Archive for May, 2005

To the profane, ordinary computer user or classically trained musician, high technology is often viewed as an impenetrable realm of wizardry, mystery and ‘magick’. The new God of a somewhat faithless society is High Tech. For creators, technology can just about compensate for lack of inspiration or be its own springboard.

I noticed that lately, many chamber ensembles actually request a technology component such as electronic/computer-generated tracks. It has become more popular to use electrified classical instruments. At a recent performance, the synth track I scored as part of the percussion group of the orchestra created a fuss, but was not dismissed as I nearly expected! A few years ago, the premiere of Steve Reich’s Different Trains by the Kronos Quartet, with the interactive tape element, was a step forward. But as I remember, a tape component in a chamber music piece used to discourage performance.

Production companies such as Harvestworks have been catering to technology-driven projects for years. Roulette’s upcoming program, the Festival of Mixology 2005 (Location one, 20 Greene St, June 16-26), will feature artists who use various degrees of high tech: Nic Collins, Gill Arnó, Marina Rosenfeld, David Behrman, Angie Eng, David Linton, Julia Heyward, Koosil-ja Hwang and Aki Onda.

The fascination with high tech is not new… about thirty years ago, Jerry Hunt had performances in which he suggested the use of high-tech devices he didn’t have, cleverly creating an illusion, like a magician. About 10 years ago, Laetitia Sonami amazed audiences with an interactive glove with which she would control various musical elements of her performance. On the other hand, John Cage’s forays were essentially of low-tech nature such as transistor radios, pieces of strings, mushrooms. Low-tech/high-tech, low-brow/high-brow, classy/cheap. Is that right? Do these opposites match? Nowadays choosing high-tech or low-tech for the design of a piece can significantly affect its outcome and scope.

Does ‘tech’ mean ‘hip’? One element to consider, though, is that technology-intensive projects are costly and accessible to a privileged few. Are we creating an aristocracy of tech? The High Priests and High Priestesses of Tech? Or is the technical savvy the poor man’s revenge, and a tool of democracy? The integration of new technical elements into a piece is a question to be addressed, but do they have to be there just because it’s ‘in’? In fact, is Tech still ‘in’ as a goal onto itself? Starting a piece from the technical standpoint: the equipment designs the project?

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Living in New York, there is a pressure to be stressed. Stress is a lifestyle. If you are not totally stressed and stretched in every direction, you are most probably not living to the fullest of your potential. People are so, so busy. It is a combination of reality and myth. If you are not that busy, you must at least create the impression of being super-busy by not ever answering the phone. And don’t ever tell anyone how many hours you spend watching TV.

The stress of the living composer is to juggle the small business end of it, i.e. contacts and opportunities, as well as the real business of working with music. Additionally, for those who aren’t so lucky as to be continually commissioned, and there are thousands, juggling some sort of earning activity, which can actually preclude the completion of any serious work.

In the midst of stress, the myth of stress as a lifestyle emerges. Out of the stress comes superficiality. How can one really go deep and fast at the same time? “Faster, faster pussycat…kill, kill!” (title of a classic sixties B movie)…Even music seems to be moving faster. There is pressure to play faster and even tune higher so the cycles themselves are faster (driving up to A442, when Mozart’s A was at 415). People play fast to show off, or because they are excited with the speed, like race-car drivers. We are a speed-thrilled society. Speed and superficiality rule. We are tuning further away from the natural cycles, as global warming progresses and already caused severe weather disturbances.

My musical reaction to this is: a slow moving, stay on one tone kind of piece to heal not only the stress, but the hype placed on stress… then, maybe something else that brings us back to earth.

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Why compose? This question is like the metaphysical why: why does the world exist, why do we die, why is there evil, why do bad things happen to good people… and composing is very much like a bad thing that happens to good people.

