by a feeling that it's all an elaborate conceit. Newman uses this rupture to test your trust in the narrator. Because the writing is so disquietingly conventional, you examine it all the more closely for the cracks in the facade. He forces you to think about how genres are used, what images are conjured up by particular instrumental forces, and the weight you give to the words of singers. His voice is that of an outsider, always shrewd and subversive.

Andriessen and Schönberger wrote in The Apollonian Clockwork about how when Stravinsky wrote a Mass or a Requiem, it became an ür-Mass or ür-Requiem, a summation and a stepping beyond of the genre. When Randy Newman writes a song, he (and the song in a way) are so aware of the genre's conventions that a similar kind of commentary is embedded in it. Tom Waits has often been described as a "meta-songwriter," but I think that Newman is far more deserving of the title.

November 19, 2005

Peter Garland: Americas

A few things are worth saying about this set of essays. Garland has a couple loose histories of the use of percussion and the piano in American music, but the majority of the collection is devoted to his journals and appreciations of fellow artists. The writers and composers featured often rejected the mainstream culture of the 20th century for a life of wandering and solitude (Paul Bowles got a pretty extensive write-up).

A number of these people, Harry Partch in particular, also tried to rekindle an animistic attitude towards religion (or as Garland would argue, religion in general). Garland feels quite strongly that religion died in the 20th century and that our collective quality of life has suffered for it. In order to revive the kind of religion that Garland thinks everyone should have, a prominent spiritual leader would have to be embedded in local communities. This person would help mediate social relations and in general make sure everyone was happy.

The key is being embedded in the community. Garland's identity as a lonely wanderer is a bit at odds with this. The tone I read in his essays suggested that he was going to set down his ideas, but that they'd be understood and implemented at a later time (beyond his lifetime?). This attitude just screams Romanticism. He's of course entitled to his opinions and how he wants to express them, but I can't help but feel he could find a means of expression more in tune with his thoughts.

Also, I would question whether or not there are other institutions today that accomplish the same social functions as his conception of religion would. When someone posts a discussion topic over at the Composers Forum or any other online forum, doesn't that act serve to bring people together and increase their understanding of one another? I'm also not sure how religious figures today fail at this role. If anything, the rabbis and ministers I've come in contact with seem more concerned at doing this kind of service than anything else. Think of the character of Eccles in Rabbit, Run. He puts an incredible amount of energy into trying to straighten Rabbit out.

The thing I really took away from the book was a better feeling of the tradition running through the American experimental tradition. It's easy to portray Partch, Cage, Cowell et al as only being united in their defiant attitudes, but Garland shows there's more to them than that. There's a full-page headshot of Varèse with his trademark I-could-kill-you-just-by-thinking-it look, but there's another shot showing him sitting next to Cowell, who's playing the shakuhachi for him. Garland shows that even though the styles of these composers are quite individualized, they influenced each other quite a bit in the development of their ideas.

November 17, 2005

A Literary Echo

From "More Light," Morton Feldman:
In effect, what I am suggesting is not that music should explore or imitate the resources of painting, but that the chronological aspect of music's development is perhaps over, and that a new "mainstream" of diversity, invention and imagination is indeed awakening. For this we must thank John Cage.
From "Oaxacan Journal" in Americas, Peter Garland:
In benign and far-reaching ways, he has helped and influenced all of us . . . Listening to any of the sets of records he edited for Folkways, Music of the World's Peoples, will give a sense of his continuing legacy: if, in this century, the past, present and future have been unlocked, and the variety of the world's cultures opened to us, we have Henry Cowell, more than anyone else, to thank.

Will blog later on this Garland book once I get through it. It's got its share of thought-provoking bits, particularly on the idea of tradition among quote-unquote maverick composers.

November 05, 2005


Yesterday I ended up listening to some of Peter Garland's piano music, reading some of his essays, and thumbing through some old copies of Soundings (thank you, extremely comprehensive music library!). His music is really shocking in its simplicity. "Radical consonance," the term used in the liner note bio, is an appropriate description. The shock is because the process that led to the music is a mystery at first hearing, and you're not sure if there was a high-level one going on. Music with a complex surface gives you the "assurance" that even if you don't know what the hell is going on, everything's probably very well thought-out. Alternatively, with process-y minimalism, if you don't know how the music was put together, you're just not paying attention.

