Archive for July, 2005

When composers stick to an artistic vision despite outside pressures to conform, we call them uncompromising. In this usage, uncompromising is a term of respect — even if we don’t particularly like what the composer is doing, we admire that level of determination and focus.

There is a tradition of praising Americans for their uncompromising values, a trait that is seen as particularly powerful in this country. Certainly the last presidential election showed that the majority of Americans favor a leader who scorns compromise in favor of a clear-cut vision of right and wrong.

But there is also a strong tradition of compromise in this country. As the late historian Shelby Foote noted, this nation’s government was founded on the principle of compromise, the principle of various parties arguing their points of view and hammering out something that everyone could agree on. The founders of this government, while recognizing the limitations of negotiation, felt it was far preferable to dictatorship.

Many cultures throughout history have placed a high value on compromise. Master Kong noted that when one reflects upon oneself, one realizes the necessity of concern for others. Jesus encouraged his followers to turn the other cheek, and to love their neighbors as they loved themselves. The Buddha taught the concept of Anatman, in which all things are interconnected and interdependent, so that no thing — including ourselves — has a separate existence.

By contrast, cultures that value uncompromising behavior have frequently imposed their wills on others, often engaging in acts of senseless destruction in order to have their way. (Futurist Manifesto: “War, the hygiene of the world.”)

In my world, the uncompromising composer is a Romantic fantasy, and a not particularly attractive one at that.

Why a fantasy? Compromise is a fact of our daily lives — We may not want to breath the polluted air in our urban environments, but we do it anyway, because of the cultural benefits we gain. We may not like the horrendous work conditions that the IMF has fostered throughout the world so that a few corporate executives can feel like kings, but we continue to wear the clothes that are sewn together in distant sweatshops, because we don’t have the wherewithal (practical and ethical) to make our own.

Those two examples may not be relevant to you, but I guarantee there are other compromises you engage in daily without thinking, or you wouldn’t be able to survive.

That’s why the desire to be uncompromising is a fantasy. Why do I find it unattractive? Because I am an adult – only infants refuse to adjust themselves to interests and needs outside of themselves. The universe does not revolve around any one of us – the belief that it should is simply immature.

So here’s to the composers who engage in intelligent negotiation with their cultures, not for personal gain, but for cultural enhancement. There are a lot of problems in the world composers can’t solve. The one skill we spend our lives honing, though, is the ability to convey ideas through sound. It’s a form of communication — not the same as language, but communication nonetheless. We can use that skill, if we choose (and I do), to foster enhanced communication among unlikeminded individuals.

If our goal is to prove our incompatibility with the rest of our species, then compromise is evil.

But I believe it is better to look for common ground, even though the search for common ground can be incredibly difficult. If there is even a slight chance that we can find it, it will be worth the trouble. I don’t see any incompatibility in being honest and forthright about our values while giving a fair hearing to others.

Mind you, I’m not talking about young composers, who often need to go through a period of ignoring the outside world in order to hear their own voices. But once those voices are found, they should be used to speak to others, not to themselves.

I’m also not saying that there is no place for composers who stubbornly stick to their guns, even when their guns are pointed in destructive directions. I think it’s important for our culture to have some impervious people, and I’m perfectly capable of being very stubborn when the time is right. I’m just tired of hearing the term uncompromising tossed around without any regard for its meaning and implications.

So for those of you who insist on being uncompromising composers, best of luck to you. Just do us all one small favor.

Please make sure you know exactly what you are fighting for.

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I promised Everette I would put together a list of my favorite solo works that make substantial use of extended techniques. Going through old recordings and scores, I have discovered that there are too many appropriate ones, so here is a selective list – one for each instrument. Highly subjective, thoroughly unthorough, mostly based on a few years of avid listening, before I got sick of hearing too many pieces that just strung together various effects with all the grace and aesthetic charm of a grocery list. The works below, for the most part, have expressive aims that transcend their materials.

