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
461 Entries
Nr. 3 What's your day job?
Nr. 8 Do you now use or have you ever used a 12-tone row?
Nr. 9 Do you now use or have you ever serialized a parameter?
Nr. 10 Do you now use or have you ever used chance operations?
Nr. 12 If you were sent to a desert island and could only bring two Betamax cassettes of Hollywood youth films from the 1970s and 80s, what would they be?
Nr. 15 How many notes are too many notes?
Nr. 16 How many times have you been invited to attend a concert or festival featuring your music only to find out that the promised accommodations are a living room sofa or a mattress on the basement floor and a sleeping bag?
Nr. 17 On how many of those occasions did you have to share the sofa or mattress with a stranger?
Nr. 20 How many times have you been invited by a promoter or arts administrator to do lunch at the Russian Tea Room?
Nr. 21 On those occasions, were you asked to go Dutch or did the promoter shout "dine and dash!" leaving you with the bill?
Nr. 23 Have you ever composed under the influence of caffeine, nicotine, or other narcotics or controlled substances?
Nr. 32 If you could have any other superpower, what would it be?
Nr. 33 Are you now or have you ever been a member of a show choir?
Nr. 34 What's the difference between a prepared piano and a ready piano?
Nr. 36 What Hollywood actor should play you and your love interest in the made-for-tv biopic?
Nr. 41 How does one properly eat a peach using only a knife and fork?
Nr. 42 Can you bake a souffle?
Nr. 43 Can you debone a fowl in less than 45 minutes?
Nr. 44 Can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical?
Nr. 48 In your concert experience, what venue has provided the best free reception food?
Nr. 49 If composers got concert riders, what would you insist on having in yours?
Nr. 54 If Stockhausen really was from Sirius, could you explain how humanoid life would have developed and survived in a binary star system?
Nr. 55 Can you name two living composers whom you suspect to actually be aliens?
Nr. 61 Brahms or Wagner?
Nr. 62 Verdi or Wagner?
Nr. 63 Debussy or Ravel?
Nr. 64 Ives or Mahler?
Nr. 65 Schoenberg or Stravinsky?
Nr. 67 Nico Muhly: Ghost or Monster?
Nr. 68 Who serves imperialism more: Eric Whitacre or Mathias Spahlinger?
Nr. 74 Shaken or stirred?
Nr. 75 Innie or outie?
Nr. 76 Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly?
Nr. 77 Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin?
Nr. 79 If you were to be the celebrity endorser for a consumer product, what would that product most likely be?
Nr. 82 Did Richard Nixon steal the 1968 Election by secretly persuading Saigon to abandon the Paris Peace Talks?
Nr. 83 Did Ronald Reagan steal the 1980 Election by secretly persuading the Iranian government to delay releasing the US Hostages?
Nr. 86 Do you know the combination of the cupboard?
Nr. 93 What is your weapon of choice in a Zombie Apocalypse?
Nr. 94 Does Pierre Boulez cast a reflection in a silvered mirror?
Nr. 95 Why isn't there more music for Flexatone?
Nr. 96 How many cowbells?
Nr. 97 The Vibra-Slap (TM): Why? and How do we make it stop?
Nr. 100 If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
1 year ago | |
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So if you're sitting in a restaurant after a concert with a crowd of Newmusiclanders, nothing will likely stop the conversation sooner than mentioning in passing that you happen to like a piece by Alan Hovhaness. Sure, he composed a lot and he composed not only for virtuosi (Stokowski and the Ajemians, to begin with)  but much for semi-pros, locals, and other amateurs, and yes, you can recognize the reuse of similar techniques again and again in his catalog*, but he was a freelance composer composing practically and pragmatically, composing not from a masterpiece ethic but composing repertoire to be played, and when he was on his game, he could be very inventive indeed, coming up with remarkable (and remarkably robust and efficient, in terms of performance practice) ways of making striking music.

But his music has had a reception problem, not a musical problem. Part of the reception problem was that he came from the Boston area, not New York, and was something of an outsider even there, and then, when he settled in Seattle, would remain decidedly outside of the NY sphere. Part of the problem is, perhaps, that his influences (Sibelius, the reimagined Armenian music of Comitas, Handel) were off-fashion, and his friendships (Cowell, Cage, Harrison, Brant, but also Hanson**) were as well, and that he was prematurely (and thus, like Cowell, often superficially) a "world music" composer, thus the stickiness of the orientalist and Armenianist labels.

