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
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You have one minute and during that minute, you may strike a woodblock once. When, in that minute, do you strike it?

Repeat this, substituting, for example, a cowbell or a tam tam or an electric doorbell for the woodblock; then repeat this, substituting, say, two or four and a half or eleven minutes, maybe three quarters of an hour or one month or a season or a year or a lifetime for the single minute; then repeat this, substituting must for may. Finally repeat this, remembering that "you may strike" includes the option not to strike at all.

Do we have a style, now? Do we have an aesthetic, now?

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The exercise above comes directly from a piece by Kenneth Maue composed in the late 1960s or early 70s in which a large gong is brought unnanounced into a prominent position in a public space and struck once.  The gong player stands ready with the beater, so any audience present will anticipate the sounding of the gong, but there is no information, no signal about when that might happen (and once it happened, no signal about what would happen next, up until the performers moved the gong out the space.)  This is also related to Cage's use of time brackets — stretches of time into which sounds should occur — which he would illustrate to the public by moving his arms like a moving hand on a clock (a practice begun with the conductor's part to his Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-58) and instruct a volunteer to make a sound at some point, any point, within one revolution.  Some volunteers would make a sound right at the start, others tried to divide the time span precisely in half, clapping or stomping or shouting just as Cage hit six o'clock and switched from his left to his right arm, others waited as long as they could to make a noise before the clock ran out at high noon or midnight.  And still others would choose some other less simply or rigidly marked point on the dial.  But this is all really about how composers and players and listeners deal with musical time, all the time.  The rhythmic character of a music can be located on various continua, one of which stretches between absolute precision with regard to orientation to an ongoing pulse to absolute disregard for the same. Another quality of a music is the way in which it invokes — or doesn't  — different subdivisions or multiples of a pulse, still another concerns a sense of anticipation or belatedness in relationship to a pulse that a musician brings to the articulation of a sound in time. And to this I would add the option to not play, to "throw away" a note, something (unfortunately, AFAIC) deprecated in most classical music performance with its all-too-often practiced emphasis on playing a score "note true" and not "dropping" anything.  When a rhythmic practice regarding a particular relationship to the beat becomes a common practice for a performer or group of musicians, then we readily identify it as a style.  And when that style is something like Viennese expression or swing (in which there is a rather strict relationship between the degree of the inequality of a divide beat and the tempo) it can be something quite special,

*****

Just two footnotes to the above.  (1) An explicit possibility of dropping notes is recognized in Cage's later sets of virtuoso Etudes for piano and violin in which the player was instructed to simply play through as if the notes were present.  Similarly, Douglas Leedy, in his Serenade for one or more recorders, encouraged out-of-doors performances in which the players were not necessarily visible to each other or an audience. When I observed that, on a windy day, when, due to more air going in the beak than coming out of it, a recorder would frequently be unable to speak, the composer said, just play on as if the tones had been there, preserving the larger continuity even if details were missing. (2) With some trepidation at wading into a more popular body of water than I usually allow myself, I'll note Bob Dylan's recent album of song covers associated with Frank Sinatra. Critics have been — unsuprisingly given the disparity in styles and general cultural associations between the two — grasping for something that makes a meaningful musical connection between the two singers and have mostly been frustrated at the odd coupling. Let me suggest that the connection here is one of musical technique, in particular one of rhythmic style, but not of a shared style, rather of simply having individual styles that are equally marked by being able to play more liberally along a continuum between sharply articulated metrical rhythm and ametrical utterances than most musicians as well as to throw away material in uncanny ways and to do both reliably enough that we can recognize an individual style.

1 year ago | |
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I am very pleased to be able to share a treatise on the monochord by Bhishma Xenotechnites,  an extraordinary musician and scholar, who has been my teacher and friend for almost 40 years. I have previously called attention here to several compositions of his as well as a major book on singing classical Greek epic, lyric, and dramatic verse. This new essay, Monochord Matters or The Power of Harmonia can be understood as a report on how an ancient and simple instrument, the monochord (or, classically, Kanon) — essentially a stretched string with a bridge somewhere along its length — opens up a world and a worldview, the part of the quadrivium we usually call music, but more precisely known classically as harmonics, the art/science that begins most concretely — physically and sensually — in the realm of the rational. The author wisely keeps the balance, no, the tension, between perception and reason which is the central dynamic of the enterprise, unresolved.  

