Archive for September, 2011

It used to be argued that listening to Classical music made you a better person.

After World War II, Americans were full of confidence about their ability to improve themselves, and immersion in the arts and literature was touted for its elevating effects.

Over the latter decades of the 20th century, that assertion was no longer an accepted fact – more and more it became ridiculed as propaganda.

Ultimately, the idea that listening to Classical music made you better was unprovable, and it was easy to point out counterexamples.  After all, Hitler listened to Classical music.  Clearly, becoming a better person, whatever that may mean on an individual basis, involved something other than listening to the “right” music.

At some point, though, we have to ask where the burden of proof lies.  Is it provable, for example, that listening to Classical music doesn’t make a particular individual “better”?  Of course not, because a] we can’t agree on what “better” should mean, b] we can’t measure music’s effects on every single person, and c] we can’t compare the way an individual is with how that individual might have been under different circumstances.  Who knows, maybe Hitler would have been an even worse person if it hadn’t been for his musical interests.  Yet another unprovable and — at least in my case — unimaginable idea.

But are ideas useless if they cannot be proven?

What if there are people on this planet who are convinced that the kind of music they listen to makes them better than they would be otherwise?  We can’t prove them right or wrong, but maybe the assertion, the belief itself, has value.  Regardless of what music they are using to “improve” themselves, the effort involved could be having positive results.

Just so nobody gets the wrong idea, let me spell out that I’m not trying to proselytize for Classical music – I’ve seen too many things to go down that road.

So here is my point: there is a significant leap from saying that a particular kind of music doesn’t make everyone better to saying that there is no music that makes anyone better.  The gap between those two statements has been largely ignored over the last few decades.  As a result, people are more frequently seeking out music that gives them a quick fix of pleasure, because they are assuming that a quick fix of pleasure is the only thing music can give.

And maybe that is all music is good for.

But can you prove it?

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Dan Visconti, whose newmusicbox posts are often interesting, wrote yesterday about the possibility of composing compositions that operate as television series do: several independent “episodes” within a larger narrative structure that might take hours to experience and years, even decades, to compose.

Without addressing how new this idea is (some interesting ideas are new, others are not, doesn’t much matter to me one way or the other as long as they are interesting), infinite curves readers know I’ve been working on a project that overlaps with this concept for the last thirteen years – a set of string quartets that can be heard as individual entities or as a continuous journey.  I’ve completed five so far, totaling a little over 2 hours of music.  I’m not overly concerned with the logistical questions of how this music might be experienced in its entirety, because, as is frequently pointed out, new means of experiencing art are developed on a pretty regular basis.

From a practical perspective, the first three quartets were composed “on spec” — though thankfully each was premiered shortly after being completed – and the last two were composed on commission, which demonstrates the principle “if you build it, they will come.”  Not a foolproof principle in any sense, but it worked in this case.

From an artistic perspective, the possibilities are mind-bending in the best possible ways.  Unlike television episodes, musical compositions aren’t constrained to overly specific durations: these quartets range from ten to thirty-three minutes, each covering its subject in an appropriate amount of time.  Additionally, the flexibility afforded by breaking each piece into movements gives the overall pacing an attractive diversity: the second quartet is in six movements; the third quartet is in one.

Since all of these pieces are for a single instrumentation, the logistical issues of getting them performed as a single entity are greatly reduced, compared to what Dan envisioned.  Even so, the challenges may prove to be insurmountable.   Nonetheless, the possibility for long-term development is intriguing enough to make the compositional effort worthwhile — and meanwhile, I’ve had a bunch of fine performances for each quartet.

Here is some of the fourth quartet on youtube:

String Quartet No. 4 “The Infinite Sphere” I

String Quartet No. 4 “The Infinite Sphere” II

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When I was a young man, Trivial Pursuit was the New Hot Thing everyone was doing.  I played a few times, and enjoyed myself in the somewhat limited way I have of enjoying games.  Mostly, though, I felt depressed by the idea that a generation of brain cells was clustering, like mindless moths, around such a dim bulb.  Worst of all was the name – trivial pursuit, for god’s sake – which proudly trumpeted its worthlessness.

The world has changed drastically since then, and yet I find myself having the same reaction these days to Twitter: like we are all devoting far too much time to a medium that mocks our deepest aspirations, both through the way it functions and – for god’s sake again – its name.

Please understand, this is not a rant against technology, or new things, or anything like that. This is a rant against the things that are always with us, the things that one generation invents and the next generation mocks, the sirens that eat away at our attention, the mental junk food we can’t put down though we know we are just getting fatter and lazier.

I know, I know, it’s a waste of energy to fight it, and I’m not cut out to be a fighter anyway.

I just like to remind myself to enjoy what’s at hand in moderation — and then put the damn things down.

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The Scottish composer James Dillon is getting a major shindig at Columbia’s Miller Theater next week; the American composer Lawrence Dillon is not in line for that kind of honor.  I can think of a number of reasons why this should be so, and many of them are good reasons.  Bottom line: I’m happy to cheer whenever any living composer gets this kind of attention, and how much sweeter is it when any composer named Dillon gets hoisted on such muscular institutional shoulders?

Meanwhile, the remarkable violinist/composer Piotr Szewczyk will be performing my Mister Blister tonight on his Violin Futura program at Stetson University.  A diverse range of composers are grateful for Piotr’s outstanding efforts on our behalves.  To be precise, he’ll also be playing works by Lisa Coons, Jianjun He, Carson Cooman, Hiro Morozumi, Mason Bates, Sydney Hodkinson, Lan-chee Lam, Kari Juusela, Tyler Capp, Carl Schimmel and Moritz Eggert.  Oh, and Piotr will be playing a couple of his own pieces as well.

A week from tonight, the Daedalus String Quartet will bring my Infinite Sphere to Russian River Chamber Music in California wine country.  So here’s raising a glass to living composers named Dillon and the wonderful ears that pay them heed, from sea to shining sea.

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There’s a new band in town.

Cellist Brooks Whitehouse and bassist Paul Sharpe have teamed up to form Low and Lower, a duo they call

  • More fun than just classical
  • More serious than just comedy
  • More virtuosic than the instrumentation suggests
  • More hip than their training prepared them to be

They are sponsoring a competition for our students, challenging them to write pieces that incorporate extended techniques, vocal sounds, speech, etc.  Deadline Sept. 29, concert Oct. 29.  Sharpe visited our Composition Seminar to show off all the bass could do, and now a bunch of fun, crazy compositions have been launched.  We’ll see, at the end of the month, how they turn out.

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