But inventive he was: above and beyond his modal and metrical experiments, in moving from strict canon to loosely canonic to the textural use of non-coincident repetitions he was ahead of a game that Ligeti and others would famously play later. His Noh-inspired chamber operas, The Burning House and Pilate predate Britten's Church Parables. All that said, here's Hovhaness's Symphony for Metal Orchestra (flutes, trombones and percussion), one of his stronger pieces.
* One of my own teachers, who had has a composition lesson with Hovhaness as a young man, insisted to me (and later in print) that Hovhaness's "secret" to his prolific composing was a prolific use of repeat signs.  A survey of his scores will quickly convince that exactly the opposite was the case: Hovhaness's actual use of repeat signs in his scores is very limited, wide stretches of material that initially seem repetitive turn out to have many subtle variations, and man, the guy wrote and wrote a lot of notes in longhand. He was prolific simply because (a) many people asked him for new pieces and (b) he just plain spent a lot of time at his desk composing (the story goes that Hovhaness would compose all night and sleep all day. I can respect that.)  
** Mr Harrison once told me about being sent by the Herald Tribune to review an all-Hovhaness Town Hall concert.  Hovhaness had a certain reputation in New York and  Harrison had come prepared to pan the concert, inviting Cage as his guest. All of the Coplandites and all the 12-toners were there, and were apparently loudly dismissive of the music which just didn't do any of what their own music did. But Harrison liked the first piece, Cage agreed, and they decided to wait for something not to like. But that something, Harrison reported, never came.
1 year ago | |
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So there's a story going around about a classical pianist who wants a four-year-old review of one of his concerts scrubbed from a newspaper's website.  (Lisa Hirsch writes about it well, here.) While the pianist mentions the EU "right to be forgotten" court ruling, the pianist's argument is an appeal to "the truth" over the review — and a review that was certainly not "over the top in sheer negativity and toxicity" as the pianist claimed.

The problem here is that by performing publicly, a musician becomes a public person. No, not to the extent that aspects of his or her private, non-musical, life become public, but certainly the quality of her or his performance is public and it becomes a proper subject of public discourse. (The EU ruling is completely irrelevant here as it deals with the rights of private not public persons, and search engines rather than content sites.) There is no abstract "truth" here beyond the circumstances of the program we can stipulate as given: time, place, personnel, repertoire, tempi, and, in a general way, whether the musicians were playing together or in tune. Whatever abstract or Platonic truth a musician carries around in her or his head cannot be stipulated, we can only discuss what we hear and perhaps speculate upon what the musician(s) performing wanted us to hear and whether this succeeded or not.   In the end "the truth" we actually approach in our conversation is that of the actual performance, the sounds in the air, in the room, before that particular audience (and you get the audience you have, not necessarily the audience you want!), not the ideals trapped in someone's head.

Some reviewers may be mean-spirited at times, maybe even always, and some reviewers are kind to a fault, but that's a matter of negotiation between readers and editors.  Performers enter into those negotiations at their professional peril, because the decision to perform publicly means an agreement to enter into a community of discourse, with its own terms, history, and dynamics. And that history, including the critical record, can't be censored or erased, but it can be positively engaged through thoughtful argument and — better — more convincing performances.

Musicians (and I write now as a particular sort of musician, a composer) are generally best advised to just listen to the discussion, take from that discussion whatever is convincing and useful to you, and move on to the next rehearsal or the next piece prepared enter the dialog again as a musician, not as debater or censor, and learn to take some joy in the unpredictability and human unevenness of our performances which — while we (both performers and audiences) sometimes will have some off-nights, even some really badly off-nights — is the substance that makes our best pieces, our best performances, most lively and compelling. Complaining about a bad review is rarely a good public strategy for a performer and never a good private strategy.
1 year ago | |
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My current pile of books-in-reading happens to have a number of biographies and autobiographies of composers.  I'm more than a little ambiguous about the biographical.  I'm far more interested in learning about the environment — both physical and musical/intellectual — a composer has lived in than in the social, psychological and intimate aspects of a life, because such environmental aspects more reliably attract and engage me to and with a music than expressive aspects. There is also something unseemly about knowing too much of the private life of a composer above and beyond the intimacies one senses when engaging with her or his music, which is personal in a very different way. But still, a biography can be a useful tool in discovering how a music came into being, discovering how parts of the real world or the world of ideas get remade or transformed into musical worlds. For this purpose, I like to have more technical detail than current publishing tastes allow, so a few of the books on my end table leave me wanting more,

