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
400 Entries
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.
8 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.

8 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.
8 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].



9 months ago | |
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Robert Irwin: "I went through a reductive process, which was misidentified as being minimalism. Minimalism had become destilled into a style that had about it a kind of finality in regards to the work not having content and essentially existing on its own. I started out with all the same presumptions as everyone else, all the same baggage. But I found there were just too many things in my paintings, things that did not contribute enough to justify their being there. So I made the simplest assumptions: everything in a painting either works for you, or by its mere presence it works against you. So I started editing my work, taking out what was really not crucial or critical to it."   (in Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries, p. 49.)
10 months ago | |
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I recently followed a thread online somewhere about one of those monstrously dense total chromatic pieces associated with the New Complexers* and the question came up of whether or not segments or fragments found here or there which could be articulated and heard as resolving onto conventional tonal templates — triads, seventh chords, alterations of these, sequences or progressions of these, etc. — could then, and if so, ought to be heard as 'tonal' although the prevailing atmosphere of the piece was — for better or worse (and yes, some participants in thread wished to jetison the term altogether with some argument (and a reasonable one, though I disagree) about its impossibility) — 'atonal.'  

I happen to think that it's possible to have a stretch of music that is atonal in the sense of its not being parseable as belonging to a particular key-centered tonality.  To get there would require an even distribution of the possible pitches such that samples of any reasonably large size would tend to have the same net content.  James Tenney's ergodic concept is spot on, here, and the classical Princetonian 12-tone technique could come very close, but there is an inevitable rub and that's the fact that (a) our auditory nervous system doesn't take in every collection of pitches thrown at them with indifference as to the qualities of the relationships between tones and (b) most of experiences with music are with music that privileges particular tonal relationships and/or gives otherwise constrains their use.  The phenomenon of sensory consonance is a real physiological one (evolutionarily piggybacked with some likelihood on speech perception), and configurations of pitches which fall into sensorially consonant relationships will be distinguished from those which don't.  The strictures among the early adaptors of Schoenbergian 12-tone technique included an avoidance of octaves and major/minor triads, possibly from the insight (inhearing?) that these would assert themselves acoustically from other configurations, defeating the atonal ideal. 

There is a story about John Cage, then an editor of New Music Edition, meeting Milton Babbitt with great enthusiasm to talk about how Babbitt had "broken the rules" and used major and minor triads in his Three Compositions for Piano (1947) which Cage had then recommended for publication.  Cage's enthusiasm for a neutral approach to the natural affects of musical intervals can be understood in the context of his own early works in which had used a 25-tone collection, thus rejecting the principle of octave equivalency found in the more orthodox 12-tone techniques of the time.  Babbitt reported being amused at Cage's enthusiasm, for it appeared to be emphasizing an aspect of his musich which he had heard as incidental, as his work with 12-tone technique was as much an auditional practice as a compositional one, and that auditional practice was predicated on treating intervallic and chordal arrangements as distinct but with equal structural compentency. (This would lighten up considerably in Babbitt's later music, as a more playful approach to the nature and nurture of pitch relations appears allowing at times even the prominent foregrounding of local materials that evoked tonal music.)  I don't think that we have come very much further from this standoff between Cage and Babbitt, the first with a form of music-acoustical realism, the second a species of idealism or platonism, but I do expect that there's still considerable charge to be found and heard in the very distance between these positions.

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* I believe that the work in question was by Michael Finnissy, but I won't bet the house on it and the following notes don't ride on it.

10 months ago | |
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