Flute: There’s lots of great stuff for this instrument, but nobody surpasses Robert Dick for imagination and sheer virtuosity in the solo works. Everything he’s done is recommended.
Oboe: Sky: S for J by Joseph Celli. Okay, it’s really an English horn, but we won’t split hairs.
Clarinet: Interpolation by Aurelio de la Vega
Bassoon: I plead bliss.
Saxophone: Opcit by Philippe Hurel – but I’m sure Everette could name some other good ones.
Trumpet: Space is a Diamond by Lucia Dlugoszewski. Everette has already sung its praises.
Horn: Hornpipe by Gordon Mumma
Trombone: Sequenza V by Luciano Berio
Tuba: Five Studies for Tuba Alone by David Reck
Violin: Capriccio by Krzysztof Penderecki
Viola: Viola Sonata by Gyorgi Ligeti
Cello: Sonata für Cello Solo by Bernd Alois Zimmermann
Double bass: Check out Robert Black’s disk “State of the Bass.” He’s one of my favorite musicians. In fact, my dream is to write a flute and bass duo for him to play with Robert Dick – with their names, I know exactly what I’d call the piece.
Voice: Sequenza III by Luciano Berio
Guitar: Star Spangled Banner of Jimi Hendrix.
Piano: The great granddaddy of them all, and still one of my favorite pieces to perform is Henry Cowell’s The Banshee. But a sleeper hit is Rhapsodies by Curtis Curtis-Smith.
Harp: I have been consistently under-impressed by extended techniques on the harp. Maybe traditional harp playing sounds too good to me. Better ask someone else who can be a bit more enthusiastic.
Percussion: There are too many to name, although there was a time when I couldn’t get enough of Stockhausen’s Mikrophonie I.

Obviously, I’ve tremendously restricted matters by listing only solo works. There are tons of great pieces for small ensemble, or solo and electronics, that combine extended techniques very effectively, which is what tends to interest me more than one cool sound at a time. I prefer a piece that integrates its sound world into a larger concept. To me, music that is all extended techniques runs the danger of accomplishing the same thing as a movie that is all special effects – which is not much.

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From time to time, composers are called upon to pick up a baton, get in front of an ensemble and lead a performance. Some put a great deal of time and study into becoming effective conductors, others just wing it. I fall somewhere in between.

One of the most important moments in conducting a performance is how you start the ensemble. A ragged beginning, or the slightest uncertainty, can poison an entire performance. As a student, I was given all of the usual tips about how to start an ensemble effectively – checking around to make sure everyone is ready, imagining how you want the music to begin, keeping your eyes out of the score, etc.

But there’s one trick I wasn’t taught, a trick I stumbled upon accidentally, a trick that my last post about MIDI reminded me of. Here it is: instead of just imagining how you want the music to sound, try imagining yourself singing that first sound. As you raise the baton for the pickup, inhale as though you were going to sing the first note – a deep breath for a powerful attack, a delicate breath for delicate music. With the first beat, exhale, and the sound you imagined will be ringing in your ears – the musicians will breath with you, grasp exactly what you are looking for and give it to you with a single voice. I don’t know why it always happens that way, but it does.

Breathe with the music — works like a charm.

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Surely the most significant development in the compositional process over the last two decades is the arrival of synthesized playback technology in the home. Composers now take for granted the ability to sit at their desks and create vast sound worlds with a speed and accuracy that couldn’t have been imagined a generation ago.

All of us who use this technology are grateful for the advantages it brings, while mindful of its shortcomings. Chief among the problems we encounter are those that occur when we use the technology to tell us how our acoustic music is going to sound.

Stravinsky called the organ “the monster that never breathes,” a joke that is doubly important to bear in mind when using MIDI playback for acoustic music. Live musicians breathe. Seems too obvious to say, but the human breath – regular, yet not metronomic — has been an integral element of music making from the beginning of time.

How does MIDI’s lack of lungpower affect us compositionally? There are two ways, one practical and one philosophical.

