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.