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
429 Entries
This page has a very good introduction to digital audio quality issues, including the sampling theorem, distortion, oversampling and much else. This is an important current topic in the politics and business of recorded music and it's useful to be better informed.
1 year ago | |
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The karrows plaie awaie mantle and all to the bare skin, and then trusse themselves in straw or leaves. They wait for passengers in the high-waie, invite them to game upon the greene and aske no more but companions to make them sport. For default of other stuffe they pawne their glibs, the nailes of their fingers and toes, their dimissaries which they leefe or redeeme at the courtesy of the winner. — Stanihurst

Yes, composing can be a form of gaming, even gambling, with risks taken (usually more to reputation than to pocketbook or limb, though ears are sometimes subject to physical challenges and a damaged reputation can have real effects on the pocketbook). And, yes, there is a mixture — often a finely calculated mixture at that — of choice/taste/habit, calculation/planning/cunning and chance/circumstance/accident that go into pieces. But, no, you don't need to know the composition of that mixture to hear the piece. (In fact, I think I'd be failing as a composer if that were the case.) If, however, some degree of play translates itself from composition to performance and audition, then this is an honest bonus.
1 year ago | |
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A brief Jeremiad: Ron Silliman:  "Perhaps the most significant power move that the SoQ [School of Quietude] makes is to render itself the unmarked case in literature..."  Music, too, has its SoQ and the problem is not with the quietist music in itself but rather that its presence is so loud and resource-consuming that it excludes the possibility of  alternatives getting heard.  The marinalsopification of contemporary concert music is the worst example of this form of musical power politics at work with a kind of professionalization substituting for invention, creating, as the default setting for new music, a self-sustaining, well-behaved reproductive repertoire by the small caste who are then permitted to rotate the available orchestral commissions and residencies among themselves.  For example: Lou Harrison is surely turning over in his grave at the exclusion of experimentalists from the Cabrillo Festival with the infernal Catch-22 of an excuse that because they haven't had "enough" experience writing for orchestra (meaning, writing for orchestra within the constraints of a particular form of orchestral identity and practice) they aren't invited to write for orchestra and so are never able to get that experience so that they could actually be able to jump onto the hamster wheel of writing more boring approximations of professional music for more bored orchestras and shake it around and of its axis for a bit. End Jeremiad.
1 year ago | |
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Generally speaking, ictus (plural icti) identifies the moment of a beat in music, corresponding to the moment of a stressed syllable within a metric foot in a poetic line.  The space between icti could be open or subdivided by additional attacks (or, in poetry, syllables) which, in the default setting, have a weaker stress, a default setting which can usefully be broken, i.e. syncopated.  (Accent marks were introduced in musical notation specifically for the purpose of indicating strong accents on weak beats or between icti.)  The "sweet" spot for tempi, at around 80 beats per minute, plus or minus about 50 percent, as I've mentioned here before, seems to mark our default setting for musical beats which can both be subdivided and between which we can proceed at a reliably steady tempo without subdividing.  (Indeed, at tempi below around 40 bpm, it is extremely difficult to sustain a regular tempo without maintaining a faster regular pulse.)  In classical Greek poetry (in which tune, metre, and text were not separate compositional entities) the foot was a durational unit, composed of short and long syllables, not of strongs and weaks (Greek had both stress accents and pitch accents or contours, but the metre was durational), leading to lines of flexible or additive durations due to the irregularity of the size of the feet, while most English spoken poetry is stressed yet follows a fairly regular beat between those stresses and most musicians, in contrast, think in terms of mixtures of stress and duration.  Musicians and poets will often scan a line of poetry differently, poets counting feet from the beginning of a line, while musicians will usually assign an anacrusis (a weak first syllable at the beginning of a line) to the previous foot at the end of the previous measure as a pick-up to the beat; the degree to which this is a meaningful difference or just a difference in notational conventions is a matter of controversy.

In his Music Primer, perhaps following a usage of his teacher Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison uses a broader definition of icti, identifying them simply as "attention-points, the separate 'attacks'".  He uses this to describe the composite rhythmic activity in an ensemble, if, for example, one voice has attackes on the first and third beats of a four beat measure and a second voice attacks after a dotted quarter rest, then an eighth note later and a quarter note after that, the composite rhythm is dotted quarter, eighth, eighth, dotted quarter: five instrumental attacks, but only four distinct icti, as the two voices coincide at beat three.   To some extent, this usage disposes of feet compositionally, though they will continue to be recognized in performance (in the way musicians count out the metre or a conductor beats it), as either a level below which any attacks are understood as subdivisions or above which metres are recognized as regular patterns of beats/feet.  I think Harrison — who can also be thought of as a minor Black Mountain poet as well as composer — may have also here been making a consequent response to innovations in poetry in which the foot became highly variable in length (see, in particular, Williams and Stein), taking the line clear across the page with it (see Olson, Duncan.)  The degree to which the ametrical developments in poetry paralleled the atonal in music is worth thinking about.

All of this points to a rhythmic/metrical environment which is rather free but there does seem to be a number of cognitive constraints at work at a primitive level, constraints that the late work of John Cage illustrate well. In the development of his work over decades Cage himself went, in his rhythmic practice, from a beat-based metrical practice to an ametrical practice without regular beats, with the frame of reference either space on the page or chronological time, using a stop watch as reference. (A large number of the early works are identified by rhythmic structures, which can be likened to the practice of identifying tonal works by keys.) These primitive constraints appear to me most vivid in the most extreme examples of Cage's time points when a sparse number of icti (in the Harrison sense) scattered into time brackets group or refuse to group depending upon their density/proximity, relative strengths in amplitude and, to some extent, their tonal or timbral similarities or differences.  Even though we're no longer counting regular beats, let alone assigning them to regular measures, that sweet tempo of around 80 bpm can still emerge to define groups of attacks as gathered relative to their most prominent members while distances of 40 bpm or greater between icti can continue to defeat a sense of regular tempo.  
1 year ago | |
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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.  
1 year 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.)
1 year 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.
1 year 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."


1 year 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.
1 year 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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