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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
402 Entries
This page, Renewable Music, has now been around for nine years and some 1760 items.  It began in Budapest, soon moving with me to Frankfurt, with occasional postings from places more exotic: Crete, Kathmandu, California, Mississippi among them.   Though the original idea was to be a group blog, said group didn't materialize and instead, it's been the notes and marginalia of one Californian expatriot composer, a public assembly of writings incidental to a composing life, including many of the small messages I typically write myself during the work on a piece of music.  While straying sometimes into literature, food, the movies or politics (or musical politics in particular), it's been mostly about music, new and experimental mostly, although over the course of these years, those terms have come to carry weight I'd rather not haul around and I've come to the conclusion that The Radical Music is the most apt descriptor — radical, as in "getting to the roots; relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough" (the obligatory manifesto is here) —, into which many tributaries stream, among them the minimal (the best definition of which remains, btw, "the elimination of distractions".)  Most of the items posted here are autonomous, but there have been a couple of serial projects, including an Alphabet (e.g. U is for Umbrella),  and one thirty-day month of a Diary (made urgent, I thought, by Occupy, and modeled formally, unashamedly, on Cage's Diary: How to Improve the World (You'll Only Make Matters Worse), beginning here (and whether the world is any worse for it, who knows?)) and other series on topics including rhythm and confessions to sonic pleasures (including fluttering kites, bowed metal, bowing on or near bridges, passing trains, distant horns, drones, and moving water) and many more cryptic items like a quartet of items in homage to Lévi-Strauss's Mythologiques I–IV (starting here).  A list of pieces which have been critically important to me, my personal Landmarks, is listed in the sidebar.  (In principle, the list is open-ended, without restrictions, but in practice, I've resisting going much beyond fifty (on the principle that you make acquaintance with a lot of music but that can't really or responsibly know more than about fifty pieces at a time; I have also avoided duplicating composers in the list, but three names in particular (Berlioz, Ives, Cage) have made that particularly hard.  I have tried not to fall to often into ordinary prose, which may sometime read as indulgent, when not actually lapses of taste, as in some limericks about the aging of Elliott Carter.  Yes, Renewable Music has often been about my constant rediscovery of passion for language, if only through the medium of my own awkward idiolect.*  There have been infrequent postings of single images from my own scores (some written specifically for this blog, to illustrate some thing or another then thought urgent), and links to other, whole pieces (like this set of 100,000,000,000,000 Pieces for Clarinet), but also two series of pieces: a set of twelve small preludes, on each of 12 tonics, based on the premised that a prelude was a cadence elevated to an epiphany (here's the one on Eb), and then, in October 2007, the project of composing one whole piece a day for a month and publishing each score daily, at the least, an exercise in time management.

Let me, note, finally, three projects sponsored here, of albums of sheet music for solo piano (A Winter Album), for melodica(s) (Melodica!), and for solo recorder to grounds from The Division Flute (The New Division.)  A lot of great music by interesting composers, much of which has established a lively presence as music for home, study, and concert.

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* The other day, I thought that I ought to know more about English new music.  I listen to lots of it via Internet broadcasts, but I can't honestly say that I know what's going on it, particularly with regard to continuity: I just don't follow.  So I listened to a number of online lectures and interviews by or with famous English composers (from P.M. Davies and Birtwhistle to Ferneyhough and Finnissy to Barrett and several others.)  All the time, I had this nagging sense that it was not just that I don't talk about music in the same way these people do and that this seemed to signal that I didn't, in some fundamental sense, think or make music in ways that really overlapped with any of these musicians, but that the sense of separation by a common language was much deeper than I had ever suspected. I've been wondering ever since if this was something I should be concerned with. My provision answer is no, but only provisionally so.
  