With Garland's "minimalism," you become enamored by the simple beauty of the music, but afterwards find yourself asking very basic questions about it. So many things recur, chords, rhythms, that you want to know why he chose those ideas (whether or not that's a question worth answering isn't clear now). He makes no effort to hide them behind a developmental process, so they feel very exposed at all times. They're like little gifts being offered to the listener on nothing more than good faith. It's not often total strangers are so generous. You wonder, "Why me? What did I do to deserve this?"

His writing is similarly simple and generous. Kenneth Patchen's Journal of Albion Moonlight is not a completely unfair comparison. Though Patchen's work is far more lyrical and even more heart-felt, both writers are strongly attuned to an intense tragedy in everything that they see. This sense remains very tangible no matter how unclear the subject of their writing is. All in all, his work is the kind that lingers, that shoots with force into your thoughts hours after you experienced it. Definitely worth some further exploration.

October 23, 2005

Recent Listening

Cold Blue Complete 10-Inch Series

It's easy to forget about California. Aside from the occasional glamorous premiere, it' know... all the way over there. East coast pretensions aside, it's inspiring to see such sophisticated and flat-out beautiful music outside of the classical mainstream. Every time I hear something from Daniel Lentz, he just seems more and more like an undeservedly under-appreciated composer. That Gann guy might be onto something...

Nude Rolling Down an Escalator

Speaking of which, I finally got a chance to sit down with Kyle's Disklavier studies. I could see these becoming very popular if they were heard by people who aren't necessarily connoisseurs of 'serious' music (where's our post-classical A&R rep...or is that Kyle?). Texarkana is laugh-out-loud funny and Petty Larceny bears a freakish resemblance to the sounds in my sleep-deprived mind the night before a music history exam.

Stravinsky and Stravinsky

The wind ensemble at Eastman just did a concert bookended by the Octet and Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Among other things, it confirmed my thought that Stravinsky, perhaps more than other composers, really needs to be heard in person. For one thing, his ensemble choices often have striking presences on stage. When I first saw Symphony of Psalms, I had an experience similar to those New Yorkers who thought a UFO landed when the Guggenheim came to town. In the Octet, there was something just intriguing about the three pairs and a couple loners. Seems like a great-uncle or something to Carter's Triple Duo.

I don't know if this is a stretch, but the physical gestures needed to produce the sounds seemed linked in character to the sounds themselves. All the head bobs and 1-2 1-2 breathing felt like expressions of the same underlying idea.

Lastly, the sounds. Particularly in Symphonies. It's just full of killer sonorities. There were a couple other piecs on the program based on chorales. To my ears, their sonorities were a little off-balance. They were essentially solid, but they had a few parts which felt glued on — flute solos which got too glossy and some bass brass that overwhelmed the texture a little much. Stravinsky... when he laid down a chord the harmonic structure just felt total. Everything flowed smoothly, from the ground all the way up. Perhaps composition curriculums would benefit from the addition of a requirement in masonry...

October 14, 2005

Music as an Aesthetic Object

Composers often get asked about how they write. Most recorded answers are as ridiculous as the question itself is. Debussy said something like “I start with all the notes, get rid of the ones I don't want, and keep what's left.” Works of art are such peculiar beasts because they show so much, yet they always show it in such odd and oblique ways. The question of compositional process pokes not at the truths themselves, but why they needed to take on unfamiliar shapes. The causes aren't gossipy tales of past lovers and family turmoil, but whatever lies at the center of one's self. To explain these things would almost be to destroy them. Or as Pinter said to an actor who inquired about his character's past life: “None of your fucking business.”

Nevertheless, these causes can become quite an obsession. When I first see a score to a well-loved piece, it's as if all its secrets will finally be revealed. I half-expect angels to descend from the heavens (harps in hand) to provide proper accompaniment as I turn to the first page. I really should get over the anti-climax of it. The plain appearance of the notes in print makes them seem even more out of reach.

As I see it, there are two (admittedly exaggerated) stances to take at this point. The first is that one can come to know music by way of thorough analysis. If I tear those notes apart, I will understand how they relate, and this understanding is the music. The other point of view is that art is fundamentally non-understandable, and is at best a tool for expanding one's various comfort zones (emotional, ideological, etc.). Interestingly, these two tacks engage separate senses. Analysis is primarily a visual activity, while you throw the score aside to more fully use your ears. Of course, the reality is that you hover between these two absolutes whenever engaging music.

Try as I might, though, there are some pieces that just resist being read into. I feel deadlocked in my efforts to penetrate Stravinsky's Apollo. The writing is just so of a piece. It feels like it was conceived all at once. Its architecture can be elusive, though it does open after persistent examination. The emotional content is surprisingly generous for Stravinsky (the Pas de Deux verges on being sentimental).