...for example Bob Gilmore's biography of Claude Vivier (Claude Vivier: a Composer's Life (University of Rochester Press, 2014), a sensitively written portrait of the composer's life, with both the tragic beginning as an orphan in Quebec and the violent end in Paris too few years later handled with immense care and without reckless speculation. Gilmore makes some useful connections between the life, enthusiasms and personality of the composer and the musical work, and is particularly good in allowing the voices of those who knew Vivier to come through, but there is scarcely any suggestion, let alone detail or notational examples, of the actual materials and techniques that went into the music. To be honest, Vivier's music has a surface that I have never been able to get past and the enthusiasm of musicians I trust for the music makes me wish for something to help get beyond that surface.    

...or Thomas Clark's Larry Austin: Life and Works of an Experimental Composer (Burik Press, 2012.)  At 68 pages of expository text plus some front and end matter, this is a sketch, hardly a book, and a career as productive as Austin's deserves more.  I have always found it a remarkable factoid of American musical life that, during all those wild years of producing the journal Source: Music of the Avant-Garde, Austin was director of bands (both marching and concert) at UC Davis and the few hints we get of Austin's real struggles as an experimentalist in that and other academic settings really deserve better documentation. So the biographical part deserves some thickening, but the treatment of the compositional work really requires more depth and detail.  It's not enough just to attach a list of the "approaches" a composer uses as Clark does here (Clark's list starts with "Fractals, Algorithmic modeling..."), we really want to get some idea of how those approaches are used to produce actual works of music which apply those approaches to actual materials extending in time.

...or Charles Shere's Getting There (Ear, 2007), which is really the author's life (up to age 29) up through his student years, prior to establishing his mature compositional work, so there's hardly any talk about musical technique but, in this case, it's all the more interesting because of Shere's vivid account of growing up between Berkeley and a rough farm further North, an improbable start to a creative life which draws so much from modernism, from Stein to Duchamp to Cage.

I'm currently reading a very recent book by Albert Breier, Walter Zimmermann: Nomade in den Zeiten (Wolke Verlag, 2014),  which is a much more philosophical work, accompanying the transfer of Zimmermann's archives to the Berlin Academy of the Arts, and is organized by theme: Puzzle, Figure, Word, Childhood, History, Paradox, The Nomad.  The biographical and the musical-technical have a serious presence here, but it is somewhat secondary to the intellectual project (which is not so unusual in recent German musicology (indeed, not so unusual in recent German music, which is so often "about something".)) In any case, it's a substantial book and deserves a more in-depth report.
1 year ago | |
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The fine blogger and occasional critic Lisa Hirsch has posted a notice about the upcoming Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.  It's apparently become a kind of national conference for classical music critics, both established professionals and those beginning their careers, including both collegial shop-talk and craft-oriented workshopping. This is a good thing, as far as this non-critic is concerned, because I'm a composer who is an eager user of criticism, as it can bring perspective and ideas to my experience of music as both listener and maker, to both individual works and performances as well as to help make sense of music as both historical and local repertoires.  And when it is well-articulated it can be like having an additional set of ears: as much as I trust my own ears, they can often miss a sound or mistakenly assume that two sounds I put together actually belong together. A good critic can make you listen harder; at the very least she or he should write in a compelling way, so that — agree or disagree — you want to read more closely.  (But also see this post.)