  
7 months ago | |
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A small piece for solo piccolo on the perceptual threshold of a recognizable regular tempo, with at least three areas of notational ambiguity — grace notes, lipped glissandi, and varied levels of vibrato (speed? width?) — for the player to consider.
7 months ago | |
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A friend of mine, in one of those threads elsewhere about "where I was when I heard about the assassination of John F. Kennedy fifty years ago", remembered his mother coming up the stairs in their home, in tears, shouting that "they've killed the President."   I don't think that this was so unusual, in the first moments of assimilating the news, as vague as the information was at that point, to jump straight to the assumption that it had been some conspiracy, a sophisticated act planned and carried out by a group of villains, representing some organization or consortium of organizations (rogue government agencies, political opponents, big business interests, organized crime, international agents...), rather than the work of a lone gunman, hence an automatic presumption "they've killed" instead of the much more probable "someone killed".  I think that this was because a conspiracy gave the event more sophistication and more complexity than the crazed action of one nut with a gun, and that this sophistication and complexity was somehow more appropriate to the weight of the assassination.  Oddly and persistently, it gave a degree of meaning and even dignity to the event that was missing from the single shooter narrative, which would have reduced the story to a near random event, and one of near-meaninglessness.  And we've had fifty years of this*.

There is often a kind of rage for complexity born out of this need to find more meaning in things or events. And it, in turn, often leads to finding complexity when there is actually very little and, conversely, a reluctance, if not inability to find the complexity in phenomena which appear externally to be clear and apparently simple.  As examples of the former, I find a lot of self-identified "complex" music which does may have a densely notated, highly variegated score, but results in masses of sound from which meaningful details cannot be retrieved and also, via the sheer volume of information, incidents of cohesive relationships which are actually accidental, not evidence of depth.  And from the latter, I think it is often lost in the slick attractive surface of a work using minimal means in one or more dimension, that those reduced means have been chosen explicitly for their capacity to frame or underline, or otherwise make more audibly articulate details of great subtlety and complexity (La Monte Young calls it "getting inside a sound.")  In the radical music, never assume that a "complex" composer actually produces significant levels of complexity and never assume that a "minimal" composer has not. This is clearly an area in which the radical music productively plays with the perception of trees vis a vis forests (and vice versa) and also in which not only the ratio of signal to noise is in play,it's not always clear what is signal and what is noise. Some signals are inherently noisy. Some noises make useful signals. Deal with it.

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* I can't help but point to Errol Morris's new short video about Josiah “Tink” Thompson and the photographic evidence from Dallas.
 
8 months ago | |
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The filmmaker Errol Morris: "I've my own personal definition of art, which is: Set up a series of arbitrary rules and then follow them slavishly." (Source.)


As a lifelong player of games (cards, mostly, poker in particular, but I've been enjoying the current chess championships as an observer (never having been the least bit good at playing the game, I did go through an Edgar Rice Burroughs and Martin Gardner-inspired adolescent phase of designing chess variants — boards with alternative geometries, pieces with alternative moves, more than two players in teams and alliances, uneven distributions of pieces and real estate, alternating moves in patterns other than black-white-black-white etc.)), I am fascinated both with the consequences of playing according to a fixed set of rules and with the possible consequences when even the slightest variations in those rules comes into play. There is a real thrill here at the possibility of a single grain of sand moved slightly giving rise to completely different universes. This thrill is aesthetic, and I find it in every piece of music that thrills me.



It used to be the case, in composing, that I would set up my rules in advance of composition and then keep strictly to them.  Nowadays, although I believe that I work just as strictly in my pieces, I don't always begin with all the rules laid out in advance. Instead, I let them emerge as problems and possibilities arise and then, deciding on a rule, stick with it.  This strikes me as more in line with the way that social and political worlds actually work.  Even if you start out with some formal constitutional arrangement, whether minimal or maximal in scope and detail, something is either left out, or gotten completely wrong, or some unforeseen or even completely unimagined configuration arises demanding substantial decisions on the spot.  And that process of dynamic decision making,  requiring the near-spontaneous articulation or clarification of the problems and possibilities can be a compelling activity in its own right.  The presence of a set of rules won't guarantee that a piece (and they certainly don't make a society) will work automatically, indeed at all — and indeed, the most immediate thing a rule may define is often only its violation, not its successful implementation —, but they can create structures and opportunities to make it work with far less anxiety than operating from brute force.