Nonetheless, there seems to be an upper limit to the level of intimacy I can reach with this piece. Even when I feel secure in my intellectual understanding of any of its remarkable features, the listening experience seems to exist in ignorance to what I know about the notes. That knowledge only seems to provide a comfort (a false one maybe), a way of not being completely overwhelmed by the sounds.

What meaning this piece has seems most accessible by denying contact with these causes of construction. It has the most life for me as a purely aesthetic experience. I can marvel at its assembly or use its emotional peaks to get a better grip on my own, but the piece's only unified statement seems to be in its attitude towards music. I don't mean that Apollo should be read as a ballet “about” the major triad; I mean that it has in it a way of looking at the function of music. Stravinsky often writes with a mystical attitude, suggesting that music is as fundamentally unknowable as a religious higher being. This stance can be hard to reconcile with the concrete nature of sound and notation, but the resulting music begs to differ.

October 08, 2005

Heebie McJeebie, I presume?

Inspired by Prof. Heebie McJeebie's recent podcast, I thought I would go seek him out. Rochester music community being what it is, I'm surprised I hadn't run into him already. I went over to the Hotel Cadillac and asked for him at the front desk. Unfortunately, I was told that he was out-of-town for the weekend. Even though I missed him, I think I found his hang out.

Hotel Cadillac

Uptown Pizza Cafe


October 05, 2005

Music as Other Senses

There's a certain type of piece that begs to be perceived visually to me. I'm thinking of music that has such vivid textures and contrasts that you can follow it in terms of the interplays of qualities of sound. The earliest examples of this I can think of are in Beethoven, like the slow movement from the Fourth Piano Concerto or the opening of the Ninth Symphony. Ligeti has a knack for writing music like this. There are a number of examples just among his piano études. Incidentally, composers with strong ties to the visual arts, such as Debussy and Feldman, do not elicit this reaction from me. Music in which I can see a plot lurking about that's constructed in terms of sound-color synesthesia is of a completely separate nature (Messiaen, obviously).

I guess what I care about aren't these specific examples of sound to vision translation, but the idea of perceiving aural events as if they were something else, a kind of artificial synesthesia. This cross-sensory action isn't a result of an oddly wired brain (I think); it's created for "practical" reasons. The opening of Beethoven's Ninth is supposed to sound like it's creating itself, emerging out of a void. You can listen to it in terms of a straight harmonic progression, but it's more attractive to me to hear it as a kind of dance emerging from the darkness. Thinking of the kaleidoscopic counterpoint of "Arc-en-Ciel" as if it truly is light refracting through water droplets makes the music that much more vivid.

These examples seem intentional to me, as if these composers' conceptions could not be limited to one sense. Anyone else have similar listening experiences? Any composers in the audience care to share if they've explicitly tried to create such moments?

September 25, 2005

Music as a Record of Social History

Lately, I've been relistening to Whatever and Ever Amen. While I haven't done an exhaustive tour of Ben Folds's discography, it seems like it's easily the best thing he's done. Some songs on it, like "Kate," explain perfectly why pop music is essential. One thing that struck me about the album, though, is how rooted it is in mid- to late-90s apathy. While I prefer not having to acquiesce control of my emotional states to any collective consciousness, it's hard to deny that a lot of people feel similar things at the same time. Though high artists like to stick to the timeless and universal, popular culture happily reflects what's "in the air."*

While on the zero to Beethoven metric of artistic success, efforts like these can fall somewhat short, they seem rather valuable to social historians. I probably won't care very much about this album in 20 years, but if someone wants me to "explain the 90s," I'll pull it out and play "Battle of Who Could Care Less." It sums up quite economically the shared feelings of the time, how people related to one another, and how they spent their free time. I just hope I won't be asked what it means to be "dressed up all like The Cure."


*This is probably one reason why Folds's career has lagged as of late. His recent songs feel a little mired in the same old mix of nostalgia and apathy.

September 22, 2005

Classroom Notes

People who complete orchestration assignments with the full battery of extended techniques are like people who write papers with a thesaurus in their lap.

