Archive for December, 2006

We’re headed over the river and through the woods to a cabin in the Shenandoah valley, visits with some two dozen relatives of all shapes and sizes, great food and conversation, and maybe even some music-making.

But definitely no internet, so I’ll look forward to connecting up with all of you next year.

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A and B meet, fall in love, splice bank accounts and live happily ever after.

Shortly into the happily ever after, A notices subtle shifts in the relationship. B begins to gently criticize her clothing, the way she walks, the books she reads. As time goes on, B becomes more outspoken: why does she click her teeth like that? Why does she talk so loudly? Why doesn’t she get rid of her foolish friends?

And then one day it dawns on her: B never loved her.

B just fell in love with the way love made him feel.

That’s the image I have when I hear composers say they want to change the definition of music, to create a completely original kind of music. Seems to me they have fallen in love with what they believe is their power over the art form, rather than the art form itself.

I’d rather invest in the relationship, grow with it over time, and watch it grow with me.

A little bickering here and there is fine, but there is something to be said for high fidelity.

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Violinist/composer Piotr Szewczyk has an interesting project in the works. He’s commissioned a dozen or so composers to each write a one-minute piece for solo violin; he will premiere all of them as a set in the spring of 2007 at a New World Symphony Xchange concert, with a followup performance at the Spoleto Festival USA contemporary music festival.
Piotr’s project is called ViolinFutura, and yes, he has a website for it.

When Piotr asked me to take part in this project last summer, I agreed without giving it much thought. I figured a one-minute piece for solo violin would be an afternoon’s worth of work in between more substantial compositions.

The afternoon’s work, though, dragged on through weeks and months, as I came up with and discarded one idea after another — each one was either too dense to be contained in the tight limitations (one minute, one instrument) or too superficial to bother working on at all.

Then, about a month ago, I hit on a solution: rather than trying to choose just the right idea for the piece, I would use all of my ideas – and I quickly wrote sixteen one-minute pieces. I’ll be sending them off to Piotr presently, and it will be up to him to make the choice I was unable to make: picking one out of the sixteen pieces for his performance. I’ve called the set Fifteen Minutes, but my private title for it is Now It’s Your Problem.

The set of pieces is loosely centered around the theme of celebrity – thus the title, from Warhol’s statement, “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” I’ve written an extra minute’s worth, with my sixteen pieces, but the last piece is more of a decomposition than a composition: annoyed that Chopin’s Minute Waltz takes a minute and a half to play, I took one beat out of each measure and turned it into a Minute March. The result is immediately recognizable, flashy, pathetic, and comically obnoxious – in fact, very much like any number of celebrities grabbing their bloated fifteen minutes worth today.

Now I’m faced with a familiar dilemma: this whole celebrity theme is real, and it makes good promotional copy, but should I really present that background information with the piece? I always have to weigh that decision on a case-by-case basis. It can be nice to clue the listener into artistic context, but the music is ultimately just music, so I have to decide if I’m just loading on more baggage than the notes should have to carry. In other words, if listeners come expecting some profound revelation about fame, it’s likely they will end up being disappointed. Instead of simply enjoying or disliking the music for its own charms, they may judge it solely on how well it illustrates a point, which is not my intention at all.

So I’ll be contemplating this problem for the next few weeks, and hopefully coming to a solution I can stand by. The music has to get to Piotr by the new year.

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Of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable.

- Samuel Johnson

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A question on the Composers Forum has put me onto the topic of musical time.

In the mid-20th century, a trend arose in which composers began notating the passage of musical time in seconds. Typically, the score was a grid in which musical events were arranged spatially against an axis showing the passage of clock time. In this way, composers were able to liberate musical events from the tyranny of the bar line, meter, and rhythm.

The result was often music that was disorienting, as listeners had little or no physical connection to the passage of time within the piece. This sense of disorientation could be pleasant or unpleasant, depending on the listener, the piece, and the performance. In the best circumstances, listeners were swept away by the gestures themselves, without regard to how they relate to an articulated grid.

Before the mid-20th century, musical time had almost always been tied to a pulse – a more-or-less regular succession of beats that were directly and audibly connected to the shapes and pacing of each musical event. And, indeed, most music since has still used some form of pulse.

Don’t let anyone tell you that because one way is old and the other way is new, or one way is common and the other is unusual, either one is inherently superior to the other. They are both valid techniques, or at least they are as valid as the skills of the composer can make them.

Having said that, I have to admit I am not a fan of measuring musical time with minutes and seconds. Sixty seconds to a minute, sixty minutes to an hour – these are arbitrary, if convenient, ways to incrementalize the passage of time. They don’t have a concrete relationship to real time, or even perceived time — and perceived time is one of the special aptitudes of music. When music passes in audible pulses, we inevitably compare it with our own bodily pulses – the standard through which we measure time, consciously or unconsciously. A musical pulse that outstrips our heart rates feels fast; if the musical pulse is slower than our heart rates, we perceive it as slow. Acceleration in music mimics the presence of adrenaline; deceleration resonates with relaxation and meditation.

And, of course, musical pulse doesn’t just imitate our physical states, it can influence us very powerfully on a visceral level.

Clock time, on the other hand, is a cerebral construct – its use in music can tend to emphasize the cerebral end of musical comprehension. The results often foster an out-of-body listening experience – an experience that many composers (occasionally including me) strive for.

More often I like my music to hit me in all of my most sensitive spots: viscerally, temporally, intellectually, experientially, aesthetically, emotionally. The audible organization of rhythms into beats, beats into meters, meters into phrases and phrases into forms creates a layered artistic experience that carves me up and sews me back together like nothing else I know.

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