How can we justify composing? It is a political statement, an exercise in the freedom of speech, and in that respect, it is our right. It is not a self-serving activity. There is little outer success to be expected in serious music, and it has to more do planetary positions and marketing than the intrinsic qualities of a piece. The composer can’t really be blamed for composing for ego satisfaction, as the activity typically entails one rejection after another, interrupted by glimpses of success that come and go as fast as shooting stars. Around the time of a premiere, the composer is the object of attention from the public, surrounded by performers and colleagues, but the next day, it’s like nothing ever happened. Music mirrors the ephemeral passing of time. All the energies coordinated to present a new work suddenly dispel into nothingness.

In the past centuries, composing was a craft learned from a master, carefully absorbed and practiced, fashioned into a slightly personal style, within a consistent set of parameters. Each piece had a purpose, for the church, for a special celebration, or simply for some princess to fool around on the harpsichord. Composers were practically servants to the powers that be. Has this changed? Yes, and that’s another good reason to compose. We are freer – not totally free, but somewhat free. Composing and producing music is now accessible to many more individuals than in the past. But in the 21st century, history and geography are dead weight: each musical element has been subject to so many permutations, so many different styles of music from all the different parts of the world, that making a compositional statement is more like making conceptual art than practicing a craft. In fact, certain composers totally defy the idea of composing technique.

Some of us compose from the heart: for spiritual reasons, for the departed, for a friend, a person we love, for a muse, because of a dream. Or we are motivated by something that takes place somewhere in the future, in reality or imagination. There is such a thing as inspiration – but should I use such a naïve, old-fashioned word? Is the term artist outdated? a romantic notion that no longer applies to our society? Should it be discarded like an over-sentimental birthday card? The word artist carries a social stigma. The artists are like the cursed shamans of a previous civilization, no longer wanted, while the old shamans from the past centuries are glorified because their work is now worth a lot of currency. What are we? If not artists, channels of collective consciousness? Masterminds of absurdity?

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Since the film Amadeus portrayed Mozart as the Bad Boy of classical music, his popularity has reached epic heights, and 20 years later, Lincoln Center is still naming a festival after him. The Mozart myth endures: the blessed child turned rebel, dead at 35, under mysterious circumstances. Was he assassinated and by whom? A jealous rival? The man who commissioned the Requiem and wanted to own it? Did Mozart poison himself with mercury to cure syphilis? Was he punished for making fun of the Masonic rituals in The Magic Flute? Besides early romanticism, what is it in his music that makes it so likeable?

Mozart’s music has an esthetic of grace and simplicity – simple, but not plain, a clarity that makes the listener just about guess what the next note is going to be, melodies that are as memorable as jingles. These same elements nowadays would almost guarantee rejection from orchestral committees, who seem to judge music on the basis of its level of complication. Mozart writes well in C major, and is not ashamed of it.

The festival this year has a clever international bent, focusing on where Mozart might have been (and funnily, where he wasn’t, like Russia and Australia), and the highlights include: Bach Cantatas staged by Peter Sellars, performed by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson; a performance of Rameau and Handel by the French early music star, harpsichordist & conductor Emmanuelle Haim; a Handel oratorio choreographed by Baroque aficionado Mark Morris, and several programs on period instruments.

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This is my short list of old favorite classics – Western music only, ethnic belongs to its own other category. In alphabetical order by composer:

J.S. Bach: entire works for keyboard
Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande
John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano
John Coltrane: Ascension
Morton Feldman: For John Cage
Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach
Claudio Motenverdi: Orfeo
Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians
Terry Riley: In C
Arthur Russell: Tower of Meaning
The Stooges: Funhouse
The Velvet Underground: White Light/White Heat
La Monte Young: The Well-Tuned Piano

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Let other people i.e. performers, choreographers, institutions, programs, other more established composers, tell you what to write, whether it is instrumentation or subject matter or style. This may mean having to turn down a commission once in a while, but it is best for peace of mind and individuality. Any kind of interference with the composer’s creative process is wrong. Don’t even be afraid to write in C major. As Kyle Gann points out in his most recent blog, there is a ridiculous misconception that the key of C is unsophisticated. How about Terry Riley’s in C? Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier?