August 11, 2005

Chiseling Away at the Iceberg

My mother, ever patient with my musical interests, will listen to just about anything I want to play for her. She deserves much credit, for she still keeps an open ear even after hearing some pieces that had her question whether I was even playing music for her (Bartok and Carter she no like). Even after giving her what seems like a minor education in modern music, she has only cared for the following:
  • Ives (admittedly his more traditionally tonal works), in particular his Second Symphony
As a card carrying Ivesian, I can hardly complain with her taste, but it is still a pretty limited list. Much to my surprise, a new member was recently admitted to this exclusive club: Rzewski's North American Ballads. What was completely unexpected was her reasoning. She wasn't caught by the folk tunes (though given her tastes, you would suspect she's a closet populist), but by the counterpoint in “Down By the Riverside.” There's an extended bit towards the end which sounds like two pianos going at once. This, she thought, was really great. I was surprised, mainly because it was the point of greatest dissonance in the piece. My initial expectation was that she'd enjoy the simple beginning and simply tolerate the rest.

If there's a “lesson” in this, it's not that people will like new music if you cram it down their throats enough (though I think this is the first time my mom's been drawn to a piece for an essentially intellectual satisfaction). My guess is that she liked the music because it met her on territory she was comfortable in. Though she hasn't touched the instrument in a while, my mom took piano lessons throughout the early part of her life. Though Rzewski's style of virtuosity was certainly new to her, she was able to relate it her knowledge of the instrument. Instead of being repelled by his style, it intrigued her.

I guess this situation speaks more to developing musical literacy than a taste for the new. Whenever non-musical friends ask me to “teach them about music,” I just tell them to listen to a lot of music (with carefully curated suggestions of course ;)). It's possible to appreciate music just out of the pleasure certain sounds bring, but a deeper appreciation comes from picking up on the practices that have persisted throughout its history. Like with any other language, the only way to gain fluency is through immersion.

My mom's knowledge of idiomatic piano writing spelled the difference, so far as I can tell, between her liking the piece and it being another instance of me playing unseemly “sounds” for her. I don't have any high expectations about further emendations to the list above, but it's nice to see that it wasn't as closed a book as I thought it was.

No Words

Recent library trip brought back my first Joan Baez album, Diamonds and Rust. I have no idea if this is a "proper" starting point for her music, but I don't think it matters. I've listened to the album several times already and have barely been able to follow the words; the richness of her voice takes over my ear. It's like one of those glasses of red wine that your tongue touches more than it tastes. I don't think the tone quality of an instrument has captivated me this much before. The Joan/Joni duet at the end is just icing on the cake.

July 21, 2005


I'm a big fan of examining the preliminary work that leads up to the completion of a creative project. It was a pleasant surprise to find a little collection of that work not for music or painting, but a computer program. Sitting at the bottom of this interview is a chronologically arranged set of sketches and mock-ups for Delicious Library, a media library program for the Mac. I'm stuck behind a PC keyboard, so I haven't had a chance to try it out myself, but by all accounts it's sensitively designed with a fine eye towards detail. It's terrific to get a peek at the creative process behind it.

July 20, 2005

Some Good Record Store Advice

"Would you say that this is political music?"
"No, there's not a lot of screaming about Che Guevara or anything like that."


There have been a couple posts (no permalink, see post "Quotes") made recently on complexity. One of the defenses of yer complex high modernism is that life is complicated, so we must make music to match its complications. This is a weak defense because it entangles two unrelated issues: complexity of language and complexity of expression. Consider Milton Babbitt's extremely florid prose. His baroque diction takes some adjusting to when you sit down to read one of his articles, but after you become acclimated to it, it reads fairly smoothly. One of the reasons, I think, is that what he's saying isn't all that complicated. His style sets your mind on the defensive, ready to receive a long stream of thorny thoughts. There's some confusion when you realize that stream's not going to show up, but afterwards you can almost coast through his text. The elaborate constructions provide a kind of cushioning for your eyes. On the other end of the spectrum is Morton Feldman's prose style, where the nonchalant delivery belies the knottiness of his thoughts.

The danger is assuming that these two elements, language and expression, are tied. While the type of language you use does indeed express something, it is not the core of the expression. My perspective is that it provides a context for the expression itself. Having to acclimate to a foreign language puts your mind in a certain state, which can assist in the ultimate expression sought by the composer. I would hesitate to say that all of yer complex high modernism needs to slim down a little, because the overall expression would change significantly.

The rotten side to this is when language replaces expression. It's rotten not because nothing is expressed ("We have nothing to say and we are saying it - that's poetry."), but because it veers away from art into mere intellectual flattery. Listening can too easily become a game of connecting syntactic dots, picking out allusions, and affirming coherency. An overly complex language can, ironically, encourage intellectualizing and simplifying. While these are certainly elements in the modern world, whether they are elements that one wishes to express is a question left to the composer.

