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
417 Entries
For five years, from the Summer of 2000 to the Summer of 2005, I lived in Budapest, Hungary.  I was a trailing spouse, as my spouse had been assigned to teach at one of the international school there.  My passport was stamped by the Hungarian immigration office with the words BEARER MAY NOT WORK, an instruction which I proceeded to follow to the letter.  Not difficult. I had kids to raise, a household to run, an exotic language to learn, after all, and I did like to sit leisurely in cafes or a good Étkezde, the perfect ex-pat, eating Ruszwurm or Eszterhazy torte and reading the Herald Tribune.   However, as a new music person in a city with some interesting new music activity, I tried to make some contact to local composers and players. I sent off forty-some letters with cds of my music asking not to get played (for I realized quickly that the local resources were very tight), but just to visit, talk shop, and to learn more about Hungarian new music.  I got nothing, not a single response.  I was, in Budapest, musically invisible.  I had had performances of my puppet opera in Cape Cod, and a few things in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and even neighboring Bratislava, I played a lot of gamelan at the local Indonesian embassy and I wrote some pieces for school performance, including a set of songs for a Brecht play, in Budapest, but for Hungarian new music, I was just not there. Once, I did get an email invitation to chat from a musicologist who had seen my name and address on an internet forum, but within hours the invitation was rescinded as the author had decided to go to Lake Balaton for the foreseeable future.  I found all of this curious, but was not bitter about it because I appreciated time to work on my music without external pressure and my family did have a wonderful time there, living well in a crazy apartment in the Buda hills with a direct view, on a clear day, to Bartok's house on the side of the next mountain over. Only later was I able to put together a plausible explanation for all of this:  the Cold War was not far behind and I was an ex-pat Yankee in town without any visible means of support or clear affiliations, and yes, I sat in cafes and read the Herald Tribune, waiting for that rendezvous or ready to make a drop-off at a moment's notice. The Hungarian new music scene, on the other hand, had been hurt, materially-speaking, by the change of systems: before, a recognized composer got a good teaching job and regular commissions, was published and recorded by the state music publishing companies and enjoyed a social status on par with other professionals and intellectuals.  All of that had become shaky and the resources available for concertizing, commissioning, teaching, publishing and travel had all been strongly reduced while new entrepreneurial and political classes were developing which left artists and intellectuals far behind in wealth and social prestige. Although I didn't constitute any competition for these scarce resources, I must have appeared to be both part of the new order and oddly unreadable. Later I would read Harry Mathews's marvelous (non-?) fiction memoir, about being an Ami ex-pat in Europe assumed, by some, to have obviously been a spy, My Life in CIA,  and realized that had I decided, as Mathews had (or had not), to have let the (fictional) appearance of being a spy play itself out by never explicitly denying being a spy, driving a faster car, wearing a good trench coat, hanging out inconspicuously in conspicuous places, suddenly dropping anonymized packages in odd containers, etc., I might well have been able to leverage the novelty of it all into a much more interesting career in Hungarian new music.
11 months ago | |
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I use the word "detail" a lot when talking about pieces of music.  It's not a term a get from my Cagean heritage, as detail implies some hierarchy among materials which was not an enthusiasm of  Cage's. I think I started using the word after hearing Morton Feldman use it, but it also could have been following Milton Babbitt who used it in describing Schenker's analytic technique as one which can compellingly describe how details both define and come from their context, belonging to particular continuities or simultaneities. Of course, a word like detail is somewhat fuzzy in the abstract, it has to be identified in its concrete context.  I think of a detail as something smaller than the breadbox of a feature  — compare, for reference, the distinctions we would make between the features and details of a striking face; that nose or that mop of hair is a feature, that freckle or crease a detail —, and although a detail may well puzzle or even be a nagging detail,  a detail is part and parcel of a work, intimate to it, in a way that an ornament may have the luxury not to be.  You can add or remove an ornament, and it may well increase value, but it will unlikely alter the identity of a work, but change a detail...?  You might be removing the keystone in the arch or the yeast in the bread.  A detail need not be some small but remarkable collection of notes at the surface of tonal music, it could be a small breath taken here, at this moment in particular and not another, or it could be a composer's insistence, in the score's notation, that the players of a string quartet be seated just a bit farther apart than usual.  I had friends in high school who were — and some very much still are, as we're talking a Southern Californian high school — serious about their cars. They were devoted to keeping them "cherry", a condition that went beyond merely looking shiny and new. Some of them were real virtuosi at car care, both mechanics and looks, both inside and out.  It was never enough to tune, clean and polish those cars, they had to be detailed, an attention to the smallest element that made the whole much more than a some of the parts.

