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On 7 November 2008, Kyle Gann posted a provocative article on his blog condensing and expanding upon remarks he made at a new music festival at Sacramento State University. In the piece, Gann calls for more respect to be accorded to an aesthetic he (with some reluctance) calls “music of the Absolute Present.” The Pantheon of Absolute Presentist composers is defined by a “maverick” bunch who had to fight against the musical establishment for any ounce of respect. Among these composers are Erik Satie, John Cage, Morton Feldman, and the early minimalists. Absolute Presentism takes its aesthetic bearings from Zen Buddhism and strives to make music free from memories of the past and premonitions of the future so that the “absolute present” can be accessed unmediated. Absolute Presentist composers like Gann write music “in measure 185 [that] doesn’t commit [them] to writing anything particular in measure 202″; they “avoid musical karma” and are inclined to “move from one thing to the next without any causality.”

Gann opposes Absolute Presentism with nineteenth-century Romanticism, an aesthetic which hogs the respect of the musical community. Romanticist composers “aim in their music for a kind of organic emotional curve whereby the music spends most of its time crescendoing or decrescendoing in intensity, with some sense of climax and often resolution, often symbolized by increasing dissonance or complexity.” Interpreting the term broadly, Gann labels composers like Brahms, Bartók, and Corigliano “Romanticists,” even though their affinities with historical Romanticism are not easy to pin down. Basically, by “Romanticism” Gann means “organicism,” and such an organicist orientation describes much of what we know as the standard classical repertoire. While I will continue to use the term in Gann’s sense, I would like to register one objection up front: the standard classical repertoire is neither musically nor aesthetically monolithic; neither Satie’s music nor Cage’s is a virgin birth, however much devotees of these mavericks might like to think so.

Gann probably feels about Romanticism how I feel about Absolute Presentism. I would never quarantine all Absolute Presentists south of Fourteenth Street; nor would Gann banish Romanticism from the universe. I like In C, and I’ll bet he likes Beethoven; certainly both Terry Riley and Beethoven count as “mavericks.” I consider myself as open-minded as the next guy, and I have no reason to believe Gann is any different.

Nonetheless, I find Gann’s remarks highly unsatisfactory. His take on the aesthetic politics of music is skewed and hagiographic, and his Absolute Presentism is undernourishing as an aesthetic. Viewed through any sensible frame of reference, Gann’s Absolute Presentists are not as marginalized as his post suggests, and there is nothing in Absolute Presentism which obliges anyone in a position of power to concede its equivalence with Romanticism and set an “equal time” agenda accordingly. In the end, Gann’s post is just the sort of exercise in arbitrariness he suggests is behind Romanticism’s privileged status. Read the rest of this entry »

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I only started to use notation software about seven years ago. Since then, I usually compose out the piece by hand, copy it into the computer, and do edits directly onto the computer score. My last three pieces, all fast and with a lot of notes, have witnessed me reducing the amount I write out by hand and going straight to the computer with material. That said, well over half of my current project has been written out by hand, and the sketching process was all done by hand.

A friend of mine recently expressed surprise learning I still composed by hand. He said he didn’t, and that composing on the computer has influenced his work. Electronic music software aside, I’m not sure how a notation program actually can influence the musical content of a composition. Sure notation software makes certain things easier. But how exactly does using a computer change one’s musical style?

And, please: I hope answers don’t consist in “cutting and pasting” and “mass mover tool.” Surely the urge to repeat chunks of music is not encouraged by computer short cuts. Furthermore, many complex rhythms are easier to write out by hand; does notation software discourage rhythmic complexity?

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A few months ago, I was having lunch with a composer-friend of mine who has a nice teaching job. He was explaining to me how, when he was in grad school (he’s in his fifties now), he and his colleagues, while not indifferent to their job prospects, were nowhere nearly as preoccupied with them as students today. His explanation-which I found incomplete at best-was the greater amount of debt students today take on. Debt’s an issue: but do scholarship students not worry equally as much about their job prospects?

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You know, one of the perennial complaints about the Internet is how any old idiot can post any old idiocy and people might think it’s credible: goofy Wikipedia entries, rumors on blogs, and so forth.

I’m wondering if similar credibility issues apply somehow to music and the Internet as well.

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Hey Folks,

You’ve read books and seen plays starring detectives, politicians, professors, journalists, and bankers.  But, goodness, where are the composers?  Being a composer is frought with conflict and rife with drama.  Yet fictional composers are rare beasts–far rarer than real ones it seems.

