Thursday, March 28, 2013

Iowa Sounds

Last night, I heard the premiere of David Gompper's Double Concerto, featuring violinist Wolfgang David and cellist Timothy Gill. It's a rich and contemplative work, and it's one of those pieces you can't wait to hear recorded--subtle gradations in orchestral timbre mix in with quiet and resonant solo themes, one of those pieces that invites the audience to lean in and experience a new world. (Or, don't it always seem to go, to shuffle around and clear their throat right when, in the closing cadenza, the soloists converge on angelic double-stops. Some things never change.)

The Double Concerto was an outgrowth/reworking of Dialogue I, premiered by the same performers last year. Given the stillness, warmth, and clarity of last night's premiere, it's not surprising to read that the extensive revisions took place at Banff. The timbral subtlety evoked that kind of naturalistic stereophony one gets from Rothko Chapel or (in another stylistic vein entirely) the more mysterious episodes of Boulez's Derivé, where wisps of motives flicker around you.

Gompper's a UI professor, and lately, my research projects--focusing on institutionalized structures and projects of "new music"-making in the 1960s--have been synthesizing the local and the international, seeing Iowa as a site of innovation, part and parcel of a decentralized arts subsidy strategy. (Check out the Rockefeller Foundation reports if you want to see just how much money was flying around.)

Still, it's somewhat frustrating that these innovations too often seem--when viewed on paper--so remote and inaccessible (not Gompper's--I'm referring here to the long out-of-print CTI recordings, a national treasure of a record label to be sure). For all the casual scholarly and journalistic talk of "academic composition" as a totalitarian regime, it sure is hard to find recordings even of many oft-studied pieces. 

That's why I was heartened, lately, to come across the University of Iowa's Iowa Sounds database, a project that I'm sure has peers but will be very useful to 20th-century music buffs. There's an embarrassment of riches, including some stunning choral albums led by electronic music pioneer Kenneth Gaburo (with Bethany Beardslee, among others, in the choir). Another terrific recording features Paul Zukovsky (!), peerless American new music violinist, in a compelling reading of Charles Wuorinen's edgy Concerto for Amplified Violin and Orchestra, with the UI orchestra under the direction of James Dixon (another figure with deep and storied roots in the history of American music). 

There's also work that hasn't aged well, historically speaking, but somehow becomes all the more charming for the wear. Some of it is restricted, but Iowa Ear Music was:

Recorded in a variety of informal and formal non-public situations between 1967 and 1976.Includes "the ’Four Room Session’ of March 1973:..performers were isolated in four completely,separate rooms (connected... by microphones and headphones)Following a strict time schedule, the performers grouped and regrouped themselves in the four rooms..using nothing but theirears to guide them...."

It's on vinyl, under the corn pride label. YES.

For the less, um, adventuresome among you, there are hundreds of choral and chamber recordings, with a broad swath of repertoire.

At a time when artists (as ever) have been forced to justify the public investment in them, reciprocating state funding with goodwill gestures that make performances, recordings--and scholarship--more publicly consumable and accessible seems like a fair trade. I have a friend, a terrific computer musician, who has arcane interests in 1960s information theory. Making an honest living as a programmer and touring musician, however, he lacks access to a lot of walled research consortiums and recording databases. He's highly trained, and--arguably--does as much to spread knowledge about computer music than any professor. He once tried to buy a study of Lejaren Hiller, only to find the $200+ price tag prohibitively expensive.

We should be paying people to read books about Lejaren Hiller. There are thousands of people like him, highly trained musicians looking to engage and celebrate their craft beyond the academy, who are omnivorous and hungry consumers of musical content.

 Let's be real--the commercial implications of a "four room session" are, will always be, and have always been, absolutely negligible. But as a document, it's absolutely vital that we share what we do and what we've done in order to better articulate why we must do it.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Compositions 2012: Text Pieces for a More Litigious Age

Compositions 2012 I. 
1. Violate La Monte Young's copyright or fail to identify him as sole composer. 2. Produce and sell album. 3. Keep both of your royalty dollars for yourself. 4. Await litigation. 5. The piece is not over until you have settled with the Mela Foundation for an undisclosed sum.

