December 16, 2007

The Jingler

For those who have always wondered "What If?" a certain composer penned a Christmas tune, the internet finally gives us the opportunity to find out:

"Merry Christmas" from Corey Dargel
"Feliz Navidad" from Peter Garland
"Kedves Karácsony" from György Ligeti
"Frohe Weihnachten" from Anton Webern
BONUS TRACK: "Merry Christmas" from Tay Zonday

Make your own instant classics with The Jingler.

September 25, 2007

Left-handed piano

As usual, you can find anything on craigslist.

September 20, 2007

Composers and the People Who Love Them

This quote is for anyone who thought that composers/musicians/artists had the market cornered on considerate spouses/significant others. It's from Founders at Work, a book of interviews with founders of technology startups:
Surely your wife was nervous about you sleeping only 4 hours every 2 days?

She was. She got me one of those fold-out futons that would fold under my desk. She didn't like me sleeping on the floor.
The whole book is pretty fascinating. Sometimes you forget that there are people behind the fancy consumer technology that we encounter on a daily basis. There's no archetypal story that informs the lives of each interviewee. Some of them had a vision and made a calculated plan to achieve it. Others thought it would be cool to have their own company and worried about the details as they went. Nevertheless, they share similar passions and drives to create. Really, not that different from composers in many respects.

September 16, 2007

Reading Comprehension

One of my roommates is currently preparing to take the LSAT. He shared with me this question from one of his prep books:
In recent years the early music movement, which advocates performing a work as it was performed at the time of its composition, has taken on the character of a crusade, particularly as it has moved beyond the sphere of medieval and baroque music and into music from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. Granted, knowledge about the experience of playing old music on now-obsolete instruments has been of inestimable value to scholars. Nevertheless, the early music approach to performance raises profound and troubling questions. [...]
The passage continues to discuss such hard-hitting issues as instrument design, tempo choices, and applause etiquette (!). Who would've expected to see these questions posed outside our own [blogo]sphere. Here are a couple samples:
The author suggests that the final movements of symphonies by Mozart and Beethoven might be played more slowly by today's orchestras if which one of the following were to occur?
  1. orchestras were to use instruments no more advanced in design than those used by orchestras at the time Mozart and Beethoven composed their symphonies
  2. audiences were to return to the custom of applauding at the end of each movement of a symphony
  3. audiences were to reserve their most entusiastic applause for the most brilliantly played finales
  4. conductors were to return to the practice of playing the chords on an orchestral piano to keep the orchestra together
  5. conductors were to conduct the symphonies in the manner in which Beethoven and Mozart had conducted them
The author suggests that the modern audience's tendency to withhold applause until the end of a symphony's performance is primarily related to which one of the following?
  1. the replacement of the orchestral piano as a method of keeping the orchestra together
  2. a gradual increase since the time of Mozart and Beethoven in audiences' expectations regarding teh ability of orchestral musicians
  3. a change since the early nineteenth century in audiences' concepts of musical excitement and intensity
  4. a more sophisticated appreciation of the structural integrity of the symphony as a piece of music
  5. the tendency of orchestral musicians to employ their most brilliant effects in the early movements of symphonies composed by Mozart and Beethoven
For the record, my roommate's got his money on answers 2 and 3, respectively.

September 07, 2007

Devil's Advocate

Just when I thought music was dead, I get wind that we've got ourselves a savior. Thank goodness.

In related news, a few people recently got bit by the "compression is bad" bug. Now, I'm hardly going to argue with the general complaint. However, I think it's worth pointing out that compression is a tool just like any other. Good cooks use only enough salt so that you don't taste it, you know? The IEEE piece focused on such "overseasoning" issues, but there are recordings that use extreme compression quite artfully. Take a look at the waveform of Fiona Apple's "Limp":

Parts of the track are quite compressed and quite loud. They are preceded, though, by quieter sections with a more pronounced dynamic range. The contrast makes the aggressive refrains ("call me crazy / hold me down / make me cry / get off now / baby") more aggressive. The more delicate verses pick up more tension and uncertainty than a more consistent dynamic range might've suggested. Those max amp spikes you see in the last refrain are when the drums come in to accent "baby," pushing the song over the emotional edge it had been otherwise holding back from.

An entire album of music like this would be very fatiguing. The song which follows on the album ("Love Ridden") has an entirely different attitude:

The softer instrumentation (no percussion, only piano and strings) and dynamic range give your ears a chance to rest without forcing a break in the action.

July 22, 2007


I wish record stores would have no categories and just jam everyone in alphabetically. Curveballs of the day: Nico Muhly and Daniel Bernard Romaine ("feat. Philip Glass") popping up in pop. I had to walk from pop/rock to hip-hop/rap for Kanye West, but that confusion is at least understandable. One of my friends, a former record store employee, once recounted a zinger of a job interview question: where do you put John Cage? I know most people would come looking for him in classical (the most ambiguous placard of the lot), but I'd file him under folk just to see who was paying attention.

July 09, 2007

Allez Musique!