July 03, 2005

July 4th Heads-Up

WHRB gets a decent bit of attention in the blogging community for their comprehensive orgies. Tomorrow, in honor of Independence Day, their programming from 1-10pm EDT will be devoted to American music (how rare!). In the past, they've aired unusual selections like a few art songs/ad jingles for toothpaste and Virgil Thomson's ballet Filling Station. They don't touch the American experimental tradition much (the on-air announcement for the program yesterday mentioned the inclusion of modern composers like Piston and Harbison), but it's definitely an event worth tuning /streaming into. If only they didn't need a holiday as an excuse to play so much American music.

June 30, 2005

Feldman and Cassavetes

When drawing comparisons to other media, Morton Feldman's music often shows up next to the plays of Samuel Beckett. Not only do their minimal landscapes resonate with each other, but Feldman was quick to compare their work, even citing the ease with which the two got along. However, for the purpose of investigating his musical innovations, it would make sense to compare his achievements with the films of John Cassavetes (this link is maintained by Ray Carney, who does for independent film what Kyle Gann does for Downtown music).

Cassavetes's movies are marked by inarticulate characters, long takes, and rough technique. Feldman's music reveals its maker in at least one way, its myopic interest in each sound. Its striking sensuality often wins fans, even if they admittedly can't make any sense of the music. The visceral rawness of Cassavetes's work usually isn't as endearing.

Audiences often find a “rambling” quality in their work. Cassavetes let scenes run as long as he felt necessary. The suicide scene in A Woman Under the Influence is unrelenting. Similarly, Piano and String Quartet plays on each fragment for calmly extended periods. The proportions of both works are nothing like a Hollywood drama or a Classical sonata. Cassavetes's insistence on honest emotions led him to eschew simplified narratives. Feldman similarly refused to “push the sounds around.” These unusual aesthetics obscure the presence of form, but they don't deny it. Though detractors may insist their work is formless, both derive forms from the characteristics of their content.

Opening Night, at its surface, is the story of a new play moving from New Haven to its Broadway premiere. The production faces problems as its lead must reconcile her own problems with aging with those of her character. Tracing this idea more closely, one finds women's reactions to getting older to be central to the film. Viewed through this lens, just about every scene provides a different perspective on this issue. No age group is left unexamined, from the 18-year-old fan who gets killed to the 65-year-old playwright. While the film's pacing has a certain “lumpiness” that can turn off a lot of viewers, its attention to this central problem is basically unwavering.

Palais de Mari focuses on spare pitches, slowly drawn out of the instrument. The near-constant pedal draws attention to their decay, making the sounds feel both frozen in time and slipping away from it (an elegant depiction of the palace ruins of the title). In m. 18, an unusually large spacing interrupts the initial sense of stasis. The search for a balance between the initial stasis and this startling gesture creates a tension which lasts until the very end of the piece. Later fragments are heard in terms of how they relate to this problem, not in harmonic terms, but sonic ones: density, duration, and decay.

Palais de Mari, m14-21

Jonathan Kramer, in The Time of Music, characterizes Feldman's music as extremely “vertical.” That is, his music is one long moment divorced from our usual perception of time. However, his dramas of sonorities reach somewhere between “moment form” and “vertical time.” The sections of similar sonorities in Feldman's late music beg to heard as unadulterated pieces of beauty (vertically), but the way they're joined together is not without causation. He wants his audiences to take away a keener appreciation of sound, but not through a Cagean all-inclusiveness. Instead, listeners should sharpen their ears to the ways that one sound connects to another.

Cassavetes approached emotion in a similar way. His unconventionally long scenes have a child-like fascination with the interplay of emotions. They refuse to measure time into neat parcels, instead letting everything take as long as it needs to. This intense focus at times negates the existence of all other moments (just as Feldman's sounds want to be “left alone”). Here too, the individual pieces are intriguing in their own way, but the greater experience comes from tying them all together.

Form, in the work of Feldman and Cassavetes, evolves out of the individual qualities of their materials. How one perceives them as emotions, or as sounds, takes precedence over higher-level divisions (character arcs and harmonic progressions). This “phenomenological form” can usually be spotted by a series of irregularly-sized episodes, linked through a single organizing principle. This form is highly elastic, always letting proportions be defined by the demands of the content. Though the priorities of these artists differ from most of their contemporaries, close examination reveals a highly rigorous technique. Though their work is often labeled as “amateurish,” it is only because Feldman and Cassavetes have the utmost sensitivity for the materials of their craft.

