Classical Music Buzz > Renewable Music
Renewable Music
Daniel Wolf
A displaced Californian composer writes about music made for the long while & the world around that music. ~ The avant-garde is flexibility of mind. — John Cage ~ ...composition is only a very small thing, taken as a part of music as a whole, and it really shouldn't be separated from music making in general. — Douglas Leedy ~ My God, what has sound got to do with music! — Charles Ives
425 Entries
In an interview with Thomas Moore, Robert Ashley says "I mean, we're using public address, basically, as a medium."  I think that there's exactly where Ashley's work becomes troubling for me.  Now, I'm not against troubling — indeed, the best social function of our work is often, as the saying goes, being able to give comfort to the troubled while troubling the comfortable — but I think there was a turn in Ashley's music when the use of the "public address" medium stopped being a critical topic (as in The Wolfman or Public Opinion Descends Upon the Demonstrators or in parts of That Morning Thing when private and public forms of address are so powerfully crossed with one another) and simply became his medium of choice.  Public address systems are a highly problematic phenomena in the world, with considerable conflation of the admirable function of amplification so that small sounds (voices, in particular) can be heard more widely with a dominating, monopolizing, and controlling function, so that particular amplified sounds, and the particular information carried by those sounds, violently dominates as an instrument of control by the actor or parties which control the amplification system, the one-way nature of which has the effect of excluding alternative voices with alternative information and tends to remove the possibility for dialog.  Getting loud is often a way of keeping others silent.  (This phenomenon is perhaps even more present in the developing world where an aggressive public use of microphone, amplifier, and loudspeaker, by political, religious, or commercial interests can be ubiquitous and, especially in public spaces, inescapable.)  I don't want to suggest that Ashley was entirely unaware of this, indeed, I think he had some strategies for subverting the medium, first through mixing parallel realizations of text and character templates, but more still through a cool rather than hot delivery (Bettgefluster — bed whispering — is the German radio broadcaster's term of art, here) and I think that some of the versions of Ashley's operas staged by others (there are videos on line if you're interested) have suffered from an in-your-face and over-the-top delivery style (Why do they shout into the microphone? Don't you use a mic just so that you won't need to shout?)  when Ashley's own brand of calm would have been at once more clear, inviting, and, yes, for better or worse, powerful.  
11 months ago | |
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The role of gesture in music receives a lot of attention, but very little concrete analysis. Hector Rodriguez's program Gestus rigorously analyzes movement in film images, separating gestures from the objects or actors in motion and identifies the gestural vocabulary present in an entire film, gathering together the most similar gestures, abstracted from their identities and contexts, in this case from Feuillade's serial Judex. What could an equivalent form of analysis for musical gesture be like? (A more detailed web site for Gestus is here.)
11 months ago | |
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Last Friday night was a Forum Neue Musik concert at the Hessischer Rundfunk, played by the HR Symphony under Franck Ollu.  The playing was terrific, as usual, Ollu's conducting sharp and shaped, as expected, but the programming was both problematic and revealing.  