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's...you 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 ├ętudes. 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?