Archive for July, 2006

Composition titles – even though you still can’t copyright them – are more meaningful than in the past. Throughout the classical era, pieces were identified mostly by their form: sonata, concerto, prelude, with and a key signature and number. Operas were titled based on their librettos, but composers didn’t mind using the same title and popular subject, which would be almost unthinkable now. Still, due to some zeitgeist phenomenon, pieces can still share the same title, when, without the composer’s knowledge, someone else used the same idea – as if efficient titles were in limited supply, to be used and reused as needed. Note the current popularity of film remakes: a story is told once, set to film, becomes a success, and then years later, it lives again in a different version.

With the pervasive influence of the moving image, every musical piece can easily be perceived as a story onto itself. Compelled to write program notes, I find that having a ‘story of purpose’ for the piece helps present it. On the other hand, I wish we didn’t have to be specific. Not every piece needs a completely stated subtext, unless the subtext serves as a basis for the piece. If the music is abstract by nature, the subtext is redundant: one does not need to find the live model to a non-figurative painting. But if someone innocently looks at a Rothko and says, oh my, that looks like a sunset! And another person says, oh, that looks like my aunt’s bathroom in Kew Gardens! In one case, the spectator relates to the piece as a link to the universe; in the second, the spectator links the piece to personal experience. By leaving the subtext of the piece unspecified, the spectator is free to associate with anything – when listening to music intently (i.e. not as background, as in most cases) words and images come to mind… and that is what makes the musical experience utterly personal. Therefore it may be unnecessary to force content into it, unless people are becoming less prone to using their imaginations, to reading and listening, becoming more passive, ever entertained by moving, talking images. The listener now consciously or unconsciously expects a complete experience including not only music, but story-telling, images, action.

That’s why a lot of new experimental music lives not on the way it sounds, but on the exciting challenges or new concepts it brings forth, in other words, on its ‘action’ or description: hey, this guy used 24 boom boxes, an interactive internet feed and children playing found objects – wow! That’s exciting. How does it sound? Could be a total cacophony…. or recycled musak from 34 elevators…That’s no longer important. Well-written pieces that sound good but do not have any associated subtext are at a disadvantage. I still would like to reconcile the desire to be in the modern world and have a piece sound ‘good’ in a traditional sense, in terms of comfortable dissonance at least. I read somewhere that people who write accessible music are not taken seriously. Is that true?

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The musical piece, objectified in the score or recording, does not actually exist unless someone plays/listens. This is a perfect example of the subject/object dependency that has baffled scientists for over a century. This brings to mind the Schoedinger cat paradigm – not a real cat, thank goodness, but a hypothetical cat cruelly placed in a closed box where a poison capsule has a 50/50 chance to be triggered. What do we know about the cat after one minute passes? Is the hypo-cat alive or dead? Actually, yes and no: until the fact can be observed, it does not exist as either one or the other, but as a superposition of two parallel universes.

Just as the cat may as well not have existed unless it was observed, I’ve always felt that my work didn’t exist until it was performed/shared. In fact, I don’t have much interest in composing in my parallel universe with no outside interaction. But I am sure many others are happy in their parallel universes, shielded from both criticism and even appreciation, which can be just as exacting. Could it be that we are in many little niches existing in their own parallel universes, or possibly in a larger niche of downtown music parallel and disconnected from uptown established music? And at any time, the poison capsule can be triggered – as we are essentially vulnerable.

Another aspect of the parallel universe theory applied to music is the emphasis on multidimensionality – a piece is designed according to process vs. result, even environmental factors, interactivity, mathematical or technological models, found sounds, and whatnot. Music is not restricted to time, it becomes a time/space shared experience, a flux.

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I have had a recurrent and disturbing thought lately: what if we developed a non-judgmental approach to music appreciation? I do like the idea trying not to like or dislike a piece, but simply receive it with as much equanimity as a mail box.

I see a surprising lineage: from serialism, with music that can be uncomfortable to listen to but seems exciting enough to compose – music from mind to mind – to John Cage’s process-oriented, event-oriented music that is also not so much a listening experience as a controlled collective experience – music from person to person – to 21st century experimentalists who also value process over result – music as individual experience. Could this make the judgment of music based on like/dislike, beautiful/ugly, and even form/content parameters irrelevant? But what if someone needs to hang on to some sort of ultimate beauty of form, just like some people cannot be atheists?

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Do Hollywood-acclaimed, money-making composers still crave the prestige of Lincoln Center? Is having an opera premiere at Lincoln Center a match for an Oscar? Possibly, judging by three recent or upcoming productions: Rachel Portman, who sports no less than 73 film and TV scores, had The Little Prince premiered at the New York City Opera this winter; Tan Dun, who won an Academy Award for his score Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon is having a premiere at the Met this winter, The First Emperor; and now Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel will be premiered on July 11 through 16 at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center(212-870-5500.)

Goldenthal received an impressive number of Oscar and Grammy nominations, and the L.A. Film Critics Award for The Butcher Boy. He did the soundtrack for Julie Taymor’s film Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins, and apparently that was the start of a fruitful collaboration since Julie Taymor (whose most successful achievement was The Lion King) directed Grendel. The piece is based on the John Gardner’s 1971 novella of the same name, and a piece of ancient epic literature entitled Beowulf, something about heroes, monsters and dragons, kings and queens, dating back from before the 10th Century A.D – and actually the oldest, miraculously preserved piece of British literature.

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