February 21, 2006

What is art for?

I have the answer! Er, an answer, via Louis Andriessen, who gave a masterclass this afternoon as part of his visit this week to Eastman. He cited Kierkegaard's definition of irony (pardon me if I botch it), where actions and events have multiple plausible causes, and one is made strongly aware of this unresolvable multiplicity. He gave (wait for it...) Stravinsky as an exemplar of this virtue. Stravinsky frequently takes ideas in unexpected directions. This puts the listener in a bind, not altogether sure why this happened or what the composer's motivation for the whole thing was.

The purpose of this ambiguity is to get you to ask questions, not to provide easy answers. Andriessen said that art's role should be in reminding you to ask various important questions that you might otherwise neglect. Art focused on conveying emotion/feeling (à l'Allemand) will always reduce down to the same syrupy sentimentality.

While I don't let my internal Angst-meter give the final verdict on a piece of art, I don't hold the same level of disdain for emotional expression. Sometimes emotionality is the only tool available for posing certain important questions. The vulnerability that's in so many Kenneth Patchen poems makes you ask if you're always true to yourself. Probably Andriessen's contention was more with putting in emotion for its own selfish sake. No problem there. The world doesn't need any more whiny break-up songs.

Elsewhere on the sentimentality front, I received a startling newspaper clipping in a recent dispatch from home. In the arts section of the 2/12 edition of the Boston Sunday Globe, they devoted 3/4 of the page width and the entirety of its length to a couple features and smaller factoids on Arnold Schoenberg. Levine's decision to program a series of all-Arnie concerts was responsible for this wholly remarkable level of coverage. Further in the section, the title of one of the articles informs us that "Programming proves a boon for modernists." After this victory, what lies next for this wily lot of lunatics and rabblerousers? I'm seeing "Modernists implicated in opera house bombing" plastered across the front page.

February 19, 2006

Tuning Lesson, and more

Sorry it's been a while since I've posted. A minor wave of schoolwork, plus wanting to finish off a substantial song cycle that I've been working on for a while (more on this later) have kept me away from the ol' soapbox.

A couple days ago, I began my self-instruction in the art (definitely not a science for me just yet) of piano tuning. It seems like something all pianists should try at least once. Getting to encounter temperament as a practical rather than historical/theoretical issue gives one a much different understanding of the matter. What made the experience especially wonderful and occasionally overwhelming to me was the very intense tactile relationship I got with sound. I say tactile, because with so much of my musical life spent in front of a piano, I tend to think of music as something one interacts with through touch. Instead of "touching" a quantized set of pitches (12TET), I could push around the 12 tones to wherever I wanted them to be. It's the same as the difference between homebrewing/making your own bread and going store-bought all the time.

NB: If I post in a few months about how 12TET is unbearable sewage to the ears and how I've started composing in a new and wholly impracticable scale of my own devising, this is where it all started.

Random observation: Kyle Gann's posts on "metametrics" haven't been picked up too much by people in the (post-)classical end of the blogging world, but they've found (at least) a couple big admirers in the jazz world. Will post-minimalism and totalism find second lives among jazz composers?

The song cycle I just wrapped up sets six poems from Facts for Visitors. It's a pretty big piece (the biggest for me yet) — 18' of songs and interludes for tenor/fl/ob/hrn/bass. The texts deal primarily with "miscarriaged" relationships, damaged either through personality conflicts or something more unusual. The narrator usually involves himself in the relationship in a peculiar way. "Everything" (the first poem I set), describes a "relationship" between two people who never met. The narrator implies that they might've become close if they did actually meet, but they were both "victims of circumstance."

In the texts (particularly in "Everything"), the narrator is more attuned to the little behaviors that push around these relationships than the people who are affected by them. The way I read it, had these people been more attuned to each other, they would have been more likely to live happily ever after. The sequence I used starts off with a relationship at its most disconnectedness (description of problem), moves into the consequences of not paying attention to other people (development and climax), and finishes off with an example of two people who appear to connect for a moment (resolution/conclusion). This progression is the definition of tried-and-true, but I'd rather be understood than be clever. I initially had some structural ideas that better reflected aspects of the poetic content, but they were more easily seen than heard.

While I deal with getting this project performed, I think it's time to spend a little time in R&D (i.e., doing lots o' piano music). Big/bold/dramatic/rhetorical is fun and satisfying to put together, but now I'd like to go after something a little different.

February 05, 2006

A rose by any other name...

William J. Schafer:
[Harry] Nilsson and [Randy] Newman represent a musical literacy alien to the funky scuffling spirit of Liverpool or Memphis. Their music is basically classical—it catalogs and orders the scattered materials of pop musical culture.
Robert Ashley:
If a piece of music is under three minutes long, it's rock. Over three minutes, it's classical.
While not that useful for critical discussions, I'm in favor of Duke Ellington's system:
There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.