I usually try to hold off from link-and-run type posts, but this is too good to pass up: ANALOG arts ensemble has announced Iron Composer Omaha, a composition competition (no entry fee, kids) modeled after a certain kitschy cooking show. I'm glad to see that they're combining bad theater with new music, but I hope they follow through on the Iron Chef format with commentary (who is the Alton Brown of new music?), play-by-play, and interviews. As any viewer of Iron Chef knows, the fun isn't just in the challenge of the secret ingredient, but in the whole process of watching the chefs work.

July 03, 2007

What Begets What?

One of my recent musical projects has been playing with Reason, a piece of software that gives you a virtual rack (literally, check out the screenshots) of electronic instruments to configure and combine at will. The interface is both charming and infuriating (how do you use a mouse to turn a dial exactly?), but its real-life-ness makes for a pretty minimal learning curve. All those knobs are pretty easy to turn when you've got a decent MIDI controller, anyway.

Finding new tools and instruments is usually a source of creative stimulation. They give you a new way of conceptualizing music/sound. Since Reason is tied to the metaphor of recorded music (you usually want to pipe all of your virtual instruments through a virtual mixer), it encourages you to think of music spatially (balance and positioning) and timbrally (you can record a track and alter the instrument independently of the notes in the sequencer). Since I tend to think of my notated acoustic music in similar ways, Reason has fit in very well with my workflow.

Live music (at least performed by others) is honestly an infrequent experience for me. I think it's fair to say that most people in my generation largely experience music through recordings. This attitude occasionally reveals itself through the scores of people my age. Dynamic markings are usually used to indicate relative volume levels, not variations in tone. I've even heard people talk about ensemble blend in terms of a "mix." Because of how people tend to conceptualize music now, I wonder if more young composers would do well to try out some form of electronic music.

For another take on the relationship between instruments and the music they're used to make, check out Bassline Baseline, a documentary on the TB-303.

The New

The latest issue of the New Yorker has brought us a taste of Alex Ross's upcoming history of modern music, via an article on Sibelius. One of the threads running through the article is the question of conservative-or-radical that dogged Sibelius throughout his career. To me, this question is one of the slimiest remnants of modernism that the (classical) music world can't seem to shake itself from. The people must know: is the music "new"?

This question deals strictly with language. Who cares if you're saying something simple-minded with your music; all that matters is that you find a shiny package to put it in. Yes, there are situations where the package does say something notable. The expressionism of early Schoenberg (for example) projects a unique worldview which is stimulating to parse. My beef is with people who write off composers based on their sound without considering any other aspects of the music.

Alex's take on Sibelius ends with the suggestion there are other composers out there with unrecognized radical streaks. There's something weird about this whole game. The whole, is Sibelius a conservative symphonist or a forefather of spectralism? Do Schoenberg's 12-tone compositions point the way to a new conception of music or are they an idiosyncratic rehash of Baroque counterpoint? Peter Garland came up with the term "radical consonance" to describe his own music. And we composers claim we're so misunderstood...

One of my favorite music history books is the Allan Atlas book on the Renaissance from Norton. Atlas didn't try to force the music into an all-encompassing narrative. His book basically had the feel of "this thing happened, then this thing, and then this random thing that no one saw coming..." Kyle Gann got close to this approach in his American music book, but he stuck mostly to what he felt was the aesthetic cutting-edge of each generation.

This issue is not limited to the classical world either. When I took a class in the analysis of rock music, my professor claimed that the novelty of New Wave was superficial and that the real innovations of the time were going on in so-called corporate rock.

My question: what would conversations about music be like if people weren't so obsessed with the macho oneupsmanship of "innovation," if instead of separating composers based on stylistic traits, we talked about the commonalities of their humanistic pursuits? What does it say that we're so hung up on these particular notions?

June 15, 2007

Writing on...

Morton Feldman once stated that it was essential for all composers to be friends with painters. From my own experience, I can tell you that he was speaking the truth. One of mine recently passed along a link to the blog of John K. (known to some people as the creator of Ren & Stimpy). His life is cartoons, and that's what he writes about. Amazingly, he often goes into technical detail, eliciting comments that range from nodding approval to more impassioned responses.

You might say, "Gee, everyone loves cartoons. Why shouldn't it be hard to get people interested?" However, if you take a look at his posts, they're mainly on cartoons from the '50s that not many people regularly profess interest in or even know exist (he's definitely not writing about Adult Swim). His posts are generally in the format of "This thing is really awesome! Let me show you why!" Even when there's anger on why The State of Things stinks, he shows you how things could be better. Take a look at this little lesson in character design. In general, it's really good writing by an artist on his art... analytical without being pretentious, detailed without only appealing to specialists.

June 07, 2007


Has anyone seen those new iTunes banner ads? You know, the ones with the tie dye-style colors and the happy dancing people? (if you don't know what I'm talking about, they seem to be running in heavy rotation on Pitchfork right now)

Is anyone else bothered by them? See anything subtly racist about them? You know, all those dancing, probably African-American, silhouettes having a grand old time, not a care in the world... I half-expected to hear "Underneath the Harlem Moon" when I unmuted the ad. I'm not going to suggest or advocate an internet boycott of any kind, but it's amazing that it's 2007 and these kinds of stereotypes still pop up in American mass media.