This past year has been one spent more with experimentation, and rule-based experimentation at that, than with producing musical scores with the shiny veneer of the well-finished.  For example, I've made a number of small pieces — amateur pieces for friends, most of them not for publication — for solo instruments based on the rhythmic and sonic patterns and structures of poetic forms (sonnets, sapphics, rondeaus, limericks etc.) which have introduced some musically potent new ideas about local and global rules into my music. And yes, the play of composing (as Lou Harrison put it) is very much here as well. 


8 months ago | |
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Viola Rusche and Hauke Harder's film about Alvin Lucier, NO IDEAS BUT IN THINGS has finally been released on DVD by Wergo.  This a beautiful, spacious work of film making, with the single most breathtaking direct cut in any film I know.  Wergo's page is here.  A web site dedicated to the film is here.
9 months ago | |
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In the summer between finishing my MA and starting work on a PhD,  thus temporarily without academic attachments, I wrote the eight-minute-and-change score that might be my first grown-up piece, a Passacaglia for chamber orchestra.  It's only been read-through once, and that didn't go as well as I would have liked, and I'm not altogether enthusiastic about pushing it for performance rather than more recent music, but it was a milestone for me in terms of identifying a personal sound or style.  This was the first opportunity to work out the terms and possibilities of the "dysfunctional" or "not-yet-tonal" voice leading style I would call my own, my personal Harmonielehre. 

(I don't think this is an unusual practice for composers.  Many of us go through some phase of major theory-making before building a catalog of compositions which use (and, eventually, disabuse) the theories produced. It's like working in pair of new shoes until they fit far too well.  I had certainly spent many years by that point in time trying to reconcile a long and deep study of musical intonation with the temporal conditions of a real music with counterpoint and harmonies played by real voices and instruments in real time. Particularly impressive to me in this regard are Harry Partch, Jim Tenney, and Clarence Barlow.  In retrospect, however, I think I was most directly spurred on by the example of Jo Kondo, who identified his Threadbare Unlimited for string ensemble as his own Harmonielehre.)

This Passacaglia has a repeating core melody, but it's not (at least not always) the bass line, rather one of three inter-twining lines in a continuity that sits mostly in the middle register. And this melody is not fixed in length, but expands through interpolated tones.  The piece is in 3/2 time and the prevailing texture could be thought of as a species of counterpoint conspicuously left out of Fux: each voice plays a series of dotted wholes, staggered by half-notes, creating double suspensions.  The treatment of consonance and dissonance (and everything useful in-between) is my own: voices lead but are not necessarily followed; the presence of tonality can be suggested by local emphases on small collections of tones; spectrum-like arrangements of harmonies can form a local optimum but music doesn't move in continuous optima...  I do expand the dotted wholes and overlap some statements, creating denser harmonies, but the basic texture remains this staggered three-voice pattern,  the instrumentation varying from changing colors with every tone to more homogeneous scorings (yes, Webern's Op. 1 is in the genetics of this piece, too.) All of this is done with the ad hoc mixture of system and spontaneity that still operates in my work. Written in Morro Bay, where my grandparents lived and an uncle owned a wonderful bakery, I can't help but think of this music as Californian in character: both substantial and eccentric, cool but caring.

9 months ago | |
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In case you don't know it, Stephen Soderberg's blog Essays & Endnotes is one of the best things going of late, if you have an interest in the some of the possible relationships between notes and numbers.  Steven shares my enthusiasm for perfect shuffles, but takes it well into mathematical territory outside my modest expertise.  Ultimately, this is all about how the workings of simple systems can create lively music. Recommended for people who like the music of Babbitt or Krenek, but also those who like that of Tom Johnson.  Stephen is on a small break from blogging at the moment, so it's a perfect opportunity to catch up with some very long threads.