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* This was a response to an anecdote about Schoenberg's supposed exasperation at his favorite moments disappearing in the Schenker analysis of the Eroica.  Babbitt quite nicely put it: "Well, would those be your favorite places in Scheherezade? Would they be your favorite places if they popped up in the middle of The Merry Widow? They're your favorite places in a great big piece called the Eroica Symphony. They're your favorite places, we hope, because they're part of the continuity and part of the context, and who provides a better characterization of the continuity and context than does Schenker?"  (Babbitt, Words about Music, p. 140.)   
11 months ago | |
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I just heard that Peter Elsea, who ran the Electronic Music Studios at UC Santa Cruz from 1980 through 2013, has published the ultimate version of his studio composition handbook, The Art and Technique of Electroacoustic Music.  I haven't gotten a copy yet, but from its contents it appears to be a solid introduction to its subject from an authority and a gifted teacher who has maintained a studio which continues to represent the historical evolution of its techniques from live electronic music to the manipulation of physical audio recordings through analog synthesis, the design of dedicated hardware, hybrid analog-digital systems, all the way through to computer-based digital synthesis.

The publication of Elsea's book is a good opportunity to note how divergent the academic field of electronic or electroacoustic music has become.  There are several large university music departments or conservatories in which the study of "electronic music" is geared entirely to the production of midi-based mock-ups of written scores.  This can be useful, but it's far from a comprehensive approach to the topic, and it tends, in my experience, to be limited to gaining practical experience with a particular set of hard- and software.  For other departments, "electronic music" is, or has become, synonymous with computer music. (I recently encountered the introductory textbook used in such a department, in which the first chapter begins with the arguable assertion: "Electronic music is usually made using a computer, by synthesizing or processing digital audio signal.")  And there are still a handful of places where music is made from elementary electronic tools, like microphones, amplifiers and loudpeakers, maybe an oscillator or two and even the good old soldering iron comes into play for for some old-fashioned  hardware hacking or hands-on circuit bending in the lively on-going extensions of the David-Tudor-Table-Full-of-Tools tradition.  One of the curious results of this is that students can walk out of introductory Electronic Music classes from different schools and have practically no overlap in what they've studied. (Note that I don't believe this to necessarily be a bad thing!)  Against this background, Elsea's Santa Cruz Studio has been a rather unique example of a studio representing the breadth of the field, and his students over the years have gone on to careers in sound design and film sound editing, popular music recording and production, contemporary analog and digital electronic music, and even some oddball experimental music along the way.