Economics of Music

Dan Wolf has been highlighting some of the similarities between contemporary economics and music. I'm interested in how much further one can take this relationship. For example, what about how composers work? Some of our primary tools are unpowered wooden things (instruments, pencil, paper), but like many modern office workers, we spend a whole lot of time with computers and other electronics.

Dan's post brought up an idea which actually came up in conversation for me this past week, the idea of "Buy Local [Music]." To me, the issue shouldn't need to have anything to do with energy consumption or carbon output. It's a question of whether you want to interact with the people you share your city or town with. Do you want to come away from a concert feeling like you made a sophisticated or hip choice with how you spent your time, or would you rather try something new and meet some strangers who might enrich your life (not that the latter can't happen with non-local music... but you get the idea).

Along with a "Buy Local [Music]" bumper sticker, Dennis Báthory-Kitsz's website contains info on his "We Are All Mozart" project. I'd read about it before, but have in general been underwhelmed with the publicity it's gotten (another instance of why-music-is-not-like-the-other-arts?). My point of comparison is Suzan Lori-Parks's 365 Days/365 Plays project. Granted, she's a Pulitzer prize-winning playwright with more public recognition than Báthory-Kitsz, but she got a fair amount of press coverage, including a big 'ole New Yorker profile.

Besides the personages behind these respective projects (which probably shouldn't be ignored), the major difference is in how they're produced. The plays were written, performances to be found later. To participate, you actually had to apply. The "Mozart" project was done on-demand, people had to instigate each piece.

The 365 project has a blurb on their website explaining its philosophy. One interesting bit:
The 365 Festival is creating an alternative to the present US industry standard of a "World Premiere". In what is currently considered a "World Premiere", one theater in the US or the UK creates the first production of a play written by an English-speaking writer and presents it to a local audience. Suzan-Lori calls the old-school world premiere the "Me-me-me, My-my-my". Many theater artists believe there is a better way to premiere a new theater work. Organizations like the National New Play Network are dedicated to creating more dynamic ways for theaters to work together to widen the impact of new plays. The 365 Festival has put in motion a grassroots collaborative model that blows the top off the single-headed, biggest-theater-wins world premiere status quo.
This problem is also faced by composers. Premieres are highly valued by performers, but can only happen once to a piece. These economics aren't exactly favorable to composers (devil's advocate: should they be?). The only musical model I know of that tries to change this balance is the World-Wide Concurrent Premieres and Commissioning Fund. Anyone know of others like it? Has anyone gone after alternative means of production to get local music played more or to shift value away from the notion of the "premiere"?

May 24, 2007

Just to Be Safe

I got a new musical toy today. A sticker below the table of contents in the manual indicated the following:
WARNING: This product contains chemicals, including lead, known to the State of California to cause [cancer, and] birth defects or other reproductive harm. Wash hands after handling.
The square brackets are in the original. I know there are hazards in any line of work, but this one's news to me (yeah, yeah, I know about the Beethoven hair thing). As you might expect, I did some research on this. It turns out that the lead in question is not part of paint or any other cosmetic coating, but actually inside the device I purchased. California law, however, dictates that the warning be attached regardless. You know...

May 11, 2007

More Bujalski

Came across an interesting article by Andrew Bujalski on the economics of art-making. Random quote:
Paul Morrissey is a Leonardo DiCaprio fan. Stan Brakhage loved the South Park movie. There are people on the planet who only watch obscure experimental cinema, but they are few and far between, and they are not obscure experimental filmmakers. Filmmakers who would choose to work in direct opposition to the Hollywood/"indiewood" system have yet to effect its toppling. Nor have filmmakers attempting to "subvert" the system from within.

May 09, 2007

The End is Nigh!

Pile of Chairs

Yes, I'm still alive. No, I don't hate blogging. Being a graduating senior comes with certain responsibilities which I've been busy attending to (such as doing my work so I can graduate). After a final tomorrow morning for my analysis of rock class (at the very un-rock time of 8:30am), I'll be done with this college thing. By July, I'll have returned to the Boston area and entered into the "real world," of which I've heard many positive things.

One of the things coming with this transition that I'm not looking forward to is lack of ready access to a piano. I've already joked with my parents that while some people see their parents on weekends to do laundry, the piano will be their hook... Still, there's the question: what do you do as a composer/performer to both write (the piano is my preferred working tool) and play music regularly (need my fix!!)? Stories of composers who slave away on notating their grand visions with no expectation of performance are inspiring in an odd sort of way, but I'm too practical-minded to go in that direction. Anyway, there's something more inspiring to me about composers who write conjure up compelling music for sticks, flower pots, and the like. I think it says something to be able work within whatever confines a situation presents you with.

I've done some computer music before, though always reluctantly (for a variety of aesthetic reasons). I'm getting the feeling, however, that this path will be most rewarding for the work I'm immediately interested in. Thankfully, I'll have some time soon to investigate my options in that area, hopefully figuring out some "instrumentation" that I can be happy with.