Also this:  the second part of Franklin Cox's virtuoso take-down of Taruskin's  is now online at the Search Journal for New Music and Culture.  While I have a handful of tiny quibbles  (i.e. I can't quite agree to identify Benjamin Boretz as a "formalist" (a point which is somewhat ironic in this context, given Boretz's very explicit turn from a formalist program, culminating perhaps with the treatment of Sleeping Beauty in his Meta-Variations), I think Cox is very solid here in his criticsm of Taruskin on both matters of musicological evidence and opinion.
9 months ago | |
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Let me call attention to this video  of the late South Indian vocalist K.V. Narayanaswamy.  I believe that I've praised KVN (as he was known) in these parts before, as quite possibly the finest musician I've ever heard live (at the very least, on a short list with Carlos Kleiber.*)  If you're not familiar with Karnatic music, just pay attention to the small details, the gamakas or ornaments in the melodic line, which are functional within each Raga, so that the movement between particular tones in the mode is associated with particular gamakas, which can involve oscillations between tones. slides to and from tones, and subtle intonation. KVN executes these beautifully, but even more, he projects these with elegant hand gestures (start around 17:30 for some of the most expressive movements), which are too individual and intuitive to be considered systematic or formal in any way, but yet so consistent and clear within his own performances to be thought of as merely casual.  The music, indeed all South Indian music, has a strong extemporized component, but the relationship of voice to hand here is not impromptu, but integral to a powerfully worked-out and complex rhetorical art that is also and immediately expressive.

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* As long as we're talking elegant gestures, if you don't know the black and white pit footage of Kleiber conducting Tristan in  Bayreuth in the early '70s, you definitely ought to.  Kleiber uses his whole body in a way that ought to be extravagant, but he's performing to an audience who cannot see him, and in many viewings, I've increasingly become convinced that not a single gesture or movement is wasted.  Ecstatic, yes, extravagant, no.  


9 months ago | |
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A small thought experiment. Read this lay-person friendly article about the complementary work of two of the recent Sveriges Riksbank Economics prize winners, Fama and Shiller, and then summarize it in your head, substituting for "market", "tonality", and for "securities prices", "melody."  The fit isn't precise (do we identify final tones in the tonic as dividends?), but I think you'll get a useful charge out of the exercise, particularly with regard to the questions of anticipation — which would predict some recurrent directionality — and random fluctuation — which would go along with melodic variety.

I don't want to push this any further than is warranted, but I have the suspicion that had economists been thinking in terms of tonality rather than markets in goods, services or securities, then they wouldn't have doddled about too long with Efficient Markets Theory. Efficiency may play a role in other aspects of music making, but a good, distinctive tune rarely works efficiently; indeed, for all the conservative tendencies that appear frequently in melodies (i.e. what goes up must come down, skips return by steps in the opposite direction, etc), the best tend to enjoy their eccentricities and extravagances.  Modeling this with a mixture of goal-oriented directionality, representing the habits and, when present, constraints of a tonal system and random fluctuation, representing composerly flights of imagination, is a reasonable point of departure.
9 months ago | |
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When John Cage composed Williams Mix for eight tracks (yielding potentially 16 simultaneous layers) of magnetic tape in 1952, he wrote a score detailing graphically the precise orders and shapes of the thousands of segments of tapes that were to be spliced together from libraries of material categorized as  city, country, electronic, manually produced, wind, and "small" sounds.  Cage and his colleagues in the Project for Magnetic Tape took most of a year to assemble the complete piece.  Although the score existed in published form the composer did not anticipate further realizations.  However, with the benefit of digital technology, it has been realized via detailed reading and analysis by Tom Erbe, in multiple (and, potentially, indefinitely many) versions, which you can hear here.*

Although there is obviously considerable variation possible in the material content of Williams Mix, I'm going to go out on a limb and assert that there is definitely a shared and distinctive sound quality common to Cage's electronic and tape music. It is direct in character, sharp edged, with something of the flavor of documentary film.  It is edited, mediated, and shaped, but not made directional, effective, or smoothed out.  The continuity from moment to moment is jumpy but not urgent, and over longer stretches of time, much more coherent than one would expect. And these qualities persist whether the sound sources are conventionally musical (as in Imaginary Landscape Nr. 5), predominantly speech (as in Rozart Mix), or representing an environmental diversity as here in Williams Mix


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* There is also a cleaned-up version of Cage's original realization of Williams Mix by Larry Austin, to which Austin has appended his own variations, each using more restricted sets of sound categories, generated by his own program Williams [re]Mix[er].



10 months ago | |
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