11 months ago | |
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Composer David Cope has posted a video listing — formatted like a rolling Star Wars introduction text — "100 things (he) hate(s) about concerts."   Most items on the list have to do with concert ritual and etiquette, many have to do with the social environment, particularly the hygiene of ones neighbors and the auditorium, but also the inevitable social interactions, and even an isolated few genuinely musical issues.  Well, yes, we can agree to hate most of these.  But honestly, what does that get us and, more importantly, what's the better alternative? Even though I'm something of a recluse, an over-the-border-line misanthrope and maybe even something of an agoraphobe at that, and though I enjoy making my own music at home for my own satisfaction perhaps more than anything else, it's obvious to me there is something unique and valuable — for which the complementary activity and artifacts of recordings, mediated by technical limitations, editing, mixing, sound-designing, and fed through amps and equalizers and boosters into every variety of loudspeaker into every kind of room other than the one we once could have been, or auto, or headphone may be documentary evidence or artwork on their own terms are also no alternative — about sounds produced by live and physically-present voices and instruments in unique locations in real and interesting spaces and sharing the experience in real time with other people who have chosen to come there and then to share an event, not least in their coming together to share the potential risk that something will go wrong, even very wrong, or the opportunity that something unplanned and unexpected will go right, uniquely right, and then be lost to all but fragile memory as the last wavefronts of air-pushed-by-sound dissipate into the wider world around.   The problems of the embarrassing body noises from one's neighbor, not enough light to read the program, chewing gum attached to unfortunate locations, or the squeaky and uncomfortable chair are real enough, but they are social and practical, not immediately musical, and giving up on solving them is more a symptom of a deeper social problematic than a musical one.  The musician who can't manage to match the oboe's A, is indeed a musical problem, but it's not inherent in the concert as institution or event, and it is correctable. Yes, the concert, in its physical and social form and content, is very much a work in progress, and it invites, no, demands innovation and change, as, indeed it always has changed, but it is a special and worthwhile project and, for better or worse, there are complements but no musically honest substitutes.
11 months ago | |
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I started to write a item with this title, in response to a request.  It ended up longer than it ought to have been and, in the end, was less about British music than about my inability to understand, strike that, follow much of it.  Setting aside, for a moment, the reservation I have about a common passport among composers as a meaningful musical marker,  I have reliably found the energy and invention among the [experimental*] and [complexity*] scenes in Great Britain often to be remarkable, and reliably more interesting than the more establishment mainstream.** I have also long puzzled why these two factions are so often factious, when they really ought to be complementary allies in matters of musical politics and resource allocation (but then again, who should be surprised by factiousness among musicians, passionate and materially impoverished profession that it is?), but then again, two composers I admire very much, Christopher Fox and Richard Ayres (the former also one of the better writers on new music and the latter the most astonishingly inventive orchestrator of our era, particularly his uncanny sense of orchestration as essentially a continuity rather than a simultaneity element) seem to me to be resolving any such divide in their own work quite nicely, thanks. My own natural sympathies are with the experimental scene, that described in Nyman's book (I bought a copy the year it was published), but also work that has been done since in its tradition (yes, the idea of an experimental tradition is something of a non-sequitur, but it's a non-sequitur that's been musically productive for a damn long time) as well as work that didn't get caught in Nyman's net at the time, particularly that of independents like Annea Lockwood, but my admiration for many of the [complexers] is an honest one.  (As I've pointed out here before, experimentalists are also wildly interested in complexity.***)   In 1990, my summer of commuting between the Darmstadt courses and teaching English to brokers and bankers, I watched Brian Ferneyhough**** and Richard Barrett give their chalk talks; Ferneyhough's description of successive transformations of a rhythm or of couple of measures was a spooky echo of Lou Harrison describing his transformations of phrases with permutated measures, and Barrett's proportional description of his string quartet similarly recalled John Cage analyzing his String Quartet in Four Parts to me in a Houston hotel room. So while I was prepared, technically, to get into the music I found myself somewhat shut out because the actual materials used, in their acoustic character, internal relationships and external associations, were often completely opaque.  (Coming from a long deep study of alternative tunings, I was also frustrated by the haphazard — in terms of sensory consonance and dissonance — approach to microtones: merely using a highly variegated pitch vocabulary doesn't necessarily lead to a proportionate extension of pitch relationships.)  I was also troubled by the distinction made between accurate and "faithful" interpretations of the notation.  But mostly, it was a very strange, if not foreign, way of putting tones after one another and together. I couldn't follow, but I'm still trying because I'm still fascinated.

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* contentious terms resting in hard brackets: [ ].
** no, I can't take the 20-minute Proms piece seriously.  And yes, Thomas Adès strikes me as a Wolfgang Rihm-ish figure, an amiable, musical guy, who is extremely fluent at a kind of approximation or simulacrum of serious modern music, but not music I can personally go into any depth with.
*** see, for example, this essay (scroll down a bit) by David Feldman on some of Tom Johnson's music.
**** Anyone else tried reading the new Lois Fitch monograph on Ferneyhough with an e-reader?  Above and beyond the surprising amount of text dropped or otherwise corrupted, it's disappointing because much of the action in the music under discussion, even when that music celebrates its own less-than-clear character comes about from a small body of techniques that could be described much more clearly.  I would think that a very useful little book could be written setting aside all of the broader cultural themes which have engaged the composer and just describing a number of F's techniques and considering their potentials, alone and in combination, in real musical contexts. And yes, please, let's get rid of this "irrational time signature" business!