Meanwhile, I've been doing some "research" for the project I'm gearing up on. I've had the chance to see a couple movies by Andrew Bujalski, Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation. Extremely impressive stuff about recent college grads bumbling around and establishing their adult identities (in Boston no less! am I really researching myself???). I came across an odd review of Funny Ha Ha. The reviewer had a lot of issues with the movie. He was really bothered by the fact that "nothing happens" in the movie, which he could only explain by saying it was some kind of critique of these empty, empty souls. To me, Bujalski seemed quite invested and devoted to his characters. The point to me was not that nothing happens, but how nothing happens. How does Marnie talk to her friends about Alex, how does Alex jerk Marnie around (what a great name). Bujalski really nails the rhythms and mannerisms of a certain group of people and paces his narrative along the personal tensions that they create.

The movie reminded me in a peculiar way of Portrait of a Lady. You know, young, independent-yet-not-quite woman who attracts all the men around her, [un]serendipitous encounters with friends ("Funny seeing you in Rome, er, at the supermarket!"), constant romantic tensions, relationships that will never align. There's no Madame Merle or Gilbert Osmond characters, but I think there's a (kind of) interpretative angle to take by looking at the movie as a neverending 19th century novel.

April 06, 2007

On Virtuosity

[program note from a recent solo recital]

Virtuosity is generally defined in terms of technical prowess: thundering scales, incandescent figurations, overwhelming power... Virtuosity is a game between the performer and the audience. The former flaunts his technique via feats of strength while maintaining a suggestion of disaster awaiting around the bend.

This display is fundamentally one of showmanship. In the heat of the moment, one forgets that performing musicians are not slovenly bohemians, but trained professionals. Sure, the shaggy hair is part of our allure, but it’s hard to find time for a haircut when you have to spend all your free time practicing. We rehearse and work through our music so much that by the time you hear us, even the gnarliest passages have been reduced to child’s play. Once on stage, it’s our job to make them look hard again.

True virtuosity, to me, is making the hard sound easy. Virtuosity is the vocals on a Beach Boys album. Virtuosity is Aki Takahashi playing Morton Feldman. This virtuosity is not about flaunting your abilities to an audience, but rather presenting them in a kind of unassuming clarity. Listeners are invited to take them for exactly what they’re worth, but not forced to go further than that (that’s not to say you’re not allowed to show off your strengths, but you’re also forced to recognize when they give out).

As a pianist, music is something I have to pick up and feel in my fingers before I can know if it’s any good. Where other players blow, breathe, and drag horsehairs, we touch and caress. I try to play so you can get as close as possible to that kind of tactile engagement with sound.

The relationship I have with my instrument has been one of the biggest influences on the general nature of my music. My idea of development isn’t concocting a new guise for an intervallic motive, it’s playing something again to see if it still sounds good. How does it feel – how does it make you feel – the next time you hear it? The relationships created by these constant recontextualizations against past experience have a subtle complexity.

Though I often draw inspiration from non-musical experiences and forms, I do not want my music to be something you engage distantly and abstractly. I find our culture is all too dominated by ideas of things. One goes to a knick-knack-filled restaurant to eat an idea of a meal, puts on chic earbuds to listen to an idea of music, and in extreme cases, passes through life only knowing ideas of friendships. I want my music to be something you can only engage through an essential thing-ness. I genuinely want to create an experience that doesn’t need to go any deeper than its acoustic surface.

The program I selected is meant to show off the range of expression and potential for a deeper performer-audience relationship that’s possible with an “anti-virtuosity.” The pieces wedged between my own are meant to be entertaining diversions (they’re pop songs after all), but they’re also meant to be examples of music that has influenced my compositional technique and aesthetics.

"Rednecks" — Randy Newman
Frayed Shirt — Adam Baratz
"All My Little Words" — Stephin Merritt
I Can Turn It On and Off — Baratz
"I Think I Need a New Heart" — Merritt

Mix Tape — Baratz
"Help Me" — Joni Mitchell
"Just Like This Train" — Mitchell
Departing Figure — Baratz
"You Can Leave Your Hat On" — Newman

Scores, as usual, available on request.

April 03, 2007

Post-Minimalist Weekend Post

I stepped out of my usual composerly circles to join the musicology department for a symposium with Robert Fink (UCLA). As predicted, he essentially did highlights from Repeating Ourselves. Since I'd read the book before, what I learned from the session was tangential to the actual presentation, but is still a interesting important point: if I want to sit around a table where the majority of those present are intelligent and assertive women, musicology functions are a sure bet.

Saturday was Steve Reich Day, with a symposium in the afternoon and a concert in the evening. The centerpiece of the symposium was hearing his newish Daniel Variations. After castigating a big chunk of us for not knowing who Daniel Pearl was ("Well, you should."), he explained how he met Pearl's father and was asked to write a piece about Pearl. The piece sets fragmentary texts from Pearl's writings and the biblical Book of Daniel (which involves a conflict between Jews and Babylonians).