June 21, 2005

Rzewski at NEC

This week, the New England Conservatory is running a summer institute in contemporary piano music. Frederic Rzewski has come to coach students in playing his music; in return, several nights are being devoted to concerts of his music. Monday night featured his most famous contribution to the repertoire, The People United Will Never Be Defeated, along with a few other pieces that demonstrated the breadth of his output.

The one thread that tied the pieces together for me was their awareness of the performer. This music didn't push the players away in order to reach its ecstatic peaks. Rather, it dramatized their very presence. Having only heard Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues on recording, I only knew what it sounded like. The half-comical sight of watching Jung Hee Shin pounding away with her forearms provided bizarre counterpoint to the clangorous sound mass she conjured up.

The fragmentary design of The Road (part one was on the program) made it seem ill-suited for the concert hall. It would be interesting to hear it played by a friend in his home, letting him jump between sections and insert comments as he pleased. One of the sections featured the pianist rattling around on the piano with its lid shut. Some of John Mark Harris's gestures suggested a sped-up caricature of a piano virtuoso. If this moment was Rzewski's creation, it suggests an interesting sense of humor about the virtuoso pianist-composer tradition he falls into.

Whangdoodles was a partially improvised piece for piano, violin and hammered dulcimer (doubling on vibraphone). The piece consists of 108 segments that are freely coordinated between players. Every ten seconds or so they line up, but it is otherwise indeterminate. The instrumentation and concept would make it an interesting companion piece to Feldman's Why Patterns?

According to the notes, the piece is meant to express “the idea of an open, planetary approach to relationships of conflict: allowing real life to determine the course of action, rather than trying to force life into pre-conceived models.” In order to fully enjoy it, one must not search for a strongly-cast narrative (“pre-conceived models”), but instead be content with the sounds themselves. Listening in this mode, the happenstance moments when a clear beauty emerges are heard as simple gifts, not moments which one is otherwise deprived of. The idea of selfless listening (and ultimately acting) feels like well-trodden territory now, but the folk materials (Yiddish and Appalachian songs) which frame it provide a novel angle.

Stephen Drury presented The People United at the end of the night. His performance (from memory) was marked by a steady confidence, never distracted by the piece's kaleidoscope of styles. Despite his demeanor, he seemed to take a difference presence on stage along with each of the styles. The variations cast in a grand Romantic vein placed him on a grand stage, while those with echoes of minimalism brought a surprising intimacy to Jordan Hall.

The most striking moments occurred at the piece's moments of repose, when the virtuosity subsided into quiet, spare chords. While the rarity of these moments gave them a special poignancy, the high whistling accompanying them reminded one that even in musical moments which push towards transcendence, the audience cannot get there without the performer's efforts.

June 16, 2005

Pop Harmony vs. Classical Harmony

Harmony in popular music is often looked at by classical connoisseurs like a simple country cousin. Occasionally it surprises with a bit of deftness, but generally it is seen as a watered-down version of common-practice tonality. These two songs at first glance seem to be coming from rather different places:

Robert Schumann - Im wunderschönen Monat Mai

Joni Mitchell = River

Their conceptions, though, are quite similar. Both texts clash inner anxieties with the exuberance and celebration of a new season. The tension between these two emotional territories is paralleled with a tension between major and minor modes. Where they diverge in this scheme reveals fundamental differences between the harmonic languages of the classical art song and the modern popular song.

Schumann moves from f# minor to A major with great elegance. Because the modulation doesn't alter the key signature, the transitions aren't noticed until a cadence point is reached. After the four bar introduction implies a resolution to f# minor, the next bar brings in the singer and a swift modulation to A major. The harmonic rhythm is fast throughout, with no harmony sustaining for more than a single measure.

“River,” in comparison, feels a little clunky. Rather than modulate between relative keys, it presents the two harmonies side by side. The harmonic rhythm here is significantly longer. The first half of each verse is harmonized with a C major chord that lasts for about ten seconds. It only takes a few seconds to sing the first line of “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai.”

This protracted duration gives a different kind of meaning to each harmony. Since they're given time to breathe, they're able to establish a more significant presence in musical space. They feel less subservient to a larger harmonic scheme and more like contemplative objects worthy of individual appreciation. The effect is not altogether different from a piece like Music for 18 Musicians. The drawing out of a short progression over time allows the listener to “inhabit” each harmony for a while.

The relationship between singer and accompaniment is very different in these songs. The vocal line in “River” floats on top of the accompaniment. The ideal of the art song is to entangle the two, giving them similar structural and expressive importance. Much of the expression in “River” comes from Mitchell's singing. The accompaniment in the Schumann does almost as much to shape the vocal line as the singer does. The brief harmonies color individual words, while Mitchell's harmonies color vast spaces.