Write for any other reasons than musical or spiritual ones. If the work is geared towards a particular response or result, having to do with ego satisfaction or outward success, these extraneous factors will corrupt the process, somehow, however sneakily and subtly.

Work under pressure. Unless the creative flow is a quick and easy one, which may happen on occasion, writing too fast is a sure way to superficiality and irrelevance.

Compose too many pieces at once – there is a quantity versus quality equation. It is better to focus on a piece that is really meaningful and let it simmer slowly like stew.

Worry about dry spells. No one can be inspired all the time – then it wouldn’t be inspiration, would it! If it is not happening, don’t force it. It will come back in its own time. My dry spells have more to do with time and availability – if I have to spend a lot of time on survival activities, it’s like there is no room in my head for a new piece. The moment I have free time it springs up again. I like this story about a film composer who, upon receiving the commission, took a two-week vacation… that’s what he needed in order to start writing.

Try to enjoy your work all the time. What’s fun is the new idea. But it is short-lived. Whereas some parts of the process may be enjoyable, there is always some hard work involved especially if you use the computer. Enjoying it is for amateurs. Most non-artists have the impression that we just goof around and there it is, a new piece of work; they don’t understand that composing is like a scientific experiment that requires a lot of patience, time and dedication. It is actual work that makes you tired.


Unblock yourself. Do whatever it takes to free your consciousness from mental junk.

Explode music – actually I mean this literally as there a command in Finale that allows you to write a chord and ‘explode’ it automatically into parts, which is a great time saver.

Use different ways of creating music, with and without an instrument. I wrote some of the best parts of Waking in New York on the subway to work (not that I enjoyed it… but it was in my head). I don’t mean to recommend this method to anyone. But do try to compose in miscellaneous ways, on paper, with an instrument, on the computer, with midi, in an improv setting, with a matrix, with different tunings, with a tape recorder, with found sounds, or with anything exciting and unusual.

Connect with reality and beyond reality. Have a responsibility to the audience you are writing for.

Take the music out of the drawer and go out to present/produce it yourself. After all, it is meant to be heard.

Hang out… at least some of the time. We are not machines.

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Is the standard orchestra a form of the past? Does the unchangeable arrangement of the instruments perpetrate its own convention ad infinitum? It seems that if the piece strays from what is expected, i.e. complicated, hypermarked music for a required set, it will never get read. We are faced with a conundrum: the more creative we are with the orchestra, the chances of the piece getting played get fewer to none. Also, the required know-how, i.e. how to get a melody/harmony to work within the standard array of instruments, pushes the music towards old tried and true recipes.

On occasion, some pieces stretch the envelope but they are rare and quickly dismissed. Once the S.E.M. Orchestra performed a 5 minute free improv conceptualized by a composer who names himself mr. dorgon (sic). On the other hand, even famous jazz improvisers write orchestral music that is strangely close to sounding like fifties serialism. The most creative event I have seen involving an orchestra was in 1996, a performance of Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony by the American Festival of Microtonal Music – with two conductors to render the simultaneous different tempos. I have heard about pieces with musicians walking around with their instruments… extreme minimalist scores with the orchestra staying on one note for a long time, and this not going over too well.

If orchestra presenters continue to perform classical repertoire that has been heard too many times, or so-called modern pieces from the early 20th century – nearly a hundred years ago – or more recent difficult pieces that turn the audiences off, there is not hope for the survival of the orchestra as the audiences will most certainly lose interest and turn to other forms of music. I believe it is very important that we write creative orchestral pieces – negotiating what is acceptable and what will never get played… so as to co-opt the old form for our own creative purposes and for the future of classical music. This is possibly the greatest challenge we are facing as 21st century composers.

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