The Forum Neue Musik has been, for decades, one of the most important live & broadcast concert series for new music in Germany, and over the years has featured landmark performances, including all of the major orchestral works of Morton Feldman and important orchestral and ensemble performances of works by a real diversity of composers: among the most notable, off the top of my head:  Scelsi, Ives, Cage, Stockhausen, Obuchov, de Alvear, Lucier, Sorenson, Zimmermann, Lachenmann, Bauckholt, Ayres. Schnebel, and Young. Unfortunately, it seems to me that it is presently going, programmatically, through a very weak phase these days. I suspect this is most likely due to the internal politics of having an orchestra attached to a micropolitically complex institution like a German public radio station: the curator for new music may want one thing, the music department head another, but the orchestra leadership wants still another (for example, to show off a guest artist in residence or feature particular orchestra members), and still other pressures come from the present station leadership, which is close to the market-oriented Christian Democratic party, and would like to treat all radio activities as individual profit centers, thus insisting on a bottom line which sees, for example, the station's library of old recordings as unrealized investments that compete directly with any new activities, like the commissioning, performance, recording, and broadcasting of new works.  The problem for Forum Neue Musik is that it is becoming much harder to justify the "new" in the title when a program like last Friday's, in which two works were around a half century old, a third work was a John Adams arrangement of Debussy — and late 19th century, "Wagnerian", Debussy at that — and the two "new" works were undoubtedly by contemporary composers, lively composers at that, but definitely senior figures.  The other programmatic weakness suggested a critical glance at American music, if not a latent anti-Americanism at work.  The theme was, very roughly, the minimal in music and there was a decided Europe-against-America agon in play, with two examples of European composers working in territory similar to and comporaneous with, if not predating, early American radical music with a minimal impulse (a 1963 piece by Pärt, Perpetuum Mobile and  Scelsi's 1959 Quattro Pezzu su una nota sola) posed against with Adam's showpiece orchestration of  Debussy's Five Songs of Baudelaire (entitled Le Livre de Baudelaire, as if Adams was playing out an orchestrator's rivalry with Boulez) and Steve Reich's The Four Sections (which is, and isn't, as the program notes hint, Reich's agon with Bartók, but also, in particularly with the string writing in the stubborn counterpoint of the first movement, with a body of mid-20th century American orchestral music that is largely unknown here (I'm not enthusiastic about The Four Sections, but I came 'round to admiring the Reich formal stubbornness here, sticking with a grating string texture until it became background noise and his use of the horns as a harmonic background later in the piece. (In the Adams, coincidentally, the horn writing was also the best part.)))  All of this was unnecessary and unfortunate, particularly because the strongest work on the program (and also, coincidentia oppositorum, the most modest in resources demanded) was the new commission on the program, De-Crescendo by Ernstalbrecht Stiebler, the soon-to-be octogenarian former new music curator at HR, a gracious man and musician who has never found much charge in opposing the musics on either side of the Atlantic to one another, but rather considerable charge in their co-resonance.  Stiebler achieved something here connected to his experience with minimal musics of all sorts that was profoundly about drawing out a continuity of sound from tightly circumscribed initial impulses, here an unassuming melodic-harmonic cell in a pair of oboes, intuitively using a mixture of local and ad hoc processes to generate the passing figurations which project that continuity.  The revealing aspect of the program was that the Scelsi Four Pieces on a Single Note, a piece which I have known for about 30 years, and loved in its first LP recording, can work in a recorded environment, in which a good sound designer can create just the right reverberation, but is so fragile in live performance, even in a forgiving hall like the HR Sendesalle, that it is just not a reliable concert piece.  With the room full of people, it was an extremely dry acoustic, and the schematic, measure-by-measure, quality of the orchestration was exposed. Instead of a continuity, it was broken and discrete. My sense was that the conductor and players were really doing everything they possibly could to make the piece work, but I think it may actually be an example of a piece for which the historical importance is certain but the actual quality is not.