Following the listening, was an extended Q&A. Not a lot of new info for anyone who hasn't read any interviews with or writings by Reich, but he made one interesting comment that stuck with me. Asked about the efficacy of politicized art, he said he had no illusions about saving the world. "Guernica" didn't prevent Dresden and Tokyo, but it made Guernica part of our vocabulary.

The concert in the evening covered his whole career: Drumming (Part One), Cello Counterpoint, Different Trains, and Sextet. Drumming changed a lot live. Thanks to Kilbourn Hall's natural wetness, there was some harmonies hung in the air after each attack. You could follow the cellular transformations, courtesy of having the visual of the performers. The drums were left standing on-stage before and after the piece, à la gamelan.

Cello Counterpoint was done with 8 live cellists, though with some amplification to balance out the lines. It bore a striking resemblance, harmonically and structurally to Triple Quartet. I had a similar bout of déjà vu (but not quite as strong) during Sextet, with the point of comparison being Music for 18 Musicians. Self-plagiarism doesn't offend me that much, but why has Reich dodged the bullet on this one when Glass has gotten so much flack?

I would like to use this page to inaugurate the "Different Trains...Not So Much a Fan" Club. First of all, kudos to Reich for making a 180-degree turn on his early aesthetic and turning out a text-based piece of program music (love those violins doubling the taped train whistles). The speech-as-music bit is fun, but not fun enough to steal the title for "Best Setting of the Word 'Chicago'" from Harry Partch.

My real problem with the piece is with the content of the program. The "different trains" conceit is reasonably clever, but not 27' clever. There's just not enough behind it to propel the piece for that duration. It doesn't present any major challenges to my ethical imagination. I know more than I want to know about the inhumanity of the Holocaust. Nuremberg more than adequately documented that. By 1988, I'd hope that an artist could have gone deeper into the material.

For me, Sophie's Choice is the exemplar of asking the hard questions on this terrain. Styron was willing (I'd say he even went out of his way) to find humanity among Nazis. Because of that, the eponymous choice becomes much, much more than you'd suspect. Reich only deals with one side of the situation in his quartet, and in turn is only able to present a victim's story. Targets of genocide deserve to have more than their victimization preserved.


[UPDATE: I neglected one important tidbit, which was that the Reich concert had a basically full house. When the usher came out to do the fire exit spiel, we got "Good eve— wow" instead of the usual "Good evening and welcome to Kilbourn Hall."]


Pictures from the show, courtesy of John Lam:


Cello Counterpoint
Cello Counterpoint

Different Trains


March 28, 2007

Minimalist Weekend in Rochester

Two events of note over the next few days:

March 21, 2007

Senior Recital

One would've thought that I could've squeezed in at least one post during my spring break, but that turned out to be false. Among other things, I was busy finishing some music to be played at my senior recital. As the tagline at the top says "composer/pianist," that's exactly what the recital will be all about. The focus will be on my own music, but with little interludes in the form of some of my influences from the pop-ular repertory. I doubt the program will contain any major surprises for longtime readers of this blog:
Four of my piano pieces
Two songs by Stephin Merritt (from 69LS vol. 1)
Two songs by Randy Newman (from Sail Away and Good Old Boys)
Two instrumental transcriptions of songs by Joni Mitchell (from Court & Spark)
It will be taking place on March 30th at 8pm in the Hawkins-Carlson Room of the Rush Rhees Library, U. of Rochester (that was a mouthful). When you walk into the library's main lobby, it's the first room on the right.

March 11, 2007

Late Night Reading

I find the attitude of rock musicians over the past 20 years kind of funny, the whole I'm-a-rebel stance. The truth of the matter is, most rock bands are classical musicians and they don’t know it. Because it’s "This song starts with this drumbeat, at this time; halfway through, the guitar comes in, playing this part, with all down strokes on the fifth, with a clean sound; at this point you turn on your distortion and you play the barre chord, and then it’s muted at this point . . ." And every time they play the song, it’s the same thing. That’s classical music!
Jon Brion on us shlubs

March 05, 2007

New Album Soon?

Please say soon. At any rate, it's good to know that Charles Ives won't be the last serious composer to make good use of "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean."

February 25, 2007

Leveling Up

When practicing an instrument or writing music, it usually seems like the amount of time you have to put to improve at the skill in question is disproportionate to your improvement rate. You might have to write half a dozen bum pieces before you can use some little idea you had, you have to play a few Mozart sonatas before you're happy with the tone quality for any of them, etc., etc.... I'd be genuinely surprised if someone with creative inclinations has not had this kind of experience.

There always seems to be a well-demarcated line between frustration and ownership with me and these problems. Progress can be difficult to feel. One day you leave the practice room pulling your hair out, the next you come back and something's clicked. Taking time out to rationalize the situation can sometimes help you get your bearings, but nothing really substitutes for those long hours spent in the trenches. Those times may make you wonder why you even bother, but you know the answer when you get one of those little epiphanies.

