MP3 Blog #110: “In California”

The Pacific Ocean

Joanna Newsom:

“In California”


“Does Not Suffice (In California, refrain)”

From Have One On Me, buy it on vinyl at Drag City.

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I’ve been a big fan of Joanna Newsom since my friend Bryan brought over an mp3 of her first album one cold Montréal night.  The recording, which he gave me, was of a radio program in Ohio where the DJ had decided to spend most of his show playing the entire Milk-Eyed Mender album.  For a few months, I played that mp3 regularly, until one day I finally got tired of hearing the same announcements over a few songs and just got an official copy of the album.

In late-February and most of March of this year, soon after her new album Have One On Me came out, my copy of it was constantly on my turntable.  In the intervening months between then and now, I would occasionally take it out to listen to one or two of the three records, but it hasn’t been until the last few weeks – with their particular autumnal air – that it returned to my regular listening rotation.

A few comments on the songs in this post:

In California is probably one of my favorite songs that directly addresses, what is currently, my home state.  There’s a certain sense of anxiety and awe-inspired longing that I feel most other songs on the subject miss.

I’m not entirely what Occident means to Joanna Newsom, but for me it’s pretty clearly about the great waiting that we all go through.

The last song on the album Does Not Suffice, on the other hand, is as direct a song as one will find in her catalog – a heart-breaking capture of final moments of a relationship.  Oh, and that final bit of increasing reverberation on her voice at the end, when she’s finally run out of words, almost always gets to me.

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MP3 Blog #109: Xenakis’s “Gendy3″

Iannis Xenakis: Gendy3 (1991)

For computer generated sound

Currently out of print

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Program Note:

In the Achorripsis (1956-57) chapters (I and V) of Formalized Music [revised and expanded English translation edition, Pendragon Press, 1992], Xenakis established a “background canvas,” for the creation of sounds primarily by stochastic functions.  Gendy3, entirely produced with a computer program written by the composer in 1991, is the most recent and most thoroughly stochastic instance in this quest.  Both the macrostructure (the form) and the sonic materials themselves are stochastically generated.  The overall form is mosaic-like, based on the superimposition of several “routes,” or stochastically determined successions of fields.  Each field in the several layers may be silent or not.  The composer intends to create an interesting musical composition by what is, objectively, “an arbitrary chain of these field sequences.”

An elastically bounded process Xenakis calls “general dynamic stochastic synthesis” [hence the title GenDy"] is responsible for generating the sonic content of the piece.  Polygonal waveforms are computed using one stochastic law while others govern the timing and amplitude fluctuations.  “The challenge,” writes Xenakis, “is to create a music starting as much as possible from a minimum number of premises,” but which will be interest to contemporary sensibilities without their “being trapped in known paths.”

Gendy3, created at the composer’s CEMAMu facility in Paris, was premiered on 17, November 1991 at the Rencontres Internationales de Musique Contemporaine in Metz.

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(Repost) MP3 Blog #2: The Magical Resonance of the Piano

(Continuing a series of reposting some of my favorite old blogs posts that might have been shuffled away in the move to wordpress…)

Charlemagne Palestine:
Strumming Music (recorded 1974)
For piano

La Monte Young:
The Well-Tuned Piano (1964-73-81-present) (excerpt from NYC 1987)
For piano

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I began my musical life at the piano. When I was really young, I typically improvised compositions more than I practiced music for lessons. I would depress the sustain pedal and repetitively play a few notes, chords, and melodic fragments while swimming in the resonance and thoughts about musical unfolding.

In the last few years, I’ve heard many composers describe the piano as a boring monochromatic and timbrally blank instrument. This opinion greatly offends me. Few instruments have a greater spectral complexity in each note than the piano. Furthermore, almost nothing in the acoustic world compares to the sound of piano strings sympathetically resonating. I chose this week’s mp3 selections to demonstrate this latter property – the magical resonance of the piano.

Charlemagne Palestine’s improvised work Strumming exemplifies the intense ritualistic musical experience at the center of early minimalist music. In the 1970’s, Charlemagne Palestine was infamous for performances similar to this one where he rapidly repeats a few notes with a depressed damper pedal to cajole rarely heard piano resonance. Often these performances would last for many hours and would end after his hands were bleeding.

The Well-Tuned Piano is considered by many to be La Monte Young’s masterpiece. This extended work (which in recent performances extends beyond six hours) features an ingenious tuning system which Kyle Gann cracked in 1991. One of my favorite features in this excerpt is how the repetitive clouds transform from percussive motivic centers to sound masses inhabited by fleeting phantasmagoric just-intoned intervallic melodies. The effect is breathtaking – one that I never imagined before and forever changed my way of hearing.