A PDF of the text is available here, as well as at the link provided by Charles Shere, whose item on Monochord Matters is worth reading.
1 year ago | |
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News comes 'round that the musician and musicologist Bob Gilmore is gone and gone far too soon. Gilmore specialized in the performance (in particular as keyboardist with the Trio Scordatura) and study of music with alternative tunings.  His biographies of Harry Partch and Claude Vivier are landmarks, he edited the valuable collection of writings by Ben Johnston and had only recently begun an exciting tenure as an editor of Tempo.  Gilmore's recent series of podcasts about music he valued are well worth your attention, here.  We never met in person, but our paths crossed by post and email and online many times over at least twenty-five years and with our shared interests (i.e. Partch) and serious disagreements (i.e. Radulescu), a long promised and oft-broken sit down to chat is now postponed for ever.  He was a smart, kind, and generous man and will be sorely missed.
1 year ago | |
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A while back, I wrote a bit about the first of Schoenberg's Three Piano Pieces Op. 11 from 1909.  I can't quite let the topic go without mentioning something extraordinary that goes on in with his use of musical time. I'm using the words "musical time" here, because what he is after is something that, although rather modest in scale, is really outside the box for "rhythm" in everyday usage and here you can hear (and see, in the notation) Schoenberg really stretching the limits of notation.



Look at the gesture in measure four and the first quarter and a half of measure five.  The right hand part then gets repeated twice, each time augmented in duration and with two different arpeggiations of its two voices, the last repetition with an added contrapuntal voice in the middle of the bass clef. The left hand part, on the other hand, gets detached from its position synchronized with the attack of the b-g' dyad of the right hand and instead enters with a delay of first one eighth after the dyad and then in an arpeggio g' - b - left hand.  The left hand figure is not, however, in augmentation, but maintains its eighths-over-a-sustained-bass dimension, with, however, a ritardando over the last statement.

Now, there are precedents for all the details here, so I don't want to make a priority claim for Schoenberg, but I do want to indicate how much this is at once in the spirit of his own tradition and in dissonance to it. The Wiener Espressivo tradition from which Schoenberg's music came was at once — coincidentia oppositorum — a strongly metric one and one that delighted in a continuity of subtle and not-so-so deformations of the metric, both within a measure (leading to great inequalities of beat lengths) and between measures and phrases, with a highly flexible tempo overlaid in frequent accelerations and slowing-downs.  These deformations could come about from a marking (rit., accel. etc.), traditional performance practice, or spontaneously.* The measure unit throughout this, however, remained very clear, perhaps a marker of the centrality of dance to the style (with its necessity to regularly mark the moments when feet were expected to touch ground.)

But Schoenberg here goes astray at the measure with his augmented durations in the upper voices making a written-out ritardando with some expressive arpeggiation, so the figure crosses the barline before measure five and floats away from any metrical attachment in its two further iterations.  But the left hand maintains the eight-note tempo strictly and then with a verbal, rather than written-out, ritardando of its own.  Something has to give here, and that something is the metrical strength of the barlines at measures five, six, seven, and eight, but that left hand figure at measure eight, even under the ritardando marking, very clearly leads us to the (unsounded, but felt) downbeat and new, slower, tempo at measure nine.   So we have a two-handed figure get separated into a decelerating and a steady part which loosen enough to detach from the metre, floating over five bars, yet come back in synch to form a sensible anacrusis to the next phrase.

I think this little waltz phrase with which this piece begins and then periodically, if fragmentarily, returns to (note the smooth but startling deformation of the metre into a few measures of 4/4 on the last page of the piece) opens a particularly rich field of prospects and problems with musical time that Schoenberg only touches upon here (or later in his catalog, which would continue to be dominated by his strongly conventional sense of metre and phrase.)
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* My impression is that Schoenberg's composing here (as frequently in other works) was, in large part, improvisatory, with reconciliation to notational practicalities a secondary thought.