Compositions 2012 II. 

1. Copyright 4 minutes and 34 seconds of silence. 2. Troll iTunes store for 4'33" performances with an extra second of lead time. 3. Sue John Cage Trust. 4. Piece is not over until you have used proceeds from John Cage trust to settle with Mela Foundation--this is, after all, a cycle of text pieces.

Compositions 2012 III.

1. Write, produce, and release an ubiquitous, Maroon-5-style hit that moves to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and the iTunes single chart. 2. The first section is not over until you have gone triple platinum or grossed 8-figures-less-publicity-and-preproduction. 3. Revolutionize pop music (do not proceed until Taylor Swift is incorporating performance art in imitation of you.) 4. Send twitter direct-message to Girl Talk telling him how much you respect him as an artist. 5. Wait for Girl Talk to sample your ubiquitous hit. 6. Sue Girl Talk. 7. Donate proceeds to John Cage Trust. 

Compositions 2012 IV.
1. Release a hotly anticipated follow-up and win best new artist after a ten-year music career. 2. Fund a kickstarter campaign. 3. Crowd-source your back-up band. 4. Wait for the blogosphere outcry. 5. Retreat into yourself as a mad genius and make your audience come to you. 6. Go back to Movement I. 7. Repeat as necessary. 8. Failure to follow any of these directions absolutely may force you to accidentally become David Byrne. 

UPDATE: Compositions 2012 V.
1. Well done. 2. You have performed this piece to perfection, twice. 3. Pay me my royalty on your four albums, your kickstarter campaign, less settlement expenses. 4. I will pay legal fees. ESCAPE CLAUSE: 5) If you accidentally became David Byrne, you can keep it all. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Oh, and one more thing...

Stockhausen ends a banal, 1984 pro forma music questionnaire with the most dire explanation of music's importance I've ever heard.

INTERNATIONAL MUSIC COUNCIL: Are there any other questions that deserve attention in connection with the status of music? STOCKHAUSEN: Has it been stressed enough, that the kind of music and the amount of music one has heard during one's lifetime, is decisive for the soul's states and decisions after death?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Microcosmic Nothingness of Man (Letter to Lenny)

I've been spending a significant amount of time spelunking through the New York Philharmonic Digital Archives, mostly for routine financial data from the late 1960s. Part of my research, now, is to take some of the grandiose political, social, and aesthetic rhetoric down from the cosmos and instead see what we can learn about "experimental music" when its composers have to work with/in the mundane day-to-day structures of arts administration, publishing, and recording.

 In other words, what happens when our high-modernist priests have to get their hands dirty a bit? The instinct of many musicologists is to, at best, look past the section players, arts administrators, secretaries, lawyers, etc. who make music happen; at worst, treat them as authoritarian figures who distract us from the pure, undistilled vision of the artist. Instead, what happens when we view these interventions as a central focus of "musical office work"?

As a result of my "working axiom"--that making creative work is work, made in a workplace--I suppose I've grown jaded about claims of music opening us up to new experiences, really changing the world, or inducing a new political sensibility (claims germane to Stockhausen in particular).

Then I decided to look through some files pertaining to the 1963-1964 Philharmonic season that saw Bernstein ramping up avant-garde programming through a series of curated subscription and youth concerts. While Bernstein's prepared remarks were interesting, what was perhaps most remarkable was a January 3, 1964 letter pertaining to a performance of Xenaxis's Pithoprakta.

The writer was one Bud Kaufman, the New York office manager of a Philadelphia-based clothier. The letter is prophetic and quite dark, cast in epic, appreciative terms for realizing that the world of music is no longer flat, and that composers are to be "the few choice high priests to begin to comprehend the deep and darkest secrets--frightening!"