But I also recognize an alarm in this gathering and an immensely practical one at that: the featured names on the program include what may be a working majority of the current full-time professional newspaper critics in the US.   This has never been a large number, but it is now really only a handful with few signs that papers out there are in a rush to increase their classical coverage (many critics are now asked to cover other areas and as well), let alone add FTE's with a dedicated critical portfolio.  And alternative media aren't creating jobs either, with a substantial part of the critical burden now having to be taken over by laypersons, with little or (mostly) no pay, amateurs in the best sense of the word, but also exploitees, in the worst sense of that word.  My alarm, though, is not about the end of the profession (lots of professions go extinct, see here)  but first in the poor job we're doing in directing audiences to the new loci of activity, as the old cachet of the newspaper-employed critic is often a distraction from the work of some writers with ears who are really doing the heavy lifting these days.  Yes, this often means bloggers ("death of blogging" meme set aside for the moment) and a blog like Mark Berry's Boulezian — to take a non-US example — is regularly as substantial or more so than newspaper criticism these days, and — big bonus points — reliably forces me to engage with ideas, opinions, and tastes I do not share.  And secondly, my alarm concerns the developmental aspects of this conference and others like it which are part and parcel of a mini-industry which has emerged with conservatories, departments, and schools of music offering formal courses of study in criticism, often with the overt (!) intention of easing music degree-holders out into a real world in which there are fewer gigs for working musicians, while neglecting to note that there are fewer gigs for working critics as well  (and these programs in criticism are often in the shadows of music management programs, academically even more questionable and looking beyond graduation to a sinking career perspective. (Need I add that the covert intention of these programs is simply boosting enrollments, with total disregard for any market demand?)

To be absolutely honest, though, what I fear about programs like this most is the potential to have criticism get too institutionalized, too professionalized, in the sense of acquiring greater uniformity in style and character.  The best English music criticism I know, from Tovey and Shaw to Thomson, Rich, Shere and Tom Johnson,  has come from people who have more or less stumbled into producing criticism, not one of whom owned formal traveling papers as a critic, but each of whom brought good ears and a unique posture and voice to the task, sometimes hitting their stride intuitively from the start but more often from learning on the job.  It would be a shame if all this movement towards formal credentials and professional conferencing and all that were to lead to any disregard for — or even an end to — the accidental critic.

1 year ago | |
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Ives on his 140th. Local and universal. Critical and Utopian. Ordered and spontaneous. Sentimental and experimental. Sacred and profane. Landscapes as self-portraits, theatres of deep memory. Taking the freedom offered by isolation to compose the impossible. How can a musician best be a citizen?

Also this: the oft-noted parallel between the landscapes of Mahler and Ives is real, out of the same musical-historical impulse, but in Mahler (as in the figures-in-clearings of Beethoven and Berlioz before), we're immobile, sitting in one place listening to the world pass by, and only in Ives do we listeners move through the landscapes as well, especially in the second movement of the 4th Symphony and throughout the Second Orchestral Set. This is a whole 'nother quality of engagement and the implications are still open.
1 year ago | |
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Sometimes we (musicians, mostly, but maybe others) think and talk about music, neoclassical music in particular, as "wrong-note music"*, with the idea that behind a piece of music with a witty and/or droll and/or eccentric surface there is some historical source from which it departs.  This idea is sometimes a useful way of getting closer to pieces which "work" while doing things "wrong."

A friend on Facebook (not a "friend") recently posted some notes about a moment in a Schoenberg piano piece (Op. 11, Nr. 1) in which a tone doubled at the octave appears to "resolve" down a semitone, contextually a "dissonant" octave resolving to a "consonant" seventh.  I was struck by two things in this fragment, one of which was that we don't talk about Schoenberg's music as "wrong note" music in the way in which we might with music by Stravinsky or Hindemith or neoclassicists. I think this is mostly because, with Schoenberg, there are not — or at least not readily — "right note" repertoire sources hiding behind the piece at hand.  This is because Schoenberg did not compose directly with models, grabbed with cheerful disregard for sequential music history, but honestly saw his own composition at the sum end of a sequence.**   The second thing was that this "free atonal" piece is really a good example of a piece that didn't really didn't follow the rules of either traditional tonal voice leading (for example, that tone doubled at the octave was an implicit doubled third above the root, a bitter of awkwardness that would have been avoided in more conventional tonal contexts and might have been witty in Stravinsky, but was here indeed awkward, hence inviting a "resolution" which is stylish (as in "Wienerisch') but doesn't either resolve the awkwardness or introduce much wit)  nor was it yet even attempting the "rules" that would emerge later, and most explicitly with his 12-tone technique (for example, paying attention to complementary distributions of pitch resources.)

But these two observations suggested to me that there actually could be a "right note" piece — not a real, historical piece, but a real bit of either more tonal and/or strictly proto-12-tone music — behind Schoenberg's "wrong notes"  and that it would be interesting to try to dis- or recover that hidden piece.  Here's one possibility:
*Yes, the abundant quotation marks in this item are intentional.
** I should stick something in here about how Schoenberg's compositional practice, particularly in pieces like this, was less a careful, slow, and formal working-out of the implications of material than a fast, if not frenzied, improvisation on the page, working more from musical instinct than planning and intellect.