 

1 year ago | |
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Composer Nicolas Collins, Professor in the Department of Sound at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Editor of the Leonardo Music Journal, has been very usefully sharing some of his archives online. First off,  he's dedicated a page to the work of Stuart Marshall, composer, film/videomaker and activist, here.  Second off, his website includes a lot of very good things, including his Freshperson notebook from his first class with Alvin Lucier at Wesleyan (for the record, Marshall, Collins & this blogger were all students of Lucier (I didn't overlap with either & never met Marshall); also for the record, Collins is a far braver soul than I in sharing one of his undergraduate notebook; with any luck, I've managed to make all mine (helpless, tangent- and bad poetry-filled as they were) go away.) And third off, he's made a web-based recreation of one of his own landmarks of electronic music, the feedback-based Pea Soup, from 1974, here.  This is all new music that remains news, so pay attention!
1 year ago | |
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I've recently appreciated reading composer Lauren Redhead's thoughtful blog. She makes useful connections between aesthetically deep and completely practical issues — like performing organ music for a darkened auditorium — in concrete ways that usefully suggest interesting opportunities or openings for new music.
1 year ago | |
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The estimable Tom Johnson has just published a book on harmony, Other Harmony, "other" here indicating. heterodox to the mainstream of contemporary music theory and history teaching.  I haven't yet read the book, but some of the names sticking out from the online summaries — Euler, Hauer, Forte, Messiaen — make it appear very interesting indeed, in particular as ways of arriving at a greater diversity of voice leadings.

I think about theories of harmony a lot — perhaps too much for my own good — as both a practical and an intellectual concern.  A useful theory has got to do a handful of things at once:  It has to offer a taxonomy of resources within a given tonal system or environment, first among them managing the diversity of chords available (which need not always be simultaneities and need not always be complete and may sometimes be visited by guests or non-chordal tones, yet retain their identity) in terms of both their own content and their distance/relatedness to other chords and larger collections of tones but also in terms of the movement between chords, which is voice leading (which need not always be elegant or "parsimonious", a current term of art (I can't emphasize enough how important I think voice leading is; voice leading is a strong distinguishing quality among repertoires and I believe that it's the useful bridge between counterpoint — which I believe should be taught first — and harmony.))

That distance/relatedness exists in terms of both quality (yes, chords can be located qualitatively on a continuum of sensory consonance and dissonance (and yes, you have to consider things like registration and voicing and timbre and dynamics and duration (and yes, chords can be puns, simultaneously being identifiable in two or more ways)); yes, two major triads share a quality independent of their root relationship) and function within larger tonal contexts (scales, keys, and systems or networks, or collections and aggregates; yes, chords can be functionally dissonant independent of their sensory qualities (and yes, there's that punny business))   Finally, a theory of harmony should have the capacity to distinguish and describe individual and local harmonic practices, the things that an individual piece, an individual composer, or a particular repertoire do distinctively.  (These typically emerge not only in the choice of materials but in their temporal orderings.  Example:  in much repertoire, dissonances typically resolve forward to consonances. Example: the western classical, or "common practice", tradition allows IV to come before V but generally not V to come before IV; popular repertoires often do not share this prohibition.)

Ultimately, a theory of harmony is a tool that helps composers make more interesting or compelling works, helps players and musicians to engage with the works both practically and more deeply and is also a tool in discovering — or negotiating, as the case may be — the aesthetic foundations of our practices as composers, performers and listeners: not just what are our harmonic practices but what are our harmonic preferences?  

Stephen Soderberg is currently in the middle of a very thoughtful series of blog items about theory and its feedback relationships to practice.  I believe that hovering behind these relationships are, however, some psychoacoustic or neurological considerations and some private or social preferences that mix together and form or contribute to aesthetic criteria.  The entire twelve tone and set-theoretical project (from which tradition Stephen is working)  has a lot to admire about it, but attention to sensory considerations was not a prominent feature and, inasmuch as the tradition was or is pre-compositional or speculative theoretical, there was precious little said about the criteria with which musical works produced on the basis were to be appraised as successfully musical or not.