First, the practical. Professional wind players have developed extraordinary control over their breathing, the ability to sustain phrases to impressive lengths. But they still have to inhale eventually. If you are writing for wind instruments, be sure to sing the line out loud. Don’t worry about how unattractive your voice is – the pitch may not be as accurate as MIDI pitch, but it will still be more lifelike than MIDI can ever hope for. Can you find a place to breath without interrupting the flow? If not, try breathing at different points in the line to see if it matters to you where the line gets broken. If you honestly hear no difference in the various versions, then you are all set. If you like some versions better than others, though, think about how to notate the line so your wind player can shape it properly. You may decide to insert tiny rests, or show the shapes you prefer with phrase marks. As long as you are not relying on the MIDI playback to tell you where the line wants to breath, but relying on your own voice, you will be okay. Just bear in mind that the breath can give features to an otherwise featureless line, so make sure you are not putting the nose where the chin should be.

Another practical issue is the fact that computers don’t know much about instrumental limitations. According to your software, middle C on the oboe is just like any other note on the instrument – never mind how difficult that note is to tune, articulate and balance within an ensemble for a real oboist.

Now the philosophical issue. With computers, there is no such thing as a complicated rhythm. 30:29:28 is as easy as 2:1. Human beings can perform those very complicated rhythms, and the results can be wonderful, but they don’t have anywhere near the ease of machines. If you are going to write these kinds of rhythms for human beings, you need to think about the philosophical ramifications of having people struggle to do what machines do easily. Also, it is important to pay attention to the difference between the way MIDI plays simple rhythms, like 2:1, and the way those same rhythms are played by people.

This is not a black-and-white issue for me – there are times I wish people could be more like machines. Usually, though, I like to find the things in people that can’t be found elsewhere in the natural or artificial world, and emphasize those strengths in my art. 2:1 played by live musicians can be a very complex pattern. But that’s just me – you may feel differently. My point is simply that you need to come to terms with the meaning of your actions, whatever they may be. Art and life are thoroughly intertwined. Would you prefer your co-workers, your family members, to be more machine-like? Do you wish you were more machine-like? Like it or not, your art says a lot about who you are, so we all have to answer those questions for ourselves.

Again, there is no reason not to get the most out of this wonderful technology. If you are using technology to create new sounds or rhythms, then you’ve got a great tool. My only concern is with the use of MIDI in the compositional process when creating acoustic music. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen composers who never learned to walk because they were handed crutches at an early age.

So think about the way you use your tools – don’t just let them use you.

What composers sometimes forget, unfortunately, is that we all have within ourselves completely portable sound processors – our imaginations. With a little training and practice, a composer can easily auralize the most complex combinations of sound and, without so much as a mouse-click, alter those sounds suddenly, gradually, dramatically, minutely. These adjustments can be made anytime, anywhere: out for a stroll, in the shower, while falling asleep. The playback can be sped up, slowed down, amplified or moved around in space without our even having to open our eyes.

And the upgrades are amazingly affordable.

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When the roots of minimalism are discussed, LaMonte Young and Terry Riley are often (correctly) among those given the credit for setting in motion three of its enduring principles: stasis, tonal stability and repetition.

It’s just as well that nobody ever points to Elliott Carter as a seminal figure – he’d probably have a cow.

But Riley and Young were certainly familiar with Carter’s work from 1950, the Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for Woodwind Quartet. Etude No. 7 is a drone on G – nothing more, nothing less. In Etude No. 3, the four instruments just play the three notes of a soft D-Major chord.

At the time, Carter was beginning to experiment with a new approach to musical time. He was thinking outside the traditional grid of rhythm and meter, trying to get to the root of the ways in which we perceive the passage of time.

Of course, the direction Carter went would never be confused with minimalism, but one can easily imagine those radical wind etudes hovering in the subconscious of a couple of young, disenchanted composers looking for new ideas.

Elliott Carter the illegitimate father of minimalism? Just please don’t tell him I said so.

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The discussions about music theory on the Forum page sent me back to the first paragraph of Vincent Persichetti’s book on Twentieth-Century Harmony:

Any tone can succeed any other tone, any tone can sound simultaneously with any other tone or tones, and any group of tones can be followed by any other group of tones, just as any degree of tension or nuance can occur in any medium under any kind of stress or duration. Successful projection will depend upon the contextual and formal conditions that prevail, and upon the skill and the soul of the composer.