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MP3 Blog #108: Two Salvatore Sciarrino Solos for Winds

Salvatore Sciarrino:

“All’aure in una lontananza” for alto flute (1977)

Performed by Roberto Fabriciani

Currently out of print

“Let me die before I wake” for Bb clarinet (1982)

Performed by Paolo Ravaglia

Purchase here

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(Repost) MP3 Blog #6: Gérard Grisey

(Since my blog has recently moved from blogger to wordpress many of the extant links direct one to a non-active blog.  To try and rectify this, as well as bring back some worthwhile material, I’m going to periodically repost some of my personal favorite blog posts…)

Gérard Grisey:
”Partiels” 1975
For 18 musicians
Performers unknown

Another performance by Ensemble Court-Circuit and the Frankfurter Museumorchestra is available on this c.d. recording of Grisey’s “Les Espace Acoustiques”

Also a performance by the ASKO Ensemble and the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln is available on this c.d. recording of Grisey’s “Les Espace Acoustiques”

”Le Noir de l’Étoile;” III. 1989-1990
For six percussionists placed around the audience, tape, and live transmission of astronomical signals
Performed by Les Percussion de Strasbourg

Available on “Le Noir de l’Étoile” SACD from

Recent online discussions and the unfortunate passing of one of my favorite composers, György Ligeti, have compelled me to post two works from one of my other favorite composers who has passed on – Gérard Grisey. Rather than write an entry entirely filled with my own thoughts and reflections, I’m going progressively let Grisey’s translated works speak for himself and save my own writing to few situating remarks and personal reflections. If you don’t know any music by Grisey, or any spectral music for that matter, I highly recommend you buy one of the two newly available recordings of Grisey’s monumental 90 minute cycle “Les Espaces Acoustiques”.

The first work I chose, “Partiels”, holds a special place in my heart. I first heard this scratchy recording on the listening list for my college introductory composition course. I was immediately struck by the clearly perceptible visceral thrust and sumptuous yet otherworldly timbres. Although I had no idea of the exact techniques being used, I soon became obsessed with understanding sound. As I later found out, this demonstrative work is one of the two central works (“Modulation” is the other) from Grisey’s six-part spectral ‘treatise’ “Les Espace Acoustiques.”

Today, “Les Espace Acoustiques” seem to me like a great laboratory in which the spectral techniques are applied to various situations (from solo to full orchestra). Certain pieces even have a demonstrative, almost didactic, aspect as if, in the euphoria of discovery, I had taken pains to make the characteristics of the language that I was gradually inventing be grasped as fully as possible.

-Gérard Grisey (from an interview with Guy Lelong trans. John Tyler Tuttle)

The spectral technique most often cited for pedagogical purposes is “instrumental additive synthesis.” This technique is inspired by the principal of additive synthesis – that any sound can broken down into a collection of sinusoidal waves which can then be combined to recreate the original sound. The beginning of “Partiels” directly transfers this concept to instruments. The work starts with a low trombone E followed the rest of the ensemble recreating the trombone’s timbre as sinusoidal waves would in additive synthesis.

It is debatable if this technique is effective in recreating the trombone’s timbre in “Partiels”; however, in his program notes to the work, Grisey makes it clear that a simple timbral reproduction is not his intent:

Numerous sequences of “Partiels” announce a new technique, that of instrumental synthesis. Analogous to the auditory synthesis used in the programmes of digital electronic music, this writing style uses the instruments (micro-synthesis) to express different elements of the sound and elaborate an overall sound form (macro-synthesis). The result of this treatment is that our perception, the different instrumental sources disappear to the advantage of a completely invented synthetic timbre. These different mergings allow for articulating and organizing a whole range of timbres going from the spectrum of harmonics to white noise, by the way of the different spectra of inharmonic partials.

-Gérard Grisey (trans. John Tyler Tuttle)

Another interesting feature of “Partiels,” which does not come across in the recording, are the visual theatrics at the work’s end.

The end of “Partiels” progressively moves towards silence, but perfect silence does not exist – there is always a spectator who coughs, musicians who drop their mutes or begin to put their things away! Therefore, I staged this impossibility of silence; in fact, two procedures alternate: the first goes from sound towards silence, and the second from silence towards a group of noises taken from the daily life of the instrumentalists (turning pages, horn players who drain the water from their instrument, string players putting away their bows…); but at the end, it is truly silence, for even the public is held breathless: the percussion who slowly separates his cymbals, while the other musicians quote a fragment of “Partiels.”

