Archive for February, 2012

SPIRAL WAVE is a multi-arts project originally conceived and produced by Carolyn Ratcliffe, and programmed by the Art Loisaida Foundation, bringing together artists from different fields on the theme of a continuous spiral.  This creative  framework was inspired by a large scale sculpture by Jose Landoni, a spiraling shape constructed from perfectly fitted pieces that can be assembled and taken apart – the piece seems eerily light and supple for such a large size object and has an organic beauty. The sculpture will be shown on video for this one-night only performance but when the piece actually runs,  the sculpture will be installed in the theater as a stage set.  I became involved in this collaboration, along with choreographer Peter Cramer and a new group of performers, Spool Dance.  Spiraling patterns emerged from my soft synths, and the score is so far entirely electronic and computer composed. A first installment of this performance is presented by Theater for the New City (Crystal Field, executive director) for a preview  on Saturday March 10, at the Chino Theater. 155 First Avenue – Box Office 254-1109, tickets $12/$10 sen/stu.

From my  viewpoint as a composer, this is a familiar framework as I have often looked at music is a manifestation of the geometry of nature. The heart of the daisy below shows those naturally occurring spiral patterns, as does the Nautilus shell pictured on the postcard.

Music can be perceived as a set of proportions – the octave, fourth and fifth in particular are found universally in nature, in the human body and in man-made objects and architecture. These same proportions are found not only in the musical scale but also in the harmonic series. Music is a connecting path between realms – human, animal, mineral, macro- and micro-cosmic as a series of self-replicant intervals. This works in the old geometry of Pythagoras and in the new fractal geometry of Mandelbrot. A pattern is replicated ad infinitum in different sizes but the shape remains similar – but at some point, something different happens.

At left is a“golden’ spiral proportioned to a golden triangle one can see that in the center of the spiral, there is a smaller size similar rectangle with a self replicant shape in a smaller size.

Golden Spiral

Below is a study of the Sierpinsky fractal in natural forms of the seashell.  At stage 7, something is a little “off”, there is a shift! It grows.

Would that be the pesky Pythagorean comma, making the tuning of the last note in a full cycle of fifths a little off from the fundamental – now endowed with a new meaning: the law of constant growth.


Sacred Geometry by Miranda Lundy

A Little Book of Coincidence by John Martineau

L’Empire des Nombres by Denis Guedj

Sacred Geometry Philosophy and Practice by Robert Lawlor

Introducing Fractal Geometry by Nigel Lesmoir Gordon, Will Rood, Ralph Edney

Sacred Geometry by Stephen Skinner

The Power of Limits by György Doczi


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Is the universe full or empty? What does it mean to meditate on emptiness? The buddhist concept of emptiness can be deceiving – nothing is actually empty at all… like a Buddhist hot dog, one with everything. Emptiness means that there is not one item in reality that can stand independently of others. Everything is inter-connected.

How did this coffee cup come to being in my hand? It was purchased at a store, which means that a store had to be in existence for me to purchase the cup, and the store manager had to order it from a manufacturer and have it delivered, and the cup wouldn’t have existed if it hadn’t been designed by someone, and realized by others, and if those had not been born, this particular type of cup wouldn’t have existed at all – which brings us to birth,  going back generations and generations.

What emptiness really means is that everything is co-dependent. Every part of our reality is connected. What we call the Global Economy is an obvious manifestation of this principle: if one country does something, everyone else will be affected by it to some extent, like an amplified “butterfly effect” – as a butterfly flips its wings in Beijing, weather patterns may change in Alaska…which means that within this framework of interconnectedness, our music could be much more meaningful and affecting than it would have seemed at first. Every note, every vibration of an instrument, every movement of a human being playing an instrument, every feeling invested in the music and communicated, is potentially affecting everything else – and the consciousness that is projected through that music and the people putting it forth is an aspect of the composition framework that should not be ignored.

This notion of interdependence is outlined in detail in The Meaning of Life from a Buddhist Perspective by The Dalai Lama (translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, 1993 publication of lectures given in 1984), but was made much more clear by a casual and yet enlightening newer book, The Wisdom of Forgiveness by The Dalai Lama and Victor Chan (2004).

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I accidentally came across a rather humorous department store commercial for some special sale. It showed actors screaming with exaggerated joy or awe… to the contrasting accompaniment of a few bars of one of the most moving pieces I know: Mozart’s Requiem.  Some may be shocked, but I have come to embrace the pervasive vulgarity of popular culture. Even the concept of vulgarity has long ceased to hold a negative judgment. In Paris where I grew up there was a kind of rule of “Taste”,  turned on its head by the Punks back in the 70s, and now completely outdated against the conflicting and miscellaneous value systems in world cultures – after all, in some civilizations, farting loudly after a meal is a required compliment to the cook.

The mysterious Requiem was only sketched out by the Mozart on his own death bed, with the help of a student at his bedside, and was completed by others after his death – a rather atypical Mozart piece actually – containing the seeds of romanticism, or possibly the seeds of his own musical future that he didn’t get to live out.  What’s so odd is that he actually ended up composing a requiem for himself  which he was reluctant to do at first, but he needed the money. So he lived his own death in the music – a young man of 35. That’s why I get upset when it’s conducted too fast. Those violin Sforzandos have to dig in, not just glide along.

