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?