11 months ago | |
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The story goes (and this is now the stuff of legend) that Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma applied for a loan to fund the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in Ann Arbor in exactly the same week Berry Gordy sought a loan to start the Motown studio, just down the road.  I have no idea about the accuracy of that story (though, if true, I'd love to know which studio paid back its loan first, if either ever did), but those two studios certainly shaped music in profound ways that continue to resonate and resonate way beyond their initial niches.  People who know Ashley through the work of the last forty years, dominated by his work with speech, and in particular his operas  (okay, let's say it: for all intents and purposes, Ashley was a father of rap), which often fall into gentle and sentimental moods, may have missed that it had built upon a body of radical music that represented the hardest edge of the avant-garde.  Ashley's Wolfman was the one piece of the 1960s repertoire that most reliably left audiences shocked, shaken, running (or some combination of the above) while other works like the In Memoriam series and Public Opinion Descends upon the Demonstrators,  took everything we knew about musical form and shook it to its roots.  I studied composition with one half of the Sonic Arts Union, Mumma and Alvin Lucier. I didn't study with either David Behrman or Robert Ashley, but their work was always a background presence, music made by some wise but distant musical uncles.  I heard many performances by Ashley over the years, but I had exactly three conversations with him. The first conversation was at Mills College; I was thinking of applying to grad school there and he was, formally, interviewing me but he was clearly already on his way out of Mills at that point of time and the interview was, well, absent any of the features one might expect of an interview.  Questions, for example.  Then, a few years later, as a pesky non-Mills grad student, I had come to his apartment in that odd wedged-shaped building in lower Manhattan to ask him some pesky questions about one of his pieces and, though he was busy with recording something at the moment, he had kindly allotted me a few minutes which generously turned into a hour.  He talked about his piece, to be sure, but he took the conversation (well, not much of a conversation; I don't think I got more than three sentences in and one of those began with "Hello" and another with "Thank you") in other directions, mostly up and down.  I've come to think of it as a composition lesson, maybe an essential one.  It took place in his elevator, going up and down 'til we were done, I don't know, maybe a dozen times, only actually entering his apartment once to grab some piece of paper meant to illustrate something, and then, when he had decided it was over, depositing me on the ground floor. (I have the impression that he always knew how to come to the point: there's that famous interview with John Cage by Roger Reynolds, but somehow Robert Ashley, who must have been right there all along, 'til then silently kibbitzing the conversation, sweeps in at precisely right moment with  exactly the right question (Yes, it's all theatre.))  The third conversation was very short, two years ago after he had performed a brief but brilliant rap for Alvin Lucier's 80th bash.  I reminded him of the conversation in the elevator. Ashley said "It's a wonderful elevator."


11 months ago | |
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Rather than getting tied down in issues of accuracy and original ("composerly") intentions in performance, perhaps it would be both more convenient and more to the point to think of music in the composer -> notation -> performer line of transmission as a kind of story-telling, an honest fiction.  This may even be inevitable when one considers how much noise there is that line:  first, the actual state of notation, when one considers that there are works in the standard repertoire for which commonly-used sets of scores and parts may have several thousand errors (a thicket for which orchestral music librarians are continually pressed to trim back) above and beyond the continuous changes in editorial styles and standards practiced by editors, publishers, and performers, and that above and beyond the copying inaccuracies, oversights, and just plain mistakes of the composer her/himself,  puts the material identity of many works into question even before a single note is played, let alone heard, second, performer inaccuracy, due to lack of rehearsal, lack of goodwill (between whichever parties), or just the necessities of getting around a score that's awkward or tough to play, of which necessities, faking it, may well — and with surprising frequency — be a (yes) legitimate part of getting the piece played, and third, musical performance practice is full of stylistic languages, dialects, sociolects, and idiolects, some official, some outlaw, and that these themselves are unstable and will reliably be heard to change, in both subtle and gross ways, with place and time is a certainty, but how, when, where, and by whom is completely unpredictable. At its worst, this can be an unfortunate game of telephone, but at its best, all of this accumulated noise creates a chain with depth, connections, and elaboration that makes the storytelling more complex, sometimes stranger, and when we're lucky, sometimes even more compelling.  Think of the opening of Beethoven's Fifth, perhaps the most familiar thing in the world, but handed down to us in "standard" performance practice  that is wildly at variance from the notation. Now, it's absolutely possible to play the opening bars both in the notated tempo and reflecting the natural accents of the notated metre, and a few conductors have done this, but the Jinn of the received opening is and remains out of the bottle, and we're only going to hear the opening against that background presence.  So in an sense, we get to have the opening both ways, ambiguously suspended between two irreconcilable versions of that story we still comfortably call the Fifth Symphony. AS LONG AS WE'RE AT F, and we've mentioned faking it, let me stress that I don't buy the distinction some make between accurate and faithful performances.  