I was very impressed by the concern expressed by the late Heinz-Klaus Metzger that we are operating in a criteria-free era, but I suspect that we do, in fact, operate with criteria, but that we are almost painfully inarticulate about them.  (Yes, there were/are local and underground rules — they might be about octaves or starting rhythmic figures on downbeats or forbidding exact repetitions — but those are usually cloaked by the doctrine of deniability that governs things like admissions committees and awards panels.)  I will even go so far as to assert that we tolerate a lot of bad musical production because of this avoidance or even loss of the ability to be articulate about what we like and don't like (dare I go even further — this being aesthetics after all —: about what we find beautiful and not beautiful?.)
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Nr. 3 What's your day job?
Nr. 8 Do you now use or have you ever used a 12-tone row?
Nr. 9 Do you now use or have you ever serialized a parameter?
Nr. 10 Do you now use or have you ever used chance operations?
Nr. 12 If you were sent to a desert island and could only bring two Betamax cassettes of Hollywood youth films from the 1970s and 80s, what would they be?
Nr. 15 How many notes are too many notes?
Nr. 16 How many times have you been invited to attend a concert or festival featuring your music only to find out that the promised accommodations are a living room sofa or a mattress on the basement floor and a sleeping bag?
Nr. 17 On how many of those occasions did you have to share the sofa or mattress with a stranger?
Nr. 20 How many times have you been invited by a promoter or arts administrator to do lunch at the Russian Tea Room?
Nr. 21 On those occasions, were you asked to go Dutch or did the promoter shout "dine and dash!" leaving you with the bill?
Nr. 23 Have you ever composed under the influence of caffeine, nicotine, or other narcotics or controlled substances?
Nr. 32 If you could have any other superpower, what would it be?
Nr. 33 Are you now or have you ever been a member of a show choir?
Nr. 34 What's the difference between a prepared piano and a ready piano?
Nr. 36 What Hollywood actor should play you and your love interest in the made-for-tv biopic?
Nr. 41 How does one properly eat a peach using only a knife and fork?
Nr. 42 Can you bake a souffle?
Nr. 43 Can you debone a fowl in less than 45 minutes?
Nr. 44 Can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical?
Nr. 48 In your concert experience, what venue has provided the best free reception food?
Nr. 49 If composers got concert riders, what would you insist on having in yours?
Nr. 54 If Stockhausen really was from Sirius, could you explain how humanoid life would have developed and survived in a binary star system?
Nr. 55 Can you name two living composers whom you suspect to actually be aliens?
Nr. 61 Brahms or Wagner?
Nr. 62 Verdi or Wagner?
Nr. 63 Debussy or Ravel?
Nr. 64 Ives or Mahler?
Nr. 65 Schoenberg or Stravinsky?
Nr. 67 Nico Muhly: Ghost or Monster?
Nr. 68 Who serves imperialism more: Eric Whitacre or Mathias Spahlinger?
Nr. 74 Shaken or stirred?
Nr. 75 Innie or outie?
Nr. 76 Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly?
Nr. 77 Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin?
Nr. 79 If you were to be the celebrity endorser for a consumer product, what would that product most likely be?
Nr. 82 Did Richard Nixon steal the 1968 Election by secretly persuading Saigon to abandon the Paris Peace Talks?
Nr. 83 Did Ronald Reagan steal the 1980 Election by secretly persuading the Iranian government to delay releasing the US Hostages?
Nr. 86 Do you know the combination of the cupboard?
Nr. 93 What is your weapon of choice in a Zombie Apocalypse?
Nr. 94 Does Pierre Boulez cast a reflection in a silvered mirror?
Nr. 95 Why isn't there more music for Flexatone?
Nr. 96 How many cowbells?
Nr. 97 The Vibra-Slap (TM): Why? and How do we make it stop?
Nr. 100 If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
1 year ago | |
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So if you're sitting in a restaurant after a concert with a crowd of Newmusiclanders, nothing will likely stop the conversation sooner than mentioning in passing that you happen to like a piece by Alan Hovhaness. Sure, he composed a lot and he composed not only for virtuosi (Stokowski and the Ajemians, to begin with)  but much for semi-pros, locals, and other amateurs, and yes, you can recognize the reuse of similar techniques again and again in his catalog*, but he was a freelance composer composing practically and pragmatically, composing not from a masterpiece ethic but composing repertoire to be played, and when he was on his game, he could be very inventive indeed, coming up with remarkable (and remarkably robust and efficient, in terms of performance practice) ways of making striking music.