This key difference evolved out of another major distinction between “art music” and popular music. While one is composer-oriented, the other is driven by performers. Though it's common for performers of popular music to play someone else's songs, they usually learn them from another's performance. Since the score is the primary document for classical music, the notes must speak for themselves more. Joni Mitchell can use simple backing for expressive vocals because her performance is the final product. Robert Schumann, tied to a less forgiving tradition, couldn't take such chances.

The resulting styles use the same triadic tonality, though in slightly different ways. Longer pop harmonies dramatize change, even as slight as I moving to vi. Classical harmony is about the ultimate destination (the similarities here between popular songs and minimalism/other “ergodic” music are striking to say the least). These two “dialects” should not be belittled either way with generalizations and value judgements, but recognized as equally valid means for tackling the same problems.

May 31, 2005

Dynamics in Pop Music

While the study is several years old by now, a friend pointed me to this study of the dynamic characteristics of top-selling pop songs (full listing of songs here). The author convincingly connects sonogram readings with how people hear the songs. Great example of analysis done right.

George Rochberg, 1918-2005

Without even regarding his music, George Rochberg should forever serve as the paragon of artistic integrity in music. With his much-noted shift in style, he eschewed fashion in order to be honest to himself. Before I even knew his music, he had my profound respect. Once I started listening, I found his work continually demonstrated this daring attitude. Certainly people scoffed when Pachelbel's canon showed up in his sixth quartet, but how many other composers would have the balls to do the same thing with their own music? He asserted the right of the composer to make uncertain moves, showing that the honest effort has value in and off itself. While the keen confidence of so many great composers requires a certain resilience from those who wish to measure up to them, the example left by Rochberg demands an entirely different type of mettle.

April 25, 2005


In my current theory class, the terminal course in the sequence, we're undergoing a whirlwind tour of the latter half of the 20th century. Today we compared two articles, Babbitt's "Who Cares if you Listen?"/"The Composer as Specialist" and Susan McClary's "Terminal Prestige." The latter, though written 30 years later, is essentially a response to the modernist mindset embodied by Babbitt. It struck me that both pieces fall into a similar trap, one that is essentially in opposition with the creation of art.

Babbitt's primary point was that contemporary developments in music paralleled those in the hard sciences. Postwar serialism had long overshot the public's perceptual abilities, therefore it was necessary for the university system to support composers of "serious" music (the position is essentially the same as Adorno's in Philosophy of Modern Music, though Babbitt invokes scientific research instead of a class struggle). McClary attacked this attitude, arguing that the "academic avant-garde" is writing itself into obscurity. Those circles should slacken their objective stance and examine other facets of music, such as its social function.

McClary concludes her article with a discussion of an Earth, Wind & Fire song, "System of Survival." She argues that it is sophisticated music, as worthy of scholarly attention as anything out of the university scene. The troublesome point comes here:
"System of Survival" is, in other words, a song that gives no credence whatsoever to the mind/body split or to the defensive autonomy that infects so much of Western music, especially that of the avant-garde which fetishizes intellectual work for its own sake. At the same time, it is an extremely smart piece: musically, socially politically. It draws upon and celebrates forms of sedimented cultural memory that have miraculously survived a history of extraordinary oppression and that threaten to persist indefinitely—even if not acknowledged within the academy.
A trend throughout McClary's writing is an interest in "smart," socially responsive music. While she essentially attacks academics for overvaluing music because it matches up to their arbitrary criteria (complex construction, etc.), she's guilty of the same crime. She often latches onto music because it's ironic, contorts traditional forms, or responds to class and gender "issues." The music itself may not be full of much deep thought or emotion, but if it hits one of these trigger points, it's worthy of attention from her (witness the entire chapter devoted to Madonna in Feminine Endings).

It's very important to respond to these aspects of music, but my inclination is that McClary is picking pieces to use as vehicles for her own ideas, rather than pieces that expose new ones. This is no different than locking into construction as the primary point of musical interest. The topics of discussion are decided in advance, analysis and criticism are merely used to expound on them. The thought developed through analysis and criticism is often stimulating, but it's preferable to let the approach be determined by the subject. It's difficult to find new truths and forms in art when you're busy looking for old ones. A rejection of one system shouldn't lead to a new set of equally harmful habits. Artists, too, can fall victim to this (look at "indie" film or "alternative" music). Art depends on the restless search for new modes of being. Leaning on crutches—objective stances, gender studies, what have you—only draws one away from this mission.