This is a typical strategem in the new complexity scene when, in the face of performances that are objectively at variance with an accurate reading of the notation, there is insistance that fidelity to the "spirit" of the work trumps the letter.  Yes, there is all that uncertainty in the notation mentioned above, but that doesn't mean the notation we do have is to be played with fast and loose; in that case, just be upfront and identify the performance as an improvisation on the score, or a variation on it, or some sort of new composition altogether and distribute the compositional credits accordingly.  But, at base, I'm not a Platonist, and I just don't believe that there is an ideal form (whether in the composer's mind or in some world of ideal forms out there somewhere)  in which we have "faith" and then attempt to faithfully reproduce in our performances.  Instead, I think musical works are real physical events, constructed in time by real persons, with written notation just one step (and an optional one at that) in that constructive process. My experience has been that it's terribly important to have goodwill between the actors in this process, but I don't think the introduction of faith is either conducive to goodwill or, in the end, necessary at all, particularly when faithfulness is used as an excuse for doing violence to the score.  Far better to identify the work then performed as one's own than to describe it as a faithful but inaccurate reading of the score; by the same token, composers do not invite goodwill with performers when they explicitly encourage the supposedly faithful over the accurate. We're in the business of storytelling here, not lying. This is not an argument against notationally complex music, but rather an argument for a more honest, more musical, and more humane approach to notation: instead of excusing the inaccurate with "faithfulness" let's just be more comfortable with the fact that all notation is, in its own terms, incomplete or inaccurate or so-specific as to be very difficult when not, for most mortals, impossible, and that the approach to the accurate, combined with all the material circumstances of music-making, as well as local and individual habits and practices, is a lively one that in no way discounts the accurate as a musical value. AND THIS TOO, F IS FOR FAILURE:  Ben.Harper has a post wrestling with the terms experimental and failure. I won't go far into this, but I think Ben is missing Cage's eventual embrace — after a long period of initially rejecting and then wrestling with the term which paralleled his own introduction of elements of chance and indeterminacy (and, much later, contingency) into his work — of the experimental label as simply indicating an engagement with actions the outcomes of which are unforeseen. (The consequences of that embrace are not simple, but embraces frequently lead to complex outcomes, don't they?)   I don't think we make much progress when we insist on considering "experimental" in music in the terms of the experimental scientific method, as aesthetic discovery just doesn't map well onto scientific discovery, with the particular know of experiment/discovery/invention/failure/success wound up very differently (indeed, as a scientific experiment always produces information, is it actually very odd to even think in terms of an executed experiment failing; even when the thesis is not proved, the experiment productive of data. (On the other hand, we all know musical failures that leave nothing useful in their wake: indeed, in some scenes, it's practically the normal state of affairs!)  The failure topic is a large one in itself and I will leave it alone for now with the observation that every innovation in music, from fauxbourdon (yes. F is for fauxbourdon, too) to the Vibra-slapTM is a failure in terms of previous regimes of music-making (and the Vibra-slapTM may just well still be a failure AFAIC), just as Rugby was a failure to play Soccer properly, when, as the story goes, one William Webb Ellis picked up the ball with his hands and made a run for it.
11 months ago | |
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Ancient Greek musical practice has been a constant, and often almost obsessive, presence in western compositional thought and practice.  "Re-imaging"  the performance of Greek Drama has provided a spark igniting the invention of European Opera and reinvigorating it at intervals in forms only distantly related to their origins, from Monteverdi to Gluck to Berlioz and Wagner and to such disparate later figures as Richard Strauss, Carl Orff or Harry Partch.  On the other hand, modern poets look comfortably back to Homer and Hesiod or Sappho and Archilochus, but they look back to them as producers of words, usually neglecting the fact that those words were originally performed with tones and rhythms by singing voices.   There has been particularly intense work in the past two decades or so on Ancient Greek music, both its theory and practice.  We have a small corpus of surviving notated music, representing a range of repertoires and lively controversy has followed its interpretation.  The bulk of existing Ancient Greek music, however, is represented by epic, lyric, and dramatic texts without musical pitch notation.  This does not mean that the music has been lost altogether, however, as we know the metres of these texts and much of the rhythmic detail within these metres can be reconstructed from the patterns of long and short quantities inherent in the language.  Ancient Greek was also a language with pitch accents, and these may well have played a role in the composition of the melodies (although there is also considerable evidence that poets and dramatists also composed melodies that went against these pitch accents, with both pitch and rhythmic usage contrary to natural contours presumably used for the striking effect they would create.)    The composer and scholar Douglas Leedy (who goes by the name Bhisma Xenotechnites) has summarized his own work in re-imagining the practice in a monograph on Singing Ancient Greek, which has now been made available on the eScholarship page of the UC Berkeley Department of Classics, here.  