This lovely paragraph immediately establishes the approach used throughout the book. Instead of dictating unsupported rules as though they were chiseled on Sinai, the book catalogues a range of possibilities, weighing each technique’s merits and potentials as a creative resource.

If we extend this approach to all music theory, we end up with a model for practical application. To give an example: the bad way to discuss parallel fifths is to simply say that they are against the rules and leave it at that. The good way is to demonstrate, through musical examples and acoustical principles, how parallel fifths can enrich sonority, but with a cost to textural balance (ie, equality among voices). So, if a student is looking to create a balanced, interweaving texture, s/he should avoid parallel fifths. If, on the other hand, s/he wants thick, sonorous lines, s/he is encouraged to pile on the P5s.

Once you have established that principle, turn to 16th-century counterpoint or 18th-century harmony, explain that we are using those styles to practice creating clean, balanced textures of interweaving parts — then ask whether we should use parallel fifths or avoid them.

Not only will the students get the right answer every time, they will know why it is the right answer — and they will have a reason to care about the distinction.

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I would have thought it was a joke, until I heard this. The guy’s pretty amazing. Not just flashy, but remarkably clean.

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When I entered grad school, I was asked to choose who I wanted to have for a composition teacher. My options were Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, David Diamond, Vincent Persichetti and Roger Sessions. I opted not to choose, figuring that I wasn’t worth much if I couldn’t learn something from any one of those guys.

As it worked out, I was able to learn quite a bit from each of them, just by paying close attention to every encounter, every opportunity for dialogue. Thanks to them, I finished my degree with several lifetimes worth of awareness and experience, some of which has taken me years, and even decades, to sort through.

But none of that makes me a good composer.

Good composers learn from good teachers, they learn from bad teachers, and they learn from no teachers at all. Don’t ever let anyone imply that s/he’s a better composer than someone else because of who hisorher teacher was. The important thing is how good a learner the student was, and continues to be.

The best situation is to have good teachers who help you find your own way. One of the challenges I have in my teaching is knowing when to tell a student that something won’t work, and when to let the lesson teach itself. There’s always the temptation to want to save a young composer the time and trouble of barreling down a dead end, but that’s not always the best approach. Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a student of composition have come from not being afraid to make brutal mistakes.

At times like those, it’s great to have a sensitive teacher who can help you focus on what you have gained through experience, someone who can reflect on where you’ve been and where you are going, someone who knows that mistakes are a beginning and not an end, and someone who will take sincere joy in celebrating each step in your growth as an artist.

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In the 1973 film Wicker Man, a British policeman meddles in a culture he doesn’t understand with drastic results.

Last week I expressed my puzzlement at the way the S21 Wiki was taking shape, and I’m happy to report that I haven’t been burned alive. But I’ve certainly learned where the flames are.

Here’s what happened – almost a month ago, Jerry Bowles got the beautiful idea of creating a musical version of Wikipedia. We were all encouraged to put our bios on the S21 Wiki. A few intrepid souls went further, putting tremendous amounts of time and effort into making the wiki look good, be consistent and reflect well on everyone involved.

I thought it was wonderful, and figured I would put up a page for myself once I returned from my work at the illuminations festival. Much to my pleasant surprise, the wikimeisters went ahead and put up a page for me, with an outline of my background and work. I figured, what the hell, I’ll just copy the bio from my website onto this nice page they’ve made and head out to my festival, with the expectation that I would refine the page further when I returned.

Once out on the coast, I had a moment to check into the wiki and see how my page turned out. To my surprise, I found that a few things were missing. I couldn’t remember what exactly was missing, but there were a few dangling sentence fragments I knew weren’t there when I left. Unfortunately, my internet service and laptop weren’t allowing me to do any wiki work, so I posted a comment about my befuddlement on my blog, the only place I had available to register my concern.

And, as I said, I learned where the flames are.