11 months ago | |
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I've admired the work of the Amsterdam-based new music ensemble, Trio Scordatura, which has specialized in music with alternative tunings since 2006.  Now, I've just read a review at the New Music Box of a Texan violin and viola twosome, Duo Scordatura.  Before I clicked on the review, I expected to find that some 2/3 of the Amsterdam trio had done a recording absent either a voice, viola or keyboard instrument.  Given the lack of overlap in repertoire and physical distances between the groups, I don't expect that the two groups are much likely to be competing for exactly the same market segments for concerts, but recordings and online items do circulate widely and live long and there ought to be enough interesting and useful names to go around, so start-up groups ought to do a little due diligence to avoid such similarities. When the market stakes are higher, this name business can get cutthroat (like the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain / United Kingdom Ukelele Orchestra fracas) but I think the New Music World is both small enough and kind enough that we could get along with some more respect for others' names. Kraig Grady, for example, has worked as an ambassador for the music of the (possibly imaginary) island state of Anaphoria for decades now, with postings in both the US and in Australia, in numerous solo and ensemble configurations, often with film or shadow theatre;  however, another new music group established itself in Chicago in 2008 with a potentially confusing name, the Ensemble Anaphora.  Not quite the same word (the first is a medical term, the second literary/linguistic, but I suspect both are rooted in the Greek anapherein, to bring back or to carry) but close enough to potentially confuse (I hit upon the later Chicagoan website while trying to remember the other's URL.)   Interesting and exciting work comes from both Anaphoria and Anaphora, and it'd be nice for each to have a more distinctive name.
11 months ago | |
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If you happen to be near Santa Cruz, California on Saturday the 1st, The Santa Cruz New Music Works will be playing a mixed bill at Cabrillo College in Aptos including the first performance of my little Double Hocket for three treble and two bass instruments.  I first heard a concert by NMW in late 1979, and it's a typical sign of the lively cultural life of that community that The Works are still going strong, under the direction of their impressario, Philip Collins, more than three decades later.  I was fortunate to take part in an exquisite corpse cooperative composing project for Lou Harrison's 75th birthday, so this is my second happy collaboration with Collins and Co.. This program will also include the premier of Tryst by a good friend and fine composer, Steed Cowart.  I've seen the score to Tryst and it looks like a whole lot of hocketting will be going down in Aptos this weekend.
11 months ago | |
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Here's a page of a piece — or maybe not yet a piece — I made last year:


(Click the image to enlarge.)  This is the first of a series of similar pieces. It's nothing more than a list of the pitches, measure-by-measure, in ascending order, found in a famous piece of "learned" music.  I did it first as an analysis, but found that that I liked playing it as well (not a particularly innovative idea: The Scratch Orchestra's Draft Constitution suggested playing from Schenker graphic analyses, after all!)  It works well on a keyboard, but is perhaps more engaging as a solo cello piece, either way with the something of the character of an unmeasured prelude.  As a piece of music, it erases the rhythmic and polyphonic aspects of the source composition, but something of the harmonic flavor remains and the ametrical but steady rhythm has  a character of its own, somewhere between cogitating and meditative.  It is not as "interesting" as the source, and certainly not as efficient, but it tells something about the source material that may have been otherwise overlooked (overheard?)

But I'm not altogether sure that it's a finished piece.  Things like this need time to determine whether more or less composing — here, manipulation, in the form of addition or subtractions of elements or instructions — is in order.  (Thinking here, as usual, of Jasper Johns's recipe:  Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.)

