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
414 Entries
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.
10 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.

_____
* 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!

10 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.
10 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.
10 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.



10 months 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.
10 months 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.
10 months ago | |
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Professor Pythagoras Would Be Jealous

for Alvin Lucier's 81st

for electric guitar and six sine waves




The instruments should be individually amplified, with their own loudspeakers, not mixed electronically. The volume should be modest.

The electric guitar is tuned D - G - c - f - bb - eb', in beatless fourths.

The six sine waves are tuned to the same frequencies as the guitar.

Over the course of 10 minutes the lowest sine wave holds the tone D continuously and the five other tones descend steadily to a beatless unison with the low D.  The initial tuning in fourths and final unison may be sustained for up to one minute each, briefly fading in at the beginning and more slowly fading out at the end.

At the same time, the guitarist plays a steady six-string ascending arpeggio with the right hand while attempting, with the left hand on the tuning gears, to match the tuning of the guitar as closely as possible to the current tuning of the sine waves.


D. J. Wolf
May 2012
11 months ago | |
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I caught the last half or so of the live web broadcast from Paris of the revived Einstein on the Beach.  The theatrical pacing is still unlike anything else, the dancing this evening was especially clear and sharp-edged and the music still carries its particular charge, although now no longer its rough ensemble charm, but thankfully with restored tone colors closer to the original analog electric organs rather than the slick synth sounds that had turned up in revivals during the early CD era.  Everyone who knows Einstein probably has their own vivid recall of first hearing it (and those lucky enough to have seen a production even more so); for me it was an extended broadcast on Carl Stone's KPFK program, in headphones in a big recliner in the family den, and I immediately started saving to buy the box set of LPs.  (That set would later get played in entirety on Hallowe'en in 1981 over the biggest set of amp and speakers found in my Santa Cruz dormitory hall, creating an evening in which chemical enhancements were entirely unnecessary for an elevated sensory experience.)

But enough nostalgia for a moment:  I don't think it's been remarked upon often enough that Einstein (with, a little later, Robert Ashley's opera for television Perfect Lives) represented the most important challenge to opera in terms of its use of labor and means of production.  When Wilson and Glass rented the Met and Glass plopped his amplified keyboard, wind and solo vocal ensemble (with strategic use of violin obbligato and chorus)  into the pit, this constituted a fundamentally different way of filling a large hall for an evening with a complex and compelling mass of sound from business as usual in the opera house, which usually means the production of music via the last mass manual labor practice surviving from the steam age.  Now, to be certain, I find that there is a real and unique value to a good that requires the live participations of several hundred people with highly specialized skills working in close coordination yet able — sometimes spontaneously — to respond to sudden changes (there is no production line on the planet, not for cars, not for cell phones, not for bathing caps, that has the level of sensitivity and flexibility towards impromptu changes that a good opera company has when forced to respond to, for example, an inexplicably absent sword carrier in a crowd scene, a curtain falling when it should be raised or a missed vocal cue by a momentarily distracted soubrette (to be fair, of course, not all opera companies are that reliably good!)) and, more importantly, the sound of a large orchestra with or without unamplified voices in a good hall is a value in itself.  But, it is an honest question, in terms of both economics and aesthetics, to ask if this is a use of labor and resources that can be often afforded for new music for the theatre.  Let's stipulate that the amplified and mixed Einstein ensemble was cost-effective, but let's also be clear about precisely about the ways in which it is effective.  An amplified-and-mixed chamber group does not, and will not, have the same presence in any hall that the big orchestra has, but neither should it try to, as it has qualities of its own.  The strength, in this regard, of Einstein, as far as I'm concerned was that Glass used the ensemble's sound as an acoustic thing in itself, not as an orchestral surrogate, and although much of the music had, at the levels of notes alone, its infamous simplicity, at the real sonic surface there were all sorts of other things going on, in terms of beats and resultant tones and surprising patterns of melodic reinforcements and unexpected spatial resonances, a liveliness and complexity both different to and impossible in the traditional orchestral organization. Moreover, temporal and tonal control was in real time (Glass would nod his head to indicate moves forward from repetitions, and similarly the live sound mix would be adjusted to spontaneous changes in the composite sound.)  Glass's later operatic works use more traditional instrumental resources (pit, big band, man with stick), so there is a lot more remaining to be done in this direction.
11 months ago | |
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After many years, I have learned, when writing for string quartet, that it can be useful to write some music for a violin, another violin, a viola, and also for a cello. It may also be useful if the music for these four instruments can be played at the same time and it's also potentially useful if all four instruments can be played in some proximity to one another. Of course, these are all variables and it's worth bearing in mind that the string quartet we have -- which is not necessarily the string quartet we might dream about -- comes out of a habit, in tonal music, of featuring three-note chords, with at least one of the tones doubled, perhaps at an octave or multiple thereof, and the occasional chord with more or less than three notes, and in general, a spacing among the tones with larger intervals at the bottom and smaller ones at the top; this last feature is reflected in the tuning proportions among the instruments, of 1:2:3:3. For violinists and violas, diatonic tones and their chromatic neighbors share a finger, while cellists can give a finger to each semitone. All string players are trained to play passage work — often the dark matter that fills up most of a piece of music —  based on these assignments of fingers. It may be useful to keep a fiddle around to see how your music fits the hand; it may be more useful to keep a fiddler around to show you.  Finally, there are lots of tricks these instruments can do, alone or together, involving strings, bodies, fingers, bows, mutes, harmonics, and so forth and in all their combinations, but your mileage may vary and, don't forget, the balance among egos in a quartet is a delicate thing and each individual may well require regular stroking, whether through the notes you write her or him, or other, non-musical, forms of affection.  
11 months ago | |
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