Turns out the wikimeisters decided that there shouldn’t be any press quotes in the wiki, which is a perfectly sensible decision, since most press quotes are garbage. Presto – my quotes were eliminated, and I was left puzzling over the ways of the world.

For personal reasons, I have had to return home from the Outer Banks early, so there will be no more illuminations reports. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I now have my usually reliable internet service and can behave like a gentleman at all times.

So here’s a wiki question for the meisters. Are all quotes necessarily bad?

Music is an art form, which makes it a subjective experience. Unlike an encyclopedia article on, say, the vibrational modes of isotopes, an article on music is missing essential information if it sticks religiously to the facts. In a sense, the subjective experience of how the music feels to the listener is the whole point.

Is the composer the best person to say how his or her music feels to the listener? I am very fortunate that Kyle Gann wrote the wiki article under my name – he brings enormous experience and skill to the task of describing music. But other composers may not be so fortunate. Should those composers attempt to describe how their music sounds to the listener? If they don’t, they are leaving out essential information about the music. But if they do, they are bringing in a subjective point of view without the benefit of quotes to indicate that subjectivity.

So, again, are all quotes necessarily bad? Can’t we imagine a quote that would illuminate the experience of hearing the music, while making it clear that the experience being described is that of one listener?

Mind you, I’m not lobbying for the restoration of quotes in my article – I’m perfectly happy with it as it stands. I’m not even advocating a change in wiki policy. I know, for one thing, that evaluating each quotation individually would take a ridiculous amount of time. And, as I said above, most press quotes aren’t worth much.

I’m just reacting the way I always react when someone tells me that x is bad. I want to discuss the issue further, because for me, badness is never a simple thing.

But maybe it is my fate to be burned for that belief.

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I’m enjoying all the fantasy July 4th programs on the Forum page, and I would certainly love to listen to any one of them.

I’ve been involved in programming a number of Independence Day concerts over the last few years – here’s a slice of my experience with realpolitik: our concert last night.

  • We performed in an outdoor pavilion for just over 4000 people, half of whom couldn’t see the stage.
  • We had 8 strings, 6 woodwinds, 12 brass, 1 percussionist, 1 electric keyboard and four singers.
  • The amount we paid the performers was dwarfed by the cost of the sound system.
  • Two of our $30,000 speakers were shot by a rainstorm a few nights before.
  • We had two days to rehearse, but in those two days we were also preparing four other programs. (We’re doing 66 programs in 6 weeks, and most of them are one-shot deals).
  • The sound crew never was able to get the amplification to work in rehearsal, so we went into the performance without having experienced the sound we would be producing.
  • The onstage monitors never worked, so the musicians couldn’t hear each other in performance (little-discussed musician’s nightmare – having to play along with people you can’t hear).
  • A certain state senator, who has cut our funding in the past when his constituents complained about the fact that we didn’t continue playing through the (deafening) fireworks, has recently threatened us with further cuts.

S21′s contributors may be tired of Copland and Ives, but last night I was glad we had chosen Gershwin and Sousa to represent America. I’ll program the other guys and gals 364 other days of the year, but not in these circumstances. Nobody would benefit, certainly not the composers themselves.

Fortunately everything went fine, and now we are back to the world we live for. Today we had a lovely program of Renaissance lute and theorbo songs that had a distinctly postclassic sound – in particular, Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger’s Toccata arpeggiata, in which the theorbo player is asked to freely improvise on some outlandish arpeggios, staying between ppp and pp throughout, had a Feldmanesque ring to it – and we were frozen in St. Augustine’s eternal present.

Tonight we have a program of brass and percussion with some nice twists. This morning we began rehearsing our chamber music concerts, which will cover a wide range of styles and periods starting next week.

There may be a universe where I could program what I want to hear on the Fourth of July, but playing the tried and true helps me program the other stuff where it will succeed.

There is a time and a place for all music. Last night, Gershwin and Sousa did what they do best – what they were pretty damn good at — and it was just right.

But keep making other suggestions – who knows, maybe their time will come. You’ve given me some ideas for future projects.

Even Augustine was never sure he had the future figured out.

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