Tenney on Form

A second use of [form] that is, again often encountered in musical discussions is illustrated by such terms of "sonata-form," "ABA-form," "rondo-form," etc., which refer to specific formal types, generally associated with particular styles or historical periods. And although each of these formal types may be characterized by certain intrinsic formal features, common to all examples of the type, and constituting the original basis for classification, they tend to represent, in each case, not so much a form, but a formula, and are not, therefore relevant to the problems I am concerned with here.
James Tenney, Meta (+) Hodos

I read a description of this book somewhere that was along the lines of "the most important 20th century theory book that no one's read" (though a search has revealed that someone is sharing a copy via BitTorrent). It is, indeed, pretty kickass, particularly considering it was his Master's Thesis. Whereas music theory tends to posit abstract structures and work towards the score and the listening experience, Tenney starts with the listening experience and works in the other direction. He tries to articulate how people process sounds, what gets us to group them together and divide them out. He does not assume that people hear a piece with a set of structural expectations. When he makes analogies, the vocabulary of visual art is used frequently ("figure" and "ground" as terms for structural importance, etc.).

As you might guess, American experimentalists provide most of the musical examples. Ives and Varèse get the most attention, but early Schoenberg (yay op11) and Webern make brief appearances. The analytical highlight for me was the discussion of how dynamics shape the opening of Density 21.5, implying a rhythm in an otherwise "static" pitch (way more interesting than aggregate completion).

Some Tenney links:
Daniel Wolf's very thorough review of Meta (+) Hodos
"John Cage and the Theory of Harmony"
Tenney Bibliography
Tenney Slideshow with "Raggedy Ann"

February 17, 2007

Marvin Gaye Sings the National Anthem

Backstory available on Thomas Dolby's blog.

February 14, 2007

Some Facebook Groups Concerning Music

  • All Hail Brad Lubman!
  • Baroque Opera is Way Happenin'
  • Christa Ludwig, awesomest Singer Ever
  • Down with Equal Temperament
  • Franz Liszt 4 Life
  • French Music Lovers
  • Got Perfect Pitch?
  • I Live By the Sonata Principle
  • I love Elliott Carter and Polyrhythmic Syncopation!!
  • I'm A Fermata...Hold Me
  • I'm Glad Pluto's No Longer a Planet; It Makes Gustav Holst's Suite Complete
  • I'm such a music freak that I harmonize with the fire alarm...
  • I wish I were an +6 chord so you could bring resolution to my raised member
  • Mahler Is A Bad Ass!!!
  • Modal Majority
  • People for the Ethical Treatment of Accompanists
  • Scriabin Is THE Bad Ass!!!
  • We Bang Steinways!
  • you know Louis Andriessen would be MIND-BLOWING in bed
At the time of this posting, "Baroque Opera is Way Happenin'" has 532 members, 106 revolutionaries are fighting the good fight against equal temperament, and 63 sex-perverts lust eagerly after Louis Andriessen.

February 11, 2007

Kronos Quartet, 2/7/07

Kronos's show at Eastman Theatre featured only pieces that were commissioned by them or arranged exclusively for them. It brought out what I see as the very best and very worst of the group. I have tremendous respect for them as dedicated advocates of new music. They played one of their under 30 commissions with the same commitment they gave to their proven showpieces. I'm still unsure, though, about their "world music" projects and pop covers. I understand they program this music along with Steve Reich and Michael Gordon to show that they think it's just as good. However, underneath the colored lights and amplification, I'm still sitting in the neo-classical temple of Eastman Theatre listening to a string quartet. It's hard to get away from the feeling that they're engaged in some old-fashioned exoticism.

The program opened with Potassium, a Michael Gordon piece. Its amplified glissandi would be familiar to anyone who has heard Weather, but it is by no means a rehash of that piece. It uses a large-scale ABA form similar to Reich's Triple Quartet. There's a very narrow range of ensemble relationships (lots of staggered entrance glissandi), but a wide range of timbres and harmonies come out. It's a very physical piece. You feel like a chemical element is being synthesized before you, but no soft metal like potassium. You'd need some high-powered lasers to work with whatever Gordon had in mind.

"Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me" is an Iraqi song, author unknown. The notes state that the arrangement they used is "based on a recording produced sometime during the Saddam period between the 1980s and 2002." The cello played a syncopated bass line that kept you on your toes. A fragment of the original recording was played as the song finished up.

"Raga Mishra Bhairavi" is an arrangement of sarangi music by Ram Narayan. The viola took its place here. The stage was dark so I couldn't quite tell, but it looked like John Sherba grabbed an electric sitar for this one.

Dan Visconti's Love Bleeds Radiant came in through the Kronos: Under 30 Project. My anal critic self thought it suffered from the typical young composer syndrome of too-many-ideas, but my adventurous programming self was intrigued by the idea of touring with something that's untested and uncertain. It gets that critical dialogue going between performer and audience instead of composer self and anal critic self. Maybe it's bad for every item on a concert program to be a proven masterpiece.

"Flugufrelsarinn," a Sigur Rós song, followed. I thought it was a very convincing arrangement that kept a lot of the band's sound intact. On the other hand, a friend who knows the band better than I do criticized the arrangement for not being loyal enough to the original.

