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
434 Entries
Some pieces just don't seem to get finished. For example,  I've been working on a piece with the title SAWING A GRAND PIANO IN HALF.  Two problems have arisen in trying to finish this piece.  The first is a purely compositional — indeed, a formal — question:  Should the sawing be done beginning with the treble side or with the bass side?   The second question is one of stage magic mechanics:  Once sawn in half, severing all wires, how does the piano appear to be instantly reassembled and playable without the use of smoke, mirrors or a second piano?  
1 year ago | |
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Computer imagery and music by David Victor Feldman, composed in Postscript with modest tweaking using GIMP and Audacity. With its ergodic character, I think this would make marvelous audio-visual wallpaper for a well-chosen space, perhaps one used primarily in transit.



1 year ago | |
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Composer/improviser/poet/ photographer Kirill Shirokov shared this short video a few days ago. It first appeared casual, on the edge of artless, but very soon engaged me, no charmed me, with its radically minimal coherency (to steal a phrase from Antin) marked by visual rhythm and detail, acoustic development, and just the hint of a narrative to which we're just not party. Or maybe it's just three friends enjoying each other's company on a walk through the city.  It's from a performance earlier this week with pitch pipes on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street, Moscow with Kirill Shirokov, Sasha Elina, Voloko Gorlinksy. Video by Sasha Elina, who I now officially dub the Antonioni of the pitch pipe.

1 year ago | |
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In the early 90s, the composer and physicist Hauke Harder and I started a new music publishing project. I spontaneously came up with the name Material Press and Hauke just as spontaneously agreed to it, without any discussion. We both understood something about the name and its applicability to the kind of repertoire we were interested in as well the the plain fact that we would be in the business of providing material — sheet music, audio recordings, mostly — required for performing the music we'd have in the catalog.

Hauke, as an experimental physicist, had and has a rather concrete understanding of the word material.  And that's reflected in his own great affinity for the music of Alvin Lucier, which would become an important part of the Material Press catalog. Lucier is fond of the poet William Carlos Williams' programmatic slogan: "no ideas but in things."  I suppose that that's as close to our philosophy as you can get, although, the experience of much of the music that has challenged and changed (and continues to challenge and change) the way we hear music and the world around that music is often damn close to the world of ideas ("mountains are mountains again... only the feet are a little bit off the ground" as Cage famously quotes Suzuki.)   Hauke has really worked and thought his own way through this, and I believe that the composer Jo Kondo pointed Hauke towards the Shobogenzo of Dogen, founder of the Soto School of Japanese Zen Buddhism, which famously observed that "painted cakes are real, too", which Hauke used for the title of a very beautiful, long piece for trombone, viola & piano using minimal means to bring out a maximum of detail.

Bhishma Xenotechnites (Douglas Leedy) recently pointed out to me that William's slogan has its origin in Thomas Aquinas's Peripatetic axiom ( "Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius in sensu".)  It's embarrassing that I had not known this before.  It does lend to the catholic qualities in Lucier's music a specific Thomian dimension, and although contemporary physics and mathematics work with phenomena (things, very basic things, among them), ideas, qualities, etc. which have come to be understood although they are not associated with any immediate sensory basis, and however idea-provoking music can be, music appears to me to continue to live its liveliest in a physical and sensational realm. In William's or Lucier's (or Harder's) case,  no ideas but in things, is a matter of attention and emphasis, a recognition of the modest physical dimensions of work that may often actually be much larger on the inside than on the outside, rather than a deep ontological point.

While I admire the clarity that a physical approach can bring, and try to follow the popular literature, especially when it comes to music-related topics, I only have a modest knowledge of physics. I use some math in my music — Gray Codes for example — but I use it very practically, for its clarity and efficiency in optimizing certain concrete musical situations.  A Beckett Gray Code, for example, helped me write a woodwind quintet in which I used every possible combination of the five instruments, thus maximizing variety and that changes in scoring patterns were maximally smooth, while assuring, at the same time that no player would run out of breath (or, in the case of the oboist, end up with a mouth and lungs full of CO2) by allowing them timely entrances and exits. In any case, I can't really understand the bit of maths I do understand and use in terms of Platonian ideals; an intuitionist or constructive basis seems more to point, at least in the terms of the reality of music as something that works itself out through its projection into real time. So material, here, is construed in very practical terms.

I suppose that there is also an ideological theme here, too, with this materialism. Trees and fireplace pokers and f sharp minor or three-quarter time: I recognize them as both ideas and concrete instances, each with its own potential for use. But, as far as I'm concerned, this materialism is dialectical  largely in the Groucho Marxist sense of the term, for example, in not wanting to be in a club that would have me as a member, or even just a form of automatic contrarianism: Have Windmill? Will Tilt, or When the world zigs, it's high time to zag or: Don't Trend on Me.  Cue Professor Wagstaff:

1 year ago | |
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I don't teach composition often, but when I do I usually start with some exercises in counterpoint, and counterpoint, as far as I'm concerned, starts with the notion of line.  Origin, end, range or extremity, contour, balance, gravity, straight, broken, crooked, meandering, leaps and step, gaps and fills: the language we use when we speak of line is rich and metaphorical.  The precision of the (point,) line (, plane) in mathematics is useful, but only within limits when applied to music.  I usually make sure the student knows Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook, that marvelous Bauhaus primer beginning with a line taking a walk, distinguishing active,medial and passive lines, introducing complementarity of lines, structures, arrows etc. (someday I'll write a "G is for Garden" just about Klee's gardens!)  Line is also intimate with melody and contrapuntal lines aspire to the melodic: Christian Wolff's early insights about successions of events becoming melodic can be usefully placed alongside Ezra Pound's idiosyncratic theory of harmony — in which there is a function so that any two events, however alike or different in character — may define a line provided sufficient time passes between them. A good story told well also follows a line.  I like to recite the story of Jarl van Hoother and the Prankqueen from Finnegans Wake as a more-or-less classical folktale; it put my kids straight to sleep for years.  Finally, David Antin has a wonderful talk on line music counterpoint disjunction and the measure of mind (on this page, please listen to both parts of the recording!) with a fine example of a life as a line.
1 year ago | |
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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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