-Gérard Grisey (from an interview with Guy Lelong, trans. John Tyler Tuttle)

After completing “Les Espace Acoustiques” in 1985, beginning with the composition “Talea,” Grisey became less focused on constructing a new language. The compositional focus shifted more clearly towards the interaction between musical objects (or sound) and perceptible time or ‘musical time.’

By including not only the sound but, moreover, the differences perceived between sounds, the real material of the composer becomes the degree of predictability, or better, the degree of ‘preaudibility.’ So, to influence the degree of preaudibility we come back to composing musical time directly – that is to say perceptible time, as opposed to chronometric time [time determined by a clock or other conventional measurements].

…I believe that the compose who wants to give time a musical value must focus on this point. It is no longer the single sound whose density will embody time, but rather the difference or lack of difference between one sound and its neighbor; in other words, the transition from the know to the unknown and the amount of information that each sound event introduces.

…This brings us back to ‘composing around space,’ rather like sculptors (cf. Henry Moore) whose hollows are not holes bored into the material, but forms in negative around which the volumes are articulated.

-Gérard Grisey (“Tempus ex machina A composer’s reflections on musical time,” Contemporary Music Review 2 (1987) 242-3, trans. by S. Welbourn)

It is in this more phenemological context that “Le noir de L’Étoile” was composed.

When I met the astronomer and cosmologist Joe Silk at Berkeley in 1985, he introduced me to the sounds of pulsars. I was seduced by those of the Vela Pulsar and immediately wondered, like Picasso picking up an old bicycle saddle, ‘What in world could I do with this?’

…When music succeeds in conjuring up time, it finds itself vested with a veritable shamanic power, that of connecting us to the forces that surround us.

…Of course, we know – or think we know – that with or without us, 0359-54 and the Vela Pulsar will continue their
interminable rounds and sweep the intersidereal spaces indifferently with their beams of electromagnetic waves. But is it not by trapping them in a radio telescope, then integrating them into a sophisticated cultural event – the concert – that they will then send back to us more than their songs?

Indeed, the moment of a pulsar’s passage in the sky limits us to a precise date, and by pinning the concert on this faraway clock, it becomes an event in situ or, more exactly, in tempore, thereby linked to cosmic rhythms. Thus, the pulsars will determine not only the different tempi or beats of “Le Noir de L’Étoile,” but also the date and precise time of its performance.

Music with pulsar obbligato!

However, it should not be deduced that I am a follower of the Music of the Spheres! There is no Music of the Spheres other than Inner Music.

That alone beats even more violently than our pulsars and, from time to time, obliges a composer to remain listening.

-Gérard Grisey (program notes to “Le Noir de L’Étoile” trans. John Tyler Tuttle)

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Digression: The art of music is a violent art par excellence. It gives us to be perceived what Proust called ‘a little time in pure state,’ this time which supposes both the existence and annihilation of all forms of life

Music, impregnated by time, is invested with this violence of the sacred which G. Bataille (1986) speaks; a violence silent and without language, that only sound and its becoming can possibly, and only for an instant, evoke and exorcise.

…’The last work,’ Varèse said, ‘is imagination!’

To this I would add emotion which, ultimately, creates musical form as it is perceived

‘Music is number and drama,’ said Pythagoras.

Real musical time is only a place of exchange and coincidence between and infinite number of times.

-Gérard Grisey (“Tempus ex machina A composer’s reflections on musical time,” Contemporary Music Review 2 (1987) 242-3, trans. by S. Welbourn)

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MP3 Blog #107: Seven for Lennon

The Beatles: “In My Life” (1965)

available on Rubber Soul

The Beatles: “Julia” (1968)

available on the White Album

The Beatles: “Across the Universe” (1968)

available on Let It Be

John Lennon: “Love” (1970)

available on Plastic Ono Band

John Lennon: “Mirror, Mirror (On the Wall)” (1978-80?)

unreleased demo

John Lennon: “Grow Old With Me” (1978-80?)

unreleased demo

John Lennon: “Real Love” (1978-80?)

unreleased demo (later take with different lyrics than the released version)

Buy the remastered Beatles Stereo Box Set here and the new John Lennon Signature Box Set here

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When I was a kid, the Beatles were the first band that I really grew to love.  Once I was a little older and able to differentiate the various members from each other,  because of his politics, direct honesty, and restless searching, John Lennon quickly became by favorite Beatle.  For a while in high school, and during my undergrad, I would even wear my hair long with a part down the middle, and wear circular sunglasses in an attempt to imitate his classic appearance.