Derek Charke, a new name to me, contributed Cercle du Nord III. It had a minimalist pulse but followed a seemingly programmatic form. There were occasional pre-recorded interjections of speech which were unfortuantely (intentionally?) hard to make out. I had trouble making sense of everything with only one hearing, but I can give it the compliment that I wanted to give it a second one.

"Lullaby" and "Tusen Tanakar (A Thousand Thoughts)" fell into Kronos's direct, sentimental style. Either you care or you don't.

The program closed with Reich's Triple Quartet. On recording, it seems like perhaps his most traditional piece. Three fast-slow-fast movements, arch forms, and large scale harmonic movement based on mediant relationships. In person, it seems as radical as any other. Throughout his career, Reich has found ways to get people to play their instruments in unusual ways. They're not necessarily original methods (sharing instruments comes from his study of Ghanaian drumming), but he always integrates convincingly into into his personal musical language.

Here he takes what is normally the most "intimate" of genres and turns a group into one cog in a larger machine: a live quartet plays against a tape of two others. When seen live, the combination creates a startling juxtaposition of the active and inactive (much like the usual fast music/slow music at the same time in other Reich). The music itself is incredibly lively, begging you to dance along with it. However, when 2/3 of the musicians are canned, the stage picture doesn't have enough energy to match. In addition, the group appeared intentionally deadened. Their gestures felt perfunctory and the lighting staying consistently dimmed and uncolored (both in big contrast to everything else that night). I always thought of the piece as good workout music, but in person the active/inactive juxtaposition is very unsettling. I wonder if I would feel the same way about the piece if it was performed by three live quartets.

Three encores ensued: "Beloved, O Beloved" from their Bollywood album (ebullient music, I'd like to hear the rest now), a Star-Spangled Banner à la Hendrix (the lighting projected distorted instrumental shapes on the side walls, the interpretation was about as radical as it was in '69), and "Lux Aeternum" from Requiem for a Dream (music that reminds you how "serious" the movie was).

February 09, 2007

Upcoming Show

Eastman Musica Nova
Kilbourn Hall
Monday, February 12, 2007

David Lang - Sweet Air
Caleb Burhans - Amidst Neptune
Vinko Globokar - La Ronde
David Lang - Increase


I'll be there playing piano on Sweet Air, "HarpsyKorg" on Increase, and singing on La Ronde (it's one of those anarchist open instrumention pieces). It'll be a short program: an hour or so, no intermission.

January 27, 2007

Sestina d'Inverno

I first met this poem of Anthony Hecht's in a high school English class (Hecht formerly taught English at the U. of R. — go Yellowjackets!). Honestly, anyone who doesn't like snow should quit their whining and go live somewhere else. Some of us are trying to enjoy this weather!

Here in this bleak city of Rochester,
Where there are twenty-seven words for "snow,"
Not all of them polite, the wayward mind
Basks in some Yucatan of its own making,
Some coppery, sleek lagoon, or cinnamon island
Alive with lemon tints and burnished natives,

And O that we were there. But here the natives
Of this grey, sunless city of Rochester
Have sown whole mines of salt about their land
(Bare ruined Carthage that it is) while snow
Comes down as if The Flood were in the making.
Yet on that ocean Marvell called the mind

An ark sets forth which is itself the mind,
Bound for some pungent green, some shore whose natives
Blend coriander, cayenne, mint in making
Roasts that would gladden the Earl of Rochester
With sinfulness, and melt a polar snow.
It might be well to remember that an island

Was blessed heaven once, more than an island,
The grand, utopian dream of a noble mind.
In that kind climate the mere thought of snow
Was but a wedding cake; the youthful natives,
Unable to conceive of Rochester,
Made love, and were acrobatic in the making.

Dream as we may, there is far more to making
Do than some wistful reverie of an island,
Especially now when hope lies with the Rochester
Gas and Electric Co., which doesn't mind
Such profitable weather, while the natives
Sink, like Pompeians, under a world of snow.

The one thing indisputable here is snow,
The single verity of heaven's making,
Deeply indifferent to the dreams of the natives,
And the torn hoarding-posters of some island.
Under our igloo skies the frozen mind
Holds to one truth: it is grey, and called Rochester.

No island fantasy survives Rochester,
Where to the natives destiny is snow
That is neither to our mind nor of our making.

January 22, 2007

Raise your hand if...

Composers are accustomed to the question of "What kind of music do you write?" Pianists have probably gotten this one a few times:
"I'm a musician."
"What do you play?"
"Oh. I could never do two things at the same time."

January 16, 2007

Delayed Reaction

My multi-week odyssey to find a brick-and-mortar store with a copy of Ys to sell me came to a close yesterday. The album is no revolution or revelation, just ("just") very honest and well put together. The symbolism (or would it be allegory?) is rather heavy, but the core is a confessional treatment of a romance. I'm still waiting for my decoder ring to arrive in the mail, but the music is very affecting, clear in its own way.

I don't buy into the criticisms of Newsom's singing. She sounds very in control of her instrument, carefully choosing when it cracks and flutters. She's able to conjure a sound which I can only compare to a squeaking rubber balloon, but for some reason sounds quite beautiful to my ears.