1 year ago | |
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Here's a video portrait of Baltimore electronic instrument designer Peter Blasser.  In the early 70s, composer (and electronic instrument designer) Gordon Mumma, notoriously introduced the notion of an "electronic folk music" and while the term "folk" has its baggage, it's precisely the kind of baggage packed so that one is forced to keep thinking and rethinking the circumstances of how the music is made, with what means, by whom and within which communities and for what purposes. One of the liveliest scenes in New Music today involves extraordinary electronic and electroacoustic instruments and music being made by artists largely independent of institutional music support and (mostly) cheerfully disregarding any amateur/professional divisions that institutional music tends to reinforce, yet absolutely thriving whether as independents or in elective communities (let me emphasize that: not folk as in kinship and ethnos, but from a coming together due to an elective affinity), gathering for workshops, sharing materials, schematics and other know-how and esoterica on-line and off and generally finding ways to be inventive with all the jetsam and ligam of our economy, which get hacked and bent into forms completely unintended by their original manufacturers.  The "folk" label really becomes provocative when one considers that relationship to the broader world and how such an admixture of high and low technology comes into play, with Blasser, for example, as enthusiastic about tactility of the local hardwoods used in his keys and cases as in the circuitry housed behind them.  And, too, consider, when visiting his websites, how Blasser's handwork has gone hand-in-hand to imagining a whole world around his music from the ground up, with its own idiosyncratic parameters and theory and terminology (not unlike the Anaphorian music of Kraig Grady.)  At the same time, Blasser is directly engaging with the real world, founding a cottage industry in Baltimore and making broader connections (such as a line of code referencing the invasions of G.W. Bush.)  And the music made with these instruments? It's really impossible to make generic descriptions; given the variability and unpredictability of the instruments and the performance diversity of the individual players a vector space of possibilities is opened up that range from the elegant and virtuosic all the way down, which is precisely the kind of depth missing from less lively Kampungs, Oblasts and Boroughs of Newmusicland with their tendency to emphasize a certain sphere of music-making at the expense of everything else.
1 year ago | |
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Here's a new pilish piece for percussion ensemble.  While intended for an out-of-doors concert, it may also be useful for teaching situations (math, music, environmental studies...)



1 year ago | |
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For five years, from the Summer of 2000 to the Summer of 2005, I lived in Budapest, Hungary.  I was a trailing spouse, as my spouse had been assigned to teach at one of the international school there.  My passport was stamped by the Hungarian immigration office with the words BEARER MAY NOT WORK, an instruction which I proceeded to follow to the letter.  Not difficult. I had kids to raise, a household to run, an exotic language to learn, after all, and I did like to sit leisurely in cafes or a good Étkezde, the perfect ex-pat, eating Ruszwurm or Eszterhazy torte and reading the Herald Tribune.   However, as a new music person in a city with some interesting new music activity, I tried to make some contact to local composers and players. I sent off forty-some letters with cds of my music asking not to get played (for I realized quickly that the local resources were very tight), but just to visit, talk shop, and to learn more about Hungarian new music.  I got nothing, not a single response.  I was, in Budapest, musically invisible.  I had had performances of my puppet opera in Cape Cod, and a few things in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and even neighboring Bratislava, I played a lot of gamelan at the local Indonesian embassy and I wrote some pieces for school performance, including a set of songs for a Brecht play, in Budapest, but for Hungarian new music, I was just not there. Once, I did get an email invitation to chat from a musicologist who had seen my name and address on an internet forum, but within hours the invitation was rescinded as the author had decided to go to Lake Balaton for the foreseeable future.  