Below is a Soundcloud embed of the studio recording of “For Milton,” a duo for flute and piano performed by John McMurtery and Ashlee Mack. It will appear on a CD included in a special double issue of Perspectives of New Music/Open Space, dedicated to Milton Babbitt.
PS You may have noticed that at the bottom of the page, there is a link to my Soundcloud page and a Dropbox link to share your own audio files. Please feel free to listen and to share your sounds.
In other publication news, my review article, “Arnold Whittall and the Perils of Transcontinental Serialism,” is in the current issue of Intégral, a music theory journal published by the Eastman School of Music.
Read chapters 2-3 in R. Murray Schafer’s Tuning of the World
1) A sound walk is not dissimilar from a regular walk, but the participant(s) is more mindful of the sounds around them. For Tuesday, take a couple of short sound walks, taking note of the sounds you hear around you, paying attention to distance, direction, loudness, variety, etc. Be ready to report on what you heard in detail (it’s advisable to jot down some notes afterward).
2) We all create soundscapes all the time. A soundscape is different from a soundwalk in that, rather than walking through an environment and observing the sounds that are made, we are creating a sonic ambience to our taste. Try a soundscape at home. It could be while you are doing a mundane task, such as cooking or cleaning, or during some other activity (reading, eating, etc.). What sounds do you insert into your environment. Why do you like having them accompany you? Are any of them used to mask other sounds? If so, why? If you could have an environment in which only sounds you “liked” were in operation, what would they be?
3) What’s a spectrograph? What’s noise abatement?
4) What are the principal difference Schafer draws between manmade sounds and sounds from the natural world.
5) What do you think Schafer means when he says that a musician is “an orchestrator of sound?” Notice he doesn’t use the word composer. This has to do with soundscaping and soundwalking.
Maya Beiser, everyone’s favorite ex-Can Banging All Star downtown cellist, was an invited presenter at the March 2011 TED conference. The TED site recently released a high quality video of her lecture recital, and it’s already garnered over 80,000 views!
TED’s slogan: “Ideas worth spreading.” We’re glad that Maya’s getting the chance to spread the word about Steve Reich’s Cello Counterpoint and David Lang’sWorld to Come far and wide!
This week, composer David Smooke (faculty, Peabody Conservatory) will be visiting Westminster Choir College on Thursday to talk about his music. In addition to his work as a composer, Smooke is active as an avant improviser, employing a somewhat unlikely instrument: the toy piano.
Here he is in a video excerpt of a recent trio outing with Bonnie Lander and Erik Spangler at the Highwire Gallery in Philadelphia.
Magnus Lindberg’s important early opus Kraft received its long-belated NY premiere this past week. While the requirements for the piece itself – a large orchestra, massive percussion section, antiphonal spatializing, electronics, amplification, and several soloists – are daunting enough to make the piece a logistically challenging one to present, Lindberg goes still further to personalize its requirements. He stipulates that the percussion section use found materials from a local junkyard in their performance of the work, thereby locating each performance and making it a site-specific entity.
Here’s a video of the NYPO’s percussionists going on a scavenger hunt with Lindberg in preparation for the NY performances of Kraft.
This type of piece personalization makes each orchestra’s rendering of the work a unique experience; but it’s also curtailed the number of organizations who have, to date, presented Kraft.
Kraft, and other pieces with daunting requirements, raise certain aesthetic questions for composers. Is it important for each performance of a new piece to have a sense of personalization? Should composers strive to think big, even if it means that they’ll get less performances as a result? Or is a more portable and utilitarian view preferable?
Of course, one can make strong a case for both options and many variations in between. Lindberg himself has composed works which are far more easily programmed than Kraft!
But the piece does throw down a gauntlet. Composers: are you willing to wait years for performances of your music if that’s what making highly personal work requires? Or do you prefer getting your music out into the world right away and thus favor more practical solutions?
The estimable David Smooke posted a new column over at New Music Box yesterday. He dealt with one of the most imposing challenges facing composers today, especially at the early and middle stages of their careers: being hemmed in by requests for stylistic categorization.
“What does your music sound like?”