The enigmatic death of Mozart inspired many books which at some point I read voraciously; could be that he died of an unmentionable disease born out of pleasure, or from its ineffective poisonous mercury cure – or both, or maybe the Masons did it – because of a couple of scenes in the Magic Flute were too close to revealing their secret rituals – and ultimately he died too poor to afford a proper funeral, his body dumped in common hole in the ground; but think again, in some part of Tibet, his body would have been cut up in small pieces for the vultures to feed on his life force as a step in the cycle of death and rebirth. Those were the associations brought on by the television commercial – fortunately, none of them about going out shopping.

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Through a presentation at Chamber Music America by Norma Hurlburt, executive director of the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center, I became aware of a surprising youth program involving high school students in the production of CMS venues. I became immediately curious – when I ask my students at CTech to play me their favorite tunes, they come up with songs in a variety of styles – from 70s R&B and classic rock to music entirely created from samples of Disney movies (Pogo), to grunge, to the latest rap – but no classical.  It seems there is an exception to this, and I had to find out more about it.

 For the past couple of decades we’ve heard about how classical music audiences are from older generations, and I believe it has something to do with the fact that music is no longer a subject of early education, so people do not have a built-in appreciation of this style of music. Children and teens are more likely, in a universe of iPods, internet and MTV, to embrace self-taught electric guitar and songwriting in a band situation than they are to listen or play classical music. As a child, in Paris, I had weekly music classes in elementary school and performed in a choir on a regular basis. In high school, we performed Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with professional soloists. We also had music theory. This was provided to all! (In addition, I had a private lessons in piano, theory and the basics of harmony and counterpoint – and my jazz musician father blew it all away by showing me how to play the blues, which opened up another area of exploration and improvisation, and eventually both forms combined into my own music.)  So… despite the absence of music education in high school, CMS has found a way to proactively involve teens in classical music, by seeking out high school students who produce three concerts per year and invite their friends to these events, with $5 tickets and a pre-concert reception where they can meet and talk to the performers and sponsors in a casual environment. Then they enjoy the concert sitting all together at the balcony.  In this situation, the student producers become classical advocates to their own generation.

 I went to hear one of these student-produced concerts at Alice Tully on February 10, featuring string quartets by Haydn and Beethoven performed by the Jupiter string quartet and song cycle by Beethoven performed by Randall Scarlata, baritone, accompanied by Gilbert Kalish, piano, to a full and enthusiastic audience.

 I spoke with Derek Balcom, director of education, who is in charge of this program, and he described how for some years now CMS has been recruiting high school students from a variety of schools, both public and private and from different parts of the city, to be involved in the production of certain events. They gather as an advisory body to listen to a number of staple programs and choose the ones they feel would be most appropriate for their age group. They are also given the opportunity to be “producers” of these programs and handle all aspects of the concert production, including designing postcards and promotional materials.

 I am delighted to see this happening, and I hope that this can become a model for more programs of this nature to bring a renewed form of classical music education to the teen age group.

Photo left to right: Young producers Boat Lynch, Alison Chang, Lilian Finckel, and Claire Leibowicz.

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Plants used to thrive with Mozart, and wither to the sounds of rock music. But plants changed. Here is an actual report from a fifth-grader from the Mini-Science web site: “I did the project entitled “Do Plants Grow Better to Music”, and I got different results! I did Rap, Pop, Rock, and No Music. My Results were Pop1st, Rock 2nd, None 3rd, and Rap was last!” Mythbusters: “Seven small greenhouses were set up on the M5 Industries roof. Four were set up with stereos playing endlessly looping recordings (as having the MythBusters actually talk to the plants could contaminate the samples with their expelled carbon dioxide): Two of negative speech, two of positive speech (Kari and Scottie each made one positive and one negative inducing soundtrack), a fifth with classical music and a sixth with intense death metal music. A seventh greenhouse, used as a control sample, had no stereo. The greenhouses with the recordings of speech grew better than the control, regardless of whether such talk was kind or angry. The plants in the greenhouse with the recording of classical music grew better, while the plants in the greenhouse with the recording of intense death metal grew best of all.” Inconclusive evidence here, but the effect of music on human beings is no less unpredictable.

Music has the power to affect the human psyche. Most people consider music as a pleasant experience, if not more than that. We also know that music can heal, from shaman ritual to music therapy. But we tend to forget that it may also, in certain circumstances, inflict pain… Historically music has been used in warfare to frighten and disorient opponents with loud instruments and battle cries. The legend of the siege of Jericho points out that the fortress held up for six days in silence, but on the seventh day the horns and shouts took it down.

According to new research by musicologist Suzanne Cusick of New York University’s Faculty of Arts and Science, modern warfare has integrated certain forms of music as a part of its intimidation and torture arsenal, along with other psychological weapons. Prisoners report being forced to hear blasting loud rock or rap music for 15 hours a day, with the same songs, repeated over and over, day after day, which would drive them to the brink of madness.

The link below will take you to Suzanne Cusick’s article.

 The curious twist here is that the same forms of music that started as revolutionary (rock, metal, rap), work just as well when used as means of repression. Aerosmith, for instance is not only coopted by the military, but used as a part of a torture arsenal. This brings back to memory a tune named “Blitzkrieg Bop”, from the Ramones’ first album. I don’t know whether it is on the torture list, but it may have been used in a TV commercial. The military hasn’t, as far as we know, touched classical music, but it’s only a matter of time until someone finds a way to manipulate the repertoire into a psychological weapon.  Collective unconscious overloaded with negativity? Do we need to write more uplifting material, or does it even matter? They could always play the tapes backwards…It seems that what’s even more important is the context in which the music is played.

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