April 01, 2005

You know you're a theory professor when...

...your computer has seen so many German terms that AutoCorrect assumes that everything you type must also be in German.

March 30, 2005

Composers and P2P

For most composers, getting email, maybe even setting up a simple web page, counts as keeping up with the times. Some composers have even set up blogs to air their opinions, but few people have really taken advantage of the internet to distribute their music. It's possible to find some MP3s every now and then, but most composers only post a section or two from the whole piece. If you decide that you want to hear the whole thing, you have to track down a CD. Of course, the composer might not mention what record company released the CD, the CD might be out of print, you might have to special order it...before long, too many problems crop up. Unless the selection you heard was so astounding that you will stop at nothing to buy the CD, you may just give up and move on.

Even if a composer makes full pieces available for download, he's still putting himself at a little bit of a disadvantage. He has to pay hosting fees, design the web site (or pay someone else to), and encode his music. He also has to promote his work, let his audience know about the downloads he has available, and convince them to download them. The composer is responsible for just about everything; these things take time away from writing music and all the musical and extramusical issues associated with that.

CD Baby is a pretty good way to get your music out there. You have to provide them with a packaged CD, but they'll take care of distribution and promotion. However, you're still stuck with manufacturing the discs (either through paying to get some pressed or burning some CD-Rs) and the packaging. This may seem like a lot of work, especially if you don't have a clear sense of how many you'll actually sell. Internet radio is another direction to go in, but it prevents your music from moving beyond the radio station. People are still forced to look for recordings if they want their own copy.

What you really want is a way to distribute your music that doesn't require a lot of overhead, relieves some of the marketing work, and maybe even lets a little money slip back your way. What the classical world needs to discover is P2P. Peer-to-peer networks allow users to download content from each other instead of relying on a centralized server. This means that content creators don't have to maintain websites and find ways to drive people to them. Your audience does the distribution and marketing for you. If you want to release a new recording into the world, all you need to do is send it to a few friends. Eventually it will spread throughout the P2P network. Using P2P also gives you instant feedback on what your audience thinks. If people like your music, multiple sources for it will show in a search for it. Tools like Weed can help you get paid and provide encouragement for people to spread your music around.

Starting up a service like this is incredibly easy, something I would be willing to do myself. However, would other composers be interested in using it? What issues do people foresee in releasing their work like this? Drop by the comments and leave your feelings about this; maybe we can get something going.

March 28, 2005

Playing Nicely with Other People

“Process music” was among the many classifications first thrust upon what's now usually called minimalism. While not always applicable, a lot of early minimalism was based on the slow realization of a few simple instructions. Some music out of the New York School could be described in a similar way. One of the effects of this attitude is to shift listener attention away from a large-scale developmental thrust towards the beauty of individual moments.

Classical concerts don't engender a lot of social interaction during the concert because development-oriented music requires one's undivided attention. Music that flows between individual moments produces a different kind of relationship between the music and its audience. Since events aren't tied to a large scale trajectory, you can breath a little more while listening to process-oriented music. The experience can become more social. If you want to make a comment to someone you're sitting with, the rest of the piece won't become lost on you. In this way, process-oriented music has a lot in common with jazz and popular music. The larger structure (the band's set) has value as a totality, but its pieces (the songs) are worth something on their own.

It can be hard to get friends interested in a lot of the music I like, but I had a great time listening to Indeterminacy with someone. Its structure allowed us to comment on Cage's stories while we listened. We may have missed out on an entire piece every now and then, but the bits we did talk were absorbed that much more. Listening to the music became a positive shared experience, one centered around the music. Most composers would agree that getting their music entered into part of someone's life is a Good Thing. Writing “process music” is certainly not for everyone, but exploring different forms and how they relate to social experiences is one way to help your music to do this.

March 26, 2005


The distinction between form and content informs many discussions on music. Musicians throughout history can't seem to agree which is more important to music (if one should even be more important). Western art music's roots in the church among the so-called "quadrivium" of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy gave its early history a certain scientific slant.

Some remarks in the Guardian on Boulez's recent birthday show that this stance is still alive and kicking today. In fact, Oliver Knussen compares him to a "medieval monk." Among the respondants, no one contests his skill as a craftsman, but several find the content of his music sorely lacking. What's interesting isn't that Boulez polarizes audiences (this has been established for some time), but that the composers called upon mostly focused on either form or content as exclusive entities. Only Thomas Adès really acknowledged that in art there is a dialogue between form and content. If this blog has a "mission," it is to be sensitive to how the two interact and balance each other.