July 30, 2006

Recent Listening

Strange and Sacred Noise is a rare example of music that I became familiar with through a score before I heard it (I spotted it on the new acquisitions shelf at school towards the end of the year). Both ways of approaching this piece are rewarding, but yield very different results. If you look at the score, it contains epigrams on violent natural phenomena, along with brief descriptions of the fractals which John Luther Adams took as "inspiration."

The CD liner notes talk about the violence bits, but don't get into too many explanations about the fractals. Granted, you don't need to understand them to enjoy the music, but it's neat to know anyway, compositional process-wise. The first and last movements, for example, are based on Cantor dust. If you look at the score for these sections, the connection to the fractal is pretty much self-explanatory (JLA has an excerpt up for viewing).

Even though the role of the fractal looks like it could have been conceived completely "on the page," I do think it's possible to hear them in performance. One notable thing about the piece is that JLA found a way to make "organic" (and audible) large-scale structures that don't rely on tried-and-true methods of symmetry and repetition (à la sonata). The moments in first movement when the Cantor dust becomes most dispersed/chaotic is truly striking, almost awe-inspiring, these little lightning bolt contours of sound jumping out of silence.

One thing I really wish had been brought up in the notes is an explanation of sacred noise, a concept which I'm assuming was borrowed from R. Murray Schafer's The Tuning of the World (a true must-read for any musician). From an article on the author:
"Noise pollution is a world problem," says Schafer. "What I call Sacred Noise is in every society. If you want to find prominent institutions, you will find that they have a certain identifying sound or a noise. And just as the tallest buildings in any cityscape are generally centres of power, the biggest noises in the city represent centres of power. And the sacred part is, because they represent power, no one is permitted to complain against those noises."
This is where Adams's piece is at its most thought-provoking. Its fractal forms provide a fairly literal translation of chaos in nature, unleashing sounds that run the gamut from the barely audible to the barely containable. By being a representation of nature, the music both illuminates it and tries to wrest control of it (the jury's still out on the feasibility of the latter). At its core, the piece is an eloquent statement of one of JLA's favorite themes: a plea for listeners to attune themselves to their environments based on the sounds in them.


I'm of the mind that by keeping instruments in tune, you contribute to the general orderliness of the universe. Yes, the idea is as verifiable as the existence of a higher being, but I believe it all the same. At the very least, I can verify that my own mood and musical productivity took a swing up once I got my piano tuned.

In addition to getting it tuned, I had the technician regulate the action. For any non-pianists in the house, this means making a number of refinements that improve the mechanical efficiency of the instrument. When you depress a key, you are not directly forcing the hammer to attack the strings. The energy gets transferred through a few different components before the hammer goes anywhere (if the key and the hammer were attached, holding a key down would instantly dampen the sound). The regulation process gets energy losses to a minimum. Other refinements are also involved, but as I understand it, that's the bulk of it.

In musical terms, this means gaining precise control over dynamics, tone color, phrasing, and all the other nice things that help make a great performance. One other thing I noticed was that I could really feel the interaction of these components under my fingers. Definitely a neat sensation.

July 13, 2006

New Rochester Blogger

The Flower City is not known for its music bloggers. Certainly it can't compete with the vast numbers that hail from NYC, but I'd like to think that we give it a good try. In the tradition of such fine fonts of criticism as TruthMedia, please welcome Prof. Heebie McJeebie, who will be reporting from his tenured post at the Hotel Cadillac in downtown ROC.

July 08, 2006

Funny Place Names: Seattle

I was just in the Seattle area for a chamber music festival. The (musical) highlight of the trip was getting a top-notch reading of a string quartet I wrote in June. It's entitled Drapery Studies and comes in two movements (one slow, one fast). The "conceit" for the set was, as the title indicates, borrowed from the visual arts. For those who don't wander into art museums all that much, drapery studies are practice works used to hone fabric rendering skills. They are primarily technical exercises, but I was drawn to something else about the setup: a surface that covers an unseen skeleton. The contours of the cloth suggest what is underneath it, but they don't give a perfectly clear picture. The surface can bunch up in places or cast confusing light. It's all you have to judge what goes on underneath, but it is an independent entity which can easily work against your efforts.

I'm happy to say that the work was well-received by the audience at the reading (at least by the people who decided to talk to me afterwards ;) ). Even though I gave them the same "abstract" explanation of the music that I put in here, they seemed to be responding mainly to the sensual aspects of the music, which is definitely my preference. I'm supposed to get a recording back in the not-too-distant future. Assuming it turned out alright, I'll try to get it up in a public place.

Some other assorted highlights from the trip:
  • A sympathetic Satie biography by someone named Rollo (what would Charles Ives think?).
  • On the flight out, I sat next to a short, neat, Southern pilot from the airline. After I told him where I was from, he informed me that Boston was the "rudest" city he'd ever been to.
  • Indeed, whenever I get out of the Northeast, I'm surprised and confused at how goshdarn polite everyone is.
  • Seattle is built on a hill, which is really fun to walk around when you're carrying two heavy bags, one of them on wheels. Also, is it me or does every city on the west coast have a mountain as part of its skyline?
  • Hippie girl at the bus stop reading up on The Secret Teachings of Plants.
  • Port Townsend, WA (where the festival was) is full of a lot of reclaimed buildings. The downtown is all converted from Victorian houses. One place was up on the second floor of a building around a winding hallway. One pizza place was in two small rooms on two different floors (take out downstairs, sit down upstairs). If you're ordering in, food comes up by way of dumb waiter.
  • The local state park was formerly a fort. Most of its buildings were "temporary" structures put up at the end of WWII. They all come from similar Colonial-ish designs, so the complex felt a little like a housing development. Old bunkers set into the hills on the coastline are slowly getting overtaken by the foliage.
  • Middle-aged woman who hugged me after I closed my open mike set at a local bar with "Help Me" (don't worry, I didn't try to sing it).
  • The Experience Music Project, which is a church where they worship rock music. They even have relics. However, instead of a piece of the true cross, they proudly display a piece of a guitar that Hendrix smashed. Really shows how personality and style are a major part of the music.
  • There I also got to see my first Trimpin piece. Imagine a tornado of guitars blowing through the main atrium of a building. Some of the guitars are played by MIDI-controlled robots. Put on headphones and hear a medley of songs in different styles. The visual component was great (you can see all the guitars getting played), but I was a bit underwhelmed by the musical experience. I think it would've been more impressive if you didn't have to put on headphones to hear it, so there was a direct connection between the visual and the aural.
  • Taking the red-eye back, which disturbed both my sleep cycle and my sense of time! (wait a minute...)
With all that said, I'm through my "R&D" period of writing just piano music. Right now I'm getting into a piece for string orchestra to give me a large ensemble piece for grad school apps. How I look forward to those...