I found all of this curious, but was not bitter about it because I appreciated time to work on my music without external pressure and my family did have a wonderful time there, living well in a crazy apartment in the Buda hills with a direct view, on a clear day, to Bartok's house on the side of the next mountain over. Only later was I able to put together a plausible explanation for all of this:  the Cold War was not far behind and I was an ex-pat Yankee in town without any visible means of support or clear affiliations, and yes, I sat in cafes and read the Herald Tribune, waiting for that rendezvous or ready to make a drop-off at a moment's notice. The Hungarian new music scene, on the other hand, had been hurt, materially-speaking, by the change of systems: before, a recognized composer got a good teaching job and regular commissions, was published and recorded by the state music publishing companies and enjoyed a social status on par with other professionals and intellectuals.  All of that had become shaky and the resources available for concertizing, commissioning, teaching, publishing and travel had all been strongly reduced while new entrepreneurial and political classes were developing which left artists and intellectuals far behind in wealth and social prestige. Although I didn't constitute any competition for these scarce resources, I must have appeared to be both part of the new order and oddly unreadable. Later I would read Harry Mathews's marvelous (non-?) fiction memoir, about being an Ami ex-pat in Europe assumed, by some, to have obviously been a spy, My Life in CIA,  and realized that had I decided, as Mathews had (or had not), to have let the (fictional) appearance of being a spy play itself out by never explicitly denying being a spy, driving a faster car, wearing a good trench coat, hanging out inconspicuously in conspicuous places, suddenly dropping anonymized packages in odd containers, etc., I might well have been able to leverage the novelty of it all into a much more interesting career in Hungarian new music.
1 year ago | |
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I use the word "detail" a lot when talking about pieces of music.  It's not a term a get from my Cagean heritage, as detail implies some hierarchy among materials which was not an enthusiasm of  Cage's. I think I started using the word after hearing Morton Feldman use it, but it also could have been following Milton Babbitt who used it in describing Schenker's analytic technique as one which can compellingly describe how details both define and come from their context, belonging to particular continuities or simultaneities. Of course, a word like detail is somewhat fuzzy in the abstract, it has to be identified in its concrete context.  I think of a detail as something smaller than the breadbox of a feature  — compare, for reference, the distinctions we would make between the features and details of a striking face; that nose or that mop of hair is a feature, that freckle or crease a detail —, and although a detail may well puzzle or even be a nagging detail,  a detail is part and parcel of a work, intimate to it, in a way that an ornament may have the luxury not to be.  You can add or remove an ornament, and it may well increase value, but it will unlikely alter the identity of a work, but change a detail...?  You might be removing the keystone in the arch or the yeast in the bread.  A detail need not be some small but remarkable collection of notes at the surface of tonal music, it could be a small breath taken here, at this moment in particular and not another, or it could be a composer's insistence, in the score's notation, that the players of a string quartet be seated just a bit farther apart than usual.  I had friends in high school who were — and some very much still are, as we're talking a Southern Californian high school — serious about their cars. They were devoted to keeping them "cherry", a condition that went beyond merely looking shiny and new. Some of them were real virtuosi at car care, both mechanics and looks, both inside and out.  It was never enough to tune, clean and polish those cars, they had to be detailed, an attention to the smallest element that made the whole much more than a some of the parts.

_____
* This was a response to an anecdote about Schoenberg's supposed exasperation at his favorite moments disappearing in the Schenker analysis of the Eroica.  Babbitt quite nicely put it: "Well, would those be your favorite places in Scheherezade? Would they be your favorite places if they popped up in the middle of The Merry Widow? They're your favorite places in a great big piece called the Eroica Symphony. They're your favorite places, we hope, because they're part of the continuity and part of the context, and who provides a better characterization of the continuity and context than does Schenker?"  (Babbitt, Words about Music, p. 140.)   
1 year ago | |
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