The idea of taking inventory of one or more classes of objects or features in a work is a standard analytical exercise and here provides some fuel for the fire of how much quantitative elements contribute to the qualitative experience of a musical work.  There is a body of contemporary poetry which plunders the inventories of existing works.  The composer and poet (and all-round free radical thinker) Samuel Vriezen pointed me in the direction of the astonishingly virtuosic anagrammatical Sonnets, or "Sonnagrams", of K. Silem Mohammad, formally strict English Sonnets, each of which is based on a Shakespeare Sonnet, each with 14 end-rhymed iambic pentameter lines using only the letters found in the corresponding Shakespeare poem, with any leftover letters used in the title of each Sonnet.  As I understand it, this is an ongoing project, with the ambition to compose a full set.  What I have read impressed me no end; they are at turns deeply moving, funny, troubling, daring.  How can you not love a poem that begins:

Go softly to the Disneyland Hotel,
Its simulacral threshold grown sublime:
The bedrooms all emit that new car smell,
Like nothing else in bourgie Anaheim.


? With Muhammed's examples of an old familiar sonnet scrambled into a new and much stranger, if contemporary, sonnet, it is awfully tempting to scramble my prelude and turn it back into a fugue of some sort.



1 year ago | |
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So there's this new watch — well, it's really a very slow metronome — that buzzes every five minutes, just a reminder that a certain span of time has passed, the particular duration chosen for a certain quality: "vibrating any more often than every five minutes, they found was annoying; any longer than 10 and it became hard to remember when the last interval started."  In other words, the interval needn't have been precisely five minutes, indeed, unless we filled up that duration singing to ourselves a song that exactly fit that length or carrying out some task with some number of mechanically precise repetitions, most of us really wouldn't reliably know whether the duration was five minutes exactly or somewhat longer.  Robert Erickson named a piece "Taffy Time" with the notion of capturing something elastic about the sensation of acoustic events marking the passing of time; my own experience has been that a lot of musical value can be conveyed by time intervals that escape precision.  Neuroscientists have been able to identify a number of internal clocks which we carry around with us, regulating operation of the body and determining how we take information in and process it. These clocks tick within fairly stable frequency ranges, but can be usefully dynamic within these ranges, the heartbeat and rate of breathing slows down and speeds up whether we're at rest or working, musical consonances resolve themselves more quickly in the brain than dissonances, etc.. This is not just theory, it's enormously practical, the stuff of big business even: it sets the rate that frames flicker by in films  (and also explains why we can follow "movement" on a video screen, but dogs get confused) or the sampling rates for recorded sound. For musicians, the clocks that seem to matter most are one that ticks around 200 mHz, at which, when two sounds occur within that span, we can't reliably sort out which came first, and then around 10 or 12 Hz, the rate at which we can, with some degree of certitude, tell whether successive pulses are evenly spaced or not, then the sweet spot of around 80 beats per minute, within which we tend to subdivide and take in whole groups of rhythmic activity — metric feet (which relate to both song and dance, activities closely tied to basic body mechanisms), drum rudiments, words in Morse code or touch typing all fall into this range — and above or below which most tempo phenomena occur (and, usefully, when one reaches the half or the double of a tempo in this region, subdividing or grouping can kick in, as in the Javanese Irama system, in which dynamic tempi settle at stable densities over multiple levels of doubling or halving) and among which we tend to group into handfuls of pulses, for example into metres, which may or may not be reinforced by dynamic stresses or subtle distortions (both regular and irregular) in the lengths of successive beats. This new metronomic watch, however, is explorating a clock that, in musical terms, is ticking at the level of form rather than local rhythm.  Five minutes would be on the long side  for a pop song, better for a slow than a fast dance, it could be a whole piece of concert music, or a movement or section of a larger work.  In any case, it is certainly at the edge of an ambiguous formal length: I find that for a huge swathe of the repertoire, three minutes is short, eight or more is a substantial movement, so five minutes falls somewhere in-between. Beyond this, the twenty-minute single movement strikes me as rather often ambiguous or anonymous again, depending upon whether we start to subdivide it, and some time length beyond that, in a region Feldman and Ashley both identified as "scale", form starts to do something altogether.
1 year ago | |
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When I was very small, my mother took me to see the touring exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls when they came to Claremont. For weeks beforehand, I had been prepped by both parents about how exciting and important they were.  When we finally saw the exhibition, however, I was disappointed because no dead squirrels were on display.
1 year ago | |
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