October 24, 2006

"In C" Redux

My friend Emily, who participated in the same performance of In C that I played in last month, responds with her own thoughts:
It was interesting to me the other players' reaction to the instruction "repeat as many times as you'd like/ you don't have to play together with anyone". Since most of them have not listen to a recording, they were free from the desire to imitate the recording and truly freely choose how many times they repeat. I noticed that those who plays in the school's orchestra never ventured beyond 5 times for each pattern. Some of them also interpreted that as you pick a number and stick with it for the whole piece, so they repeated for the same number of times for each pattern.
Read the rest here.

October 21, 2006


Charles Ives
. . . This reduces, or rather brings the problem back to a tangible basis namely:—the translation of an artistic intuition into musical sounds approving and reflecting, or endeavoring to approve and reflect, a "moral goodness," a "high vitality," etc., or any other human attribute mental, moral, or spiritual.

Can music do more than this? Can it do this? and if so who and what is to determine the degree fo its failure or success? The composer, the performer (if there be any), or those who have to listen? One hearing or a century of hearings?—and if it isn't successful or if it doesn't fail what matters it? A theme that the composer sets up as "moral goodness" may sound like "high vitality," to his friend and but like a "stagnant pool" to those not even his enemies. Expression to a great extent is a matter of terms and terms are anyone's. The meaning of "God" may have a billion interpretations if there be that many souls in the world. . .
"Prologue," Essays Before a Sonata

October 18, 2006

Link and Run

Darcy James Argue has a very thoughtful review of a recent Reich show at the Whitney. Key quote:
The formal and conceptual rigor of Steve Reich's compositions made groove music intellectually respectable in classical music circles, but it's the rhythmic authority of his band's own performances that made the case for his music so compelling, and served as the model for other musicians to attempt his works. Once Reich became established and canonized, his music's demands become part of the skillset that today's conservatory-trained students are expected to master.
Other quote o' the day, this one from an anonymous citation (*gasp*, how unacademic) in a history of Gilded Age America I'm reading. The rise of pop culture in America brought with it what this person described as "lunch-counter art." The metaphor works thusly: "But then art is so vague, and lunch is so real." One can only assume this remark was made pre-Hopper.

October 16, 2006

Local Languages

Among my classes this semester is a composer-oriented course on the analysis of 20th c. music. Model compositions make up a few of the assignments. After a little Bartók, we were unleashed on the Fibonacci series and told to do what we will with it. Earlier this week we met for a little show-and-tell.

The results were wide-ranging, to say the least. Everyone applied the numbers with varying degrees of rigor to various "compositional parameters": duration (yo), harmony, melody, density, etc. The number of ways in which people wrote music based on such a basic premise was interesting in and of itself, but the show-and-tell ceremony itself had some interesting features.

We all had to introduce our pieces, speaking in as much detail as we wanted. Pretty much everyone acted as a performer as well as composer (alone and in groups with friends from outside the class). Solo piano pieces were popular. One girl performed a choral work by way of a much-overdubbed recording of herself. Everyone clearly worked hard to present their music in the best possible light.

After each reading, the prof gave some feedback and opened the floor to anyone in the class. Some passages were replayed with changes based on this feedback. This made the music feel more like open works than finished pieces. Nothing was sacred, at least for the amount of time it took to see if something sounded better another way.

The prof made an interesting comment at the end of the evening. He noted that at the beginning of the session, most of us would not have been able to pick out the Fibonaccic features of each piece by ear, but by the end, all the little 1,1,2,3,5 semitone series were painfully apparent.

In addition to the rapport we developed through presenting our hard work in such a specific way, we developed a sort of linguistic rapport. The Fibonacci series-in-music is going to be inaudible to your man on the street, and probably to your seasoned concertgoer. However, by making it a common feature of our music, even if it manifested itself in different forms each time, the series became something we were all fluent in. It signified the brief commonality of the reading session just as much as it signified a certain set of proportions.

"Local languages" like this spring up around us all the time. Having a group write and perform Fibonacci music is no different than repeating an in-joke among friends, retelling a favorite story, or saying a prayer before a meal. Each act has a more specific function (fulfilling a school assignment, making people laugh, reinforcing group memory, voicing thanks), but they're united in their power to unite. These languages are often formed by the group who use them, often meaningless to anyone outside this group, but incredibly rich and resonant in meaning to those in it. I don't think their role in establishing group identity should be understated.