Today, had he lived, John Lennon would have been 70.  As a sort of tribute, I’m offering up seven songs.

“In My Life” is one of my favorite songs of the earlier Beatles and, for what it’s worth, also one my dad’s favorite songs.

In “Julia,” the breathless way that Lennon’s voice comes in with no pause after singing “Julia,” the first line – “Half of what say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you…” – and my more recent discovery that Julia was his mother’s name have made this one of my favorite Lennon recordings for years.

Many complain about Phil Spector’s production on Let it Be, but I can’t say that I’ve ever thought it did anything do diminish the hopeful serenity of “Across the Universe.”

In contrast with my early familiarity with the Beatles, I discovered of John Lennon’s solo career rather late.  Of all, his solo albums I probably enjoy the raw and brutally intense Plastic Ono Band the most.  On that album, the simple formula that lies in the contradictory heart of the song “Love” is probably my favorite moment.

And finally, probably my favorite John Lennon recordings are the demos he recorded in his Dakota apartment and elsewhere before recording Double Fantasy.  In these songs, there is a stark frankness and – for somebody who had always been searching – the rare beginnings of an understanding of one’s own failings, hopes, dreams, doubts, and love.  When hearing these I often lament that he died so young and, arguably, at the pinnacle of his songwriting powers.

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MP3 Blog #106: Cosmic Swirling Blues 3

The Little Colorado Gorge, approximately 15 miles from the Grand Canyon

Charlemagne Palestine: The Lower Depths

Charlemagne Palestine, piano

Currently out of print

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It keeps pulling me down.  Lines keep descending, spoken phrases keep falling, days keep fading, it keeps pulling me down…

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MP3 Blog #105: Swirling Cosmic Blues 2

Evan Parker: Monoceros, Part 1 (1978)

Evan Parker: Soprano Saxophone

Currently out of print

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There are some works that, almost like solar entities, seem compelled to emit a seemingly endless stream of energy.  When encountering these sorts of works, all one can really hope to do is attempt to hold on while it flares and spits sparks past you as it etches rough, ragged, shapes, and forms indelibly in your mind.

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MP3 Blog #104: Swirling Cosmic Blues 1

La Monte Young: Bb Dorian Blues (ca. 1964?)

Performed by La Monte Young, sopranino saxophone, and unknown others (Marian Zazeela and Agnus MacLise?), drone and percussion

Unavailable commercially

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“A minimalist work is not diminutive, and it is not underdetermined or open to ambient events.  It saturates the field with uniformity or monotony.  The audience has to supply the psychological modulations, not because the experience is underdetermined – but because the program is a saturation of uniformity.

It mattered greatly that Young’s medium was a temporal one who carrier was ‘surround sound.’   With fatigue, or engrossment, one’s perception altered spontaneously.  The experience, therefore, was mind-altering.”

-Harry Flynt, “La Monte Young in New York, 1960-62″

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MP3 Blog #103: “Amériques”

Edgard Varèse: Amériques (1918-1921)

For large orchestra

Conducted by Riccardo Chailly with the Royal Concertebouw Orchestra

Available for purchase on the generally quite good complete works of Varese collection.

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Two impressions on the original version of Amériques for large orchestra (see this link for details on the orchestra):


The first time I heard Amériques was at the benefit concert for the 2002 Aspen Music Festival.  (At the time, I was at the Aspen Music Festival to study piano for the entire Summer.)  On the first half of this concert, Joshua Bell was the featured soloist for the Beethoven Violin Concerto.  For the second half of the concert, after a lengthy and – for my personal tastes – entirely useless discussion of upcoming work, was the original version of Varèse’s Ameriques. Once the performance of the Varèse finally started, the audience sat quietly for the first five minutes or so.  Soon after that, while I was enthralled with the music, a steady stream of people continued to leave the concert hall until, at the end of the performance, only half of the previously sold-out crowd remained to applaud the one of the most tremendous and catastrophic finales in the orchestral repertoire.


When listening to this piece for the first time in a few years earlier last week I closed my eyes.  During the moment when the whole orchestra comes together to pulsate strong attacks that a siren responds to, I had a visual hallucination.  In this vision I saw a mammoth dark mesa rising above a series of tubular shaped fragments that all ran into a ocean of black water.  Each time time the orchestra built in intensity I saw this imagine structure pulsate in both size and brightness.  Specifically, when the dynamic became large the structure grew in size and brightness, when it faded in dynamics it grew smaller.  The siren, in contrast, had no effect on the image.

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