Let’s make a list of fictional composers.  I’ll start with the only two I know:

Edward Bast: J.R., William Gaddis
Richard Halley: Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

Attacca!

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I’m beginning the process of looking for college work, and something strikes me as odd:  the most important classes in music departments are not taught by the most valued or experienced faculty members.

Any music department will have theory and ear training courses required of all majors.  Since these courses are required, departments surely consider them more important than those courses that are not required.

But the ear training and lower-level theory classes are most often farmed out to grad students, adjuncts, or very junior faculty members.  The tenured folks teach optional seminars related to their area of expertise.

I suppose this irony extends across the entire American education system: elementary school teachers are “more important” than college professors–since everyone by law must attend elementary school but not college.  And yet the prestige is in teaching college–not kindergarten.

But, returning to academia, are ear training and basic theory considered so boring by tenured faculty that teaching them strikes these faculty as odious?  I know I’m young and naive; but teaching these “grunt” courses the past three years has been a total thrill for me.  Doing it for the rest of my life would be a pleasure.   I would assume that others interested in music as I am would feel the same way.

But they don’t. 

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You know, he’s not my favoritest composer or anything, and, yeah, everyone should get more performances.  But I have this slight–but nagging–bafflement as to why Jacob Druckman’s music doesn’t get more performances.  My puzzlement was provoked just the other day as Brangle 3 shuffled onto my iPod.  What a smashing piece!  And same with Counterpoise.  These are big, rock’em sock’em orchestra pieces that, though aggressive, stand a chance with the sort of audiences who are game for the Rite or some Berg.  Maybe Druckman’s getting some play elsewhere and my head is just in the sand.  But how about some good ole’ fashioned drum beating for those whose music’s not getting due play.  Huh?

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“During the process leading to political independence for Finland in 1917, culture and the arts were regarded as basic prerequisites for an autonomous nation.”

 – Finnish Music Quarterly. 3 (2006), p. 6

Well?

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Recently I had one of those experiences that have become cliche for the contemporary composer. I wrote a piece that was really, really hard; there wasn’t enough rehearsal time; and the performance (despite heroic efforts) was pretty rough.

I’m still stubbornly proud of my work. But, sometime during the whole process, it dawned on me: whereas some of the difficult music I’ve composed I honestly do wish had been easier, I have never wished any of the easy pieces I’ve written had been harder.

Have you?

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While I’m sure I’ve had similar experiences dozens of times before, I’ve been reflecting lately on certain related aspects of my work on two recent pieces: a large-ensemble piece and a small piano lullaby written for someone I know.

Early in the conception of the large-ensemble piece, I sketched down some ideas for dynamics in different sections. Subsequent to this, I drew up a plan regarding instrumentation: the music would disintegrate into smaller and smaller subgroups of the large ensemble over the course of the entire piece.

As I put the piece into Sibelius, I came not to yearn for the dynamics I was going to input later. The timbral contrast was adequate to sustain interest. So I decided to leave the dynamic at a steady forte throughout the piece.

But then something else worried me.

The instrumentation became too thin, too quickly. The piece was in danger of sounding small, in spite of the loud dynamic. I rethought the instrumentation and created larger subgroups of the ensemble. In order to do this, of course, different subgroups had to have more instruments in common. As a result, the timbral contrast decreased.

Playing the score over again, I began to need dynamics again. So in went the dynamics – more or less along the lines I had conceived months earlier. The lost contrast needed compensating for, and the music improved.

I had a similar experience in the lullaby – even though this was a casual piece I wrote in only an hour and a half.

As I looked over the work, a small crescendo I had written seemed oddly lifeless, despite the music’s ascending contour. The crescendo needed a push, some gentle impetus to announce “something different” was about to happen.

Comparing the crescendo’s initiating harmony with the two preceding it, I noticed the harmony beginning the crescendo was more consonant than the previous two. With a little futzing around, I came up with a more dissonant sonority that fit into the texture and disrupted the surface of the music to the right amount.  Playing the piece over again, I found the crescendo now made much more sense:  it was an unfolding of the tension created by the new harmony.

The ability to balance sensitively different parameters of composition – like instrumentation, dynamics, and harmony – is a lifelong task for all composers. Naturally, to balance parameters sensitively also means the ability to throw music off balance once in a while. But these recent experiences have made me more alert to an “invisible hand” behind the process of composition – one that has forced me, unexpectedly, to go back to music I’ve written and made adjustments.

I’m wondering how many of you think about composition in similar ways.

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