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
438 Entries
One of the reasons, really very basic reasons, that music works, when it works, is that we have a weak notion of same and different in music.   Music is coherent due to forms of repetition, but compelling due to variety, and that play between repetition and variety is not only the very center of a composer's — and a performer's — work, but also the most important cognitive dynamic in listening to music. But no repetition in music can ever be exact, all "sames" in music being different — the very shift of some bit or stretch of music (our "material")  in time changes everything: memory is loaded, phases are shifted and locked, context is everything BUT THEN all differences are measured by grasping for similitudes even though memory is fragile and uncertain, we experience time both smoothly and in chunks, and often enough, context is not enough, if not nothing at all.  But out of this uncertainty, there are only opportunities for making more music!
1 year ago | |
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For portable instruments or voices playing or singing in houses or apartments with more than one room. Chose a reference tone in a comfortable register that can be sustained for the length of a long breath. Moving leisurely, play or sing that tone in each room of your house, attacking the tone firmly, sustaining it, trying to avoid variations in pitch, amplitude or timbre and then releasing it with a gentle diminuendo, perhaps with a slight fall in pitch as well, with pauses between tones as you move from room to room.  If you must cross through a room more than once in order to enter rooms not yet played in, then the reference tone should be repeated, but with at least one significant variation in either pitch, amplitude or timbre.  Each new room visited is then accompanied by a return to the reference tone. If more than one player or singer perform in the same house or apartment, then the tones chose should be chosen independently and their paths through the apartment should not be coordinated with one another. A complete performance of this work is the sum of all the individual performances occurring within the 47 hour global span of the the Seventh of May.
1 year ago | |
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Composerly self-criticism, Nr. 353b:  I've noticed that I've been falling into the habit of making scores which fit on whole pages, and within pages filling up — neither exceeding nor coming up short of — whole lines. This has been happening in both (more-or-less) conventionally notated scores and in prose score.  (I suppose that the single page as a unit of compositional attention first really came into consciousness with Earle Brown's early graphic scores, but continued to charge many other composers, from Feldman's pre-ruled staves to Crumb's iconic pages to some of the complexists, working line-by-line.) It does look good to see music laid-out well, and some music might just happen to come to a happy coincidence in which musical density and duration and the consumption notated page-space correspond so neatly (a recently piece I made for a friend's 80th birthday fit 80 measures over 8 rows of 10 single-staved measures on a large (A3, landscape) page), but matters like visible phrases and convenient places for breathing and page turns are more important in practical terms and it's probably a bad sign when this is consistently the case.  This critique does not exclude the use of the physical dimensions of a piece of paper as an arbitrary constraint through which invention is forced into action, nor does it exclude the secondary aesthetic pleasure of a well-laid-out score, it's just an observation that if things are consistently one way, then there are probably opportunities lost in doing things differently.
1 year ago | |
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Very sad to note the passing today of the music journalist Reinhard Oehlschlägel.  Long-time editor for new music at Deutschlandfunk and founder, publisher, and editor, with his partner, Gisela Gronemeyer, of MusikTexte, a quarterly journal now in its 31st year and on its 140th issue and still published from their rambling apartment in Cologne in stubborn and cheerful independence. Trained as music educator and then a journeyman journalist on the Feuilleton pages of the FAZ in the lively years of Frankfurt's Adornovian 1960s, Reinhard was one of the leaders of the rebellion at Darmstadt in the early 70s, and was a longtime friend of American experimental music in Germany.  (He commissioned my wife Christina and I to translate N.O. Brown's lecture on John Cage, a project which involved translating large swathes of Finnegans Wake, and which paid a month's rent in our first, 22-square-meter apartment.) He was a joy to talk with, argue with (we would go on for hours about the paradoxes of the institutional avant garde), and a presence who will be missed.
1 year ago | |
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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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