But his music has had a reception problem, not a musical problem. Part of the reception problem was that he came from the Boston area, not New York, and was something of an outsider even there, and then, when he settled in Seattle, would remain decidedly outside of the NY sphere. Part of the problem is, perhaps, that his influences (Sibelius, the reimagined Armenian music of Comitas, Handel) were off-fashion, and his friendships (Cowell, Cage, Harrison, Brant, but also Hanson**) were as well, and that he was prematurely (and thus, like Cowell, often superficially) a "world music" composer, thus the stickiness of the orientalist and Armenianist labels.

But inventive he was: above and beyond his modal and metrical experiments, in moving from strict canon to loosely canonic to the textural use of non-coincident repetitions he was ahead of a game that Ligeti and others would famously play later. His Noh-inspired chamber operas, The Burning House and Pilate predate Britten's Church Parables. All that said, here's Hovhaness's Symphony for Metal Orchestra (flutes, trombones and percussion), one of his stronger pieces.
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* One of my own teachers, who had has a composition lesson with Hovhaness as a young man, insisted to me (and later in print) that Hovhaness's "secret" to his prolific composing was a prolific use of repeat signs.  A survey of his scores will quickly convince that exactly the opposite was the case: Hovhaness's actual use of repeat signs in his scores is very limited, wide stretches of material that initially seem repetitive turn out to have many subtle variations, and man, the guy wrote and wrote a lot of notes in longhand. He was prolific simply because (a) many people asked him for new pieces and (b) he just plain spent a lot of time at his desk composing (the story goes that Hovhaness would compose all night and sleep all day. I can respect that.)  
** Mr Harrison once told me about being sent by the Herald Tribune to review an all-Hovhaness Town Hall concert.  Hovhaness had a certain reputation in New York and  Harrison had come prepared to pan the concert, inviting Cage as his guest. All of the Coplandites and all the 12-toners were there, and were apparently loudly dismissive of the music which just didn't do any of what their own music did. But Harrison liked the first piece, Cage agreed, and they decided to wait for something not to like. But that something, Harrison reported, never came.
1 year ago | |
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So there's a story going around about a classical pianist who wants a four-year-old review of one of his concerts scrubbed from a newspaper's website.  (Lisa Hirsch writes about it well, here.) While the pianist mentions the EU "right to be forgotten" court ruling, the pianist's argument is an appeal to "the truth" over the review — and a review that was certainly not "over the top in sheer negativity and toxicity" as the pianist claimed.

The problem here is that by performing publicly, a musician becomes a public person. No, not to the extent that aspects of his or her private, non-musical, life become public, but certainly the quality of her or his performance is public and it becomes a proper subject of public discourse. (The EU ruling is completely irrelevant here as it deals with the rights of private not public persons, and search engines rather than content sites.) There is no abstract "truth" here beyond the circumstances of the program we can stipulate as given: time, place, personnel, repertoire, tempi, and, in a general way, whether the musicians were playing together or in tune. Whatever abstract or Platonic truth a musician carries around in her or his head cannot be stipulated, we can only discuss what we hear and perhaps speculate upon what the musician(s) performing wanted us to hear and whether this succeeded or not.   In the end "the truth" we actually approach in our conversation is that of the actual performance, the sounds in the air, in the room, before that particular audience (and you get the audience you have, not necessarily the audience you want!), not the ideals trapped in someone's head.

Some reviewers may be mean-spirited at times, maybe even always, and some reviewers are kind to a fault, but that's a matter of negotiation between readers and editors.  Performers enter into those negotiations at their professional peril, because the decision to perform publicly means an agreement to enter into a community of discourse, with its own terms, history, and dynamics. And that history, including the critical record, can't be censored or erased, but it can be positively engaged through thoughtful argument and — better — more convincing performances.

Musicians (and I write now as a particular sort of musician, a composer) are generally best advised to just listen to the discussion, take from that discussion whatever is convincing and useful to you, and move on to the next rehearsal or the next piece prepared enter the dialog again as a musician, not as debater or censor, and learn to take some joy in the unpredictability and human unevenness of our performances which — while we (both performers and audiences) sometimes will have some off-nights, even some really badly off-nights — is the substance that makes our best pieces, our best performances, most lively and compelling. Complaining about a bad review is rarely a good public strategy for a performer and never a good private strategy.
1 year ago | |
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