It seems like an innocent enough question, and from the questioner’s perspective it may indeed be a simple attempt at conversation or an opening gambit in the larger conversation of locating a composer’s aesthetic. But to the composer on the receiving end of this query, it can be a loaded one. Nobody who writes music likes to be pinned down as sounding like a particular sound byte or in a distinct genre or, heaven forbid, exactly like another composer. To borrow a curious and odious term in common parlance, nobody likes being “pigeonholed.”
When I interviewed John Wolf Brennan some years ago, he said, “Who’d want to be pinned down in a stylistic pigeonhole? Pigeonholes are such dark and claustrophobic places.”
The “ism” craze – postmodernism neoromanticism, totalism, postminimalism, etc. ad nauseum – has made the usefulness of shorthand designations all the more complicated and, often, all the more baffling. I like that some of the post-tonal folk are getting the “postmodern modernist” tag. Doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, does it?
As you can see from the byline above, what I’m about is leveling some of the pigeonholing designations that are rampant in both the music industry and the academy. That’s why you can turn up here one day and the subject will be Elliott Carter, on another it’s just as likely to be David S. Ware or Weezer.
It’s a conscious decision, but it’s also reflective of my own interests. I’m passionate about lots of kinds of music, and am a firm believer that there’s good music to be heard in many different styles. I’m so glad to be creatively active in a time period where there are several thought-provoking writers with similarly catholic tastes discussing music: Alex Ross, Steve Smith, Frank J. Oteri, and the aforementioned Dr. Smooke. They frequently inspire me to continue to expand my ears, refine my viewpoint, and, best of all, they always have great suggestions for the ever-expanding listening lists.
When people ask in turn what my music sounds like, I play them two clips: Jody Redhage singing one of my triadic-inflected songs and then my serial piece for alto flute and piano. Hopefully, this thwarts the overgeneralization issue!
Over at the Composer Forum, there’s been a discussion of the ‘pressures’ placed on composers to ‘toe the line’ stylistically in academia. Along the way, a couple of posters have raised the issue of ‘composing for the academy’ and, even more alarmingly, the idea that a teaching position is an easy career destination for composers. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading the posts, but I think that the aforementioned opinions may be hopelessly chimerical.
As always, my compadre Ken Ueno has a ready retort in the form of a creative work. He sent me a video this AM:
His notion of academic music: music that takes place in the classroom! (great activity, BTW)
Let’s unpack this further. Here are a few composers who currently have academic careers:
Pretty stylistically diverse, huh? Based on the above, it’s hard to assert that one can generalize ‘academic music.’ The lesson I take from this is to compose what you want to compose. Life’s too short for any other, less authentic, approach.
However, in terms of getting teaching work, there are a LOT of other things a composer must be doing in addition to composing persuasively. Publishing in a scholarly area (theory or musicology), conducting or otherwise performing, distributing your music and obtaining performances, winning grants/commissions/competitions, service to the profession and to your local community, belonging to a scholarly organization and attending/presenting at its conferences, developing a network of musicians – peers and mentors – with whom to discuss and develop your career goals, maintaining an excellent job packet, keeping your references in the loop about your activities, and, of course, working to become an outstanding teacher.
Once you get a job, you’ll need to do all of this and still more: committee work, student advisement, applying for promotion and (if your institution has a tenure process) tenure, and attending plenty of meetings, trainings, campus events, student recitals, and concerts. If you’re in my situation, that of a contingent faculty member, you’ll also need to remain on the job market until someone offers you a long term position. All the while, you will need to find time to compose!
I say this not as a complaint – I love having the opportunity to teach at my institution – but as a bit of a reality check about the requirements of the profession. The notion that being an academic is some cushy gig and an easy way out for those who don’t write film music or pop would be laughable – there are often hundreds of applicants for an announced vacancy in theory/composition – if it weren’t so pervasive.
Emerging composers need to be encouraged to find the career path that’s right for them, based on their own particular set of talents and their professional goals. What they don’t need are sugar-coated stories that suggest to them that finding employment as a teacher is a “safety net.” It does them no good and the academic profession no favors.
Particularly in these lean economic times, teaching isn’t a refuge for composers. It is a career and calling to which one should be strongly committed.
Update: Attention job-seekers – David Rakowski’s blog has an article with excellent advice for composers who are seeking an academic position. Thanks Davy!