The main thing I was left wondering about after my first listen was the album's extreme "consonance." Her words are mellifluous and consistently rhymed, the orchestral backings are always lush. It's a choice, but I'd be curious to hear some of the songs with a little more grit .


DJA requests that we abolish the use of the adjective "pretentious" in our critical discourse. I agree, and myself would add "twee" to that list. I can't read about Belle & Sebastian's latest without getting hit in the face by this one. It's certainly apropos for much hipster-friendly music, but can we nip this one in the bud?


I feel I should toss in a few words on why I bothered reacting to an album that's already been heavily lauded and desired. I'm usually suspicious of reviews that appear too soon after a new product enters the marketplace. They feel too attached to the PR mechanism of the vendor. In the rush to get the first review on the block, publications are just handing out free publicity. I'd prefer that critics take as long as they want to publish a piece, even passing on something if they don't feel like anything should be said. If I "have" to know how good something is as soon as it's available, I'll buy it myself (or make friends with someone who feels that same need). When we live in a society that's trying to sell us something at every street corner, do we really need to contribute to the problem?

January 09, 2007


Love is the newest release by "The Beatles," rather, the newest officially sanctioned release of Beatles material. In case you haven't already heard what it's about, it's a set of Beatles-on-Beatles mash-up action performed by George Martin & Son. The album got a good consideration in strictly musical terms by AllMusic, so I'll direct you there if you want the standard review.

As their reviewer says, the juxtapositions are pretty tame. The main interest in Love isn't the new relationships, but the restored quality of the source material. Us younguns know the Beatles primarily through the shoddy remaster jobs of their albums which date to the early years of the CD. A good song's a good song no matter how rough the recording is. However, a band that spent so much time in the studio is going to get shortchanged by technology that takes a giant step backwards from their original working conditions.

Something about hearing the masters handled with such care makes the songs sound fresh again. The vocals in general were the main event for me. The expressive nuances can be heard more clearly, the madrigal-y quality of the backing vocals get a lot more attention. "Help" becomes intense, "I Am the Walrus" is shocking and weird instead of well-worn.

This album prompts a tricky question: what does it take for a piece of music to be "new?" What kind of status do recordings have as musical artifacts? I can't say I've gotten a lot of listens out of this one (the songs are ultimately well-worn with me), but the initial impact was significant. The quality of sound made its own statement. There was something new-enough in that experience for me.

Yuk yuk yuk

Peter Garland - Jornada Del Muerto/The View from Vulture Peak

This moment occurs at the top of the very last page of a 30'-ish multi-movement piece, Peter Garland's Jornada Del Muerto (piano solo). If you're going to wander through the desert for the while, I guess it behooves you to come away from the experience with a healthy sense of humor...

January 03, 2007

RSS Feed

I was playing with the tags feature in the new version of Blogger, which has caused some older posts to float to the top of my RSS feed. Apologies for any confusions.

Being Serious

One of the best parts of school vacation is spending time reading cookbooks. Reading a recipe is a lot like score reading. You're looking at instructions for performance, not the work itself. Like score reading, when you do it enough, you start to get a sense of what a recipe will taste like without having to prepare the dish. Also like score reading, while you may get the gist of the flavors, it's no substitute for actually eating.

I'm currently browsing through the book based on the French Laundry. High dining, to say the least. Not something I'll do every night, but it shares some secrets that will work with more pedestrian fare. One thing this book does well is communicate Thomas Keller's attitude towards food and cooking:
Unlike meat and poultry, fish is not regulated for quality and it's not inspected, which is why quality ranges are huge. How can you know when fish wasn't handled right? Was it dumped on the boat, is it bruised and beaten up? How was it caught—did it drown in a net, its gills filling with water, its flesh becoming waterlogged? Once caught, was it properly iced?. . . Our fish is packed in ice or seaweed and stored in our walk-in cooler in the same position it swims—not haphazardly, and not on its side. The flesh is too easily damaged. This is what I mean by treating your products with respect.

Not only does he ask all the questions, but it's essential for him to know all the answers. However, he's no Alton Brown-style food scientist. Alton will get a costumed cohort when he wants to describe the different cuts of meat from an animal. Keller rolls up his sleeves:

One day, I asked my rabbit purveyor to show me how to kill, skin, and eviscerate a rabbit. I had never done this, and I figured if I was going to cook rabbit, I should know it from its live state through the slaughtering, skinning, and butchering, and then the cooking. The guy showed up with twelve live rabbits.

It's not that he thinks it would be fun to do, he considers it part of his personal education. Interestingly, the book is pretty low on arrogance. He seems constantly determined to make the best food he can. Talking about how great he is would just take time away from that.

Finally, Keller's thoughts on "performance practice":

These recipes, although exact documents of the way food is prepared at the French Laundry, are only guidelines. You're not going to be able to duplicate the dish that I made. You may create something that in composition resembles what I made, but more important—and this is my greatest hope—you're going to create something that you have deep respect and feelings and passions for. And you know what? It's going to be more satisfying than anything I could ever make for you.