1 year ago | |
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There's a new volume of The Journal of the London Institute of 'Pataphysics out (Number 8), an elegant small volume organized by topics in alphabetical order, dedicated to the "exploits and opinions" of the John White, a fine composer with a unique breadth of interests from the rigorously experimental (often using systems or constraints) to the intuitively through-composed and historically fantastical, compiled and authored by Dave Smith, with numerous other contributors, complete with an accompanying pair of cds in their own jacket (= Number 9.)

In my other role, as publisher at Material Press,  I've been very happy to recently add a substantial selection of Mr White's works to the catalog, including a large selection of his Piano Sonatas.

And, in case you haven't seen it already, here is Tim Parkinson's video interview with John White in the composer's home.
1 year ago | |
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A 22 year old ghost named John Cage has just invented a way of using a Cribbage board as a cheese grater. Marcel Duchamp finds the invention useful and creates a new, four dimensional version of The Large Glass entirely from aging bits of Swiss cheeses in a variety of colors. James Joyce wraps the whole thing in newspaper and posts it to Trieste, insisting that it would acquire a tasty patina in the sea air. Erik Satie is now wondering what has become of his Cribbage board, but Cage quickly distracts him with a new variation on the mesostic, suggested by an 11-year old ghost named Norman O. Brown. Brown calls it a polymorphousperverstic, as the letters of the generating word can occur at any position in a line or nowhere at all. Satie is delighted and quickly forgets his Cribbage board. Cage offers him a plate of freshly grated Tilsit.
1 year ago | |
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I've recently been involved with trying to bring back into print some scores for interesting — and, to my ears, significant — music that have gone out of print due to publishers' neglect or demise. (And often a mixture of the two, as the waves of mergers in music publishing have often meant that the multinational behemoths that are the new owners have literally no idea what is in their catalogs, especially in the tiny business niche that is sheet music for new and experimental concert music, and when called attention to what ought to be there (as witnessed by, say, contracts with composers or rights assignments with PROs), they have no idea where to find the sheet music.)  I won't go into details now, but I've had some modest successes and there seem to be promising developments in the works. Renewable Music, indeed.

But let me take this occasion, as a publishing composer, to give my composer colleagues some simple advice: Don't enter into a sheet music publishing contract unless it is clear and explicit what will happen if the publisher fails to keep a work in print, whether by sale or by rental, or fails to perform any promotional or rights management services stipulated in the contract, or should the firm be merged into another publisher or should the firm be shut down.  While the standard operating basis is that an assignment of publishing rights is permanent, this is not necessarily the case.  A composer and a publisher may enter into a contract with a restricted term and there is no reason why a composer should not be able to avoid having her or his work get orphaned by a publisher by requiring the publisher either perform to the terms of the contract or return the pre-publication or pre-editorial materials and all publishing rights to the composer, thus allowing the composer to publish the work directly or to reassign the rights to another publisher.  Yes, a publisher who keeps the work available and otherwise performs properly — even in the event of extreme downturns in the market for the work in question (and they will happen!) — should be assured of the continuing status of the contract (after all, each contracted work is an asset contributing to the present and future well-being of the publishing house) and, yes, when a contract is terminated the publisher's investment in editing and/or printed stock should be compensated by either the right to continuing selling for some period, or the right of the composer to purchase, that stock (a factor that may be less important in this age of publish-on-demand and electronic publishing.)

And, as a composing publisher, let me remind my publishing colleagues that this is, indeed a niche business, with very modest stakes and amortization of investment only in either the very short or the very long haul and for most music, never at all, and that in the end we keep scores and other performance materials available because of a plain selfish reason: we want to keep our musical lives lively with the music which we believe in. Nevertheless, I will cheerfully contend that if a publisher goes into this understanding upfront the modest scale and potential of the market and organizes and economizes accordingly, perhaps in some complementary combination with other repertoires or services, this can be a viable business and, if you respect the composer and the music, there is no reason why this should not be reflected in the contract through terms which guarantee that the work will be able to stay available,  should your activity on behalf of the work stop or even if your firm expires.
1 year ago | |
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