Now, I know experimental music composers. My instinct is to point out that most of them make fart jokes and spend their time tinkering with electronics and testing out cool-looking graphic notation. But it's good to remind myself that real, overpowering experiences are the end goal--the end-product--of all the boring work.

Imagine you've just gotten done with a concert; can you imagine any more powerful letter to receive than one ending the way that Kaufman's does? You can imagine Bernstein reading it more than once.

The scientists have not found the answer. Last night I felt that it was in the artist that the truth will be found or the artist will find the truth. Perhaps, in the outer stratus of the planet world, the truth of man’s uniqueness and true potentiality the secret will be revealed. It is in the new creativeness and courage on the part of artists like yourself who bring to the audience the possibility to understand the impermanence, the nothingness, and yet in the midst of all the cacophony, and the screamings of new sounds I felt truth, religiousness, potentiality and the impermanence and microcosmic nothingness of man.
 And paradoxically, you were the great surgeon. Directing, searching and seeking the meaningfulness of man. Are we worms crawling on a globular non-entity, or is it in our potential as humans to comprehend the truths.
 For all of this awakening I thank you, Maestro.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

T.J. Anderson, Stockhausen, and Miles; or, what's in a flutter?

Blogging seems so old-fashioned now, doesn't it? Tweeting, tumblng, pinning seems to be where it's at. Besides, I try to reserve my best ideas for empty Microsoft Word documents. Ah, cursor, how you mock me so!

A quick update: I'm dotting some Is and crossing some Tees on my degree requirements, but also hard at work on a dissertation project that combines many of my favorite interests, all centered around late-1960s/early-1970s New York: Bernstein, Berio, Stockhausen, and Miles Davis (early On the Corner period). I'll let you fill in the blanks; suffice it to say, major themes are going to be youth-outreach; translating electronic experimentation to live performance; and stylistic pluralism.

Right now, I have the opportunity (without saying too much about it, as it's under development) to write a book chapter on African-American musical experiences at the University of Iowa in the 1950s and 1960s. I've been spending the weekend checking out some more T.J. Anderson, and thought I'd take to the blog to share some videos.

I once wrote a program note for Anderson's Chamber Concerto (Remembrances) (available on DRAM,  if you have institutional access to that) and played one of his pieces here at Iowa a few years back. His musical languages is so pluralistic: refractory Webern gestures, spare strings, audible serialism, but then coloristic outbursts of wind and brass, trumpet flutters. The construction is strikingly modernistic, but the materials seem very--not simple, but recognizable.

Anderson (b. 1928, but you'd never know it from the remarkably contemporary way he conceives of musical tradition) got his doctorate at UI in 1958, and had an illustrious academic and compositional career, mostly at Tufts University.

Bits of the Chamber Concerto are audible on this video, where Anderson describes how he keeps moving and evolving, trying new things:

Another great video is after a DJ Spooky performance. Anderson's sense of "cultural anthropology" and the remarkable influence of globalization on the way we must practice the music of the future, while nurturing our cultural roots, is really sharp and perceptive. Someone who heard Fats Waller live turn to a DJ and say, yep, you got it right!

Lastly, here's where I first became aware of Anderson's music--when UI premiered a piano concerto for pianist Donal Fox, which blends fragments of Bach with Monk-like gestures. It's a very effective, effusive piece:

Donal Fox Plays T.J. Anderson Concerto from Donal Fox on Vimeo.

While I need to put a bow on some of my pre-dissertation research before embarking more fully on this project, there are carryovers: all in all, it's exciting to encounter and re-encounter this music that seems to be so true to the way that many of us hear music: our favorite sounds, mixed up in a sort of spiral, with a mastery of form, a composer who cultivates his cultural and generational heritage while keeping his ears open to the changes around him.

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The issues that Anderson and his music raise--globalization, modernistic form, interpolation of popular materials within a dissonant context--were very much issues salient in the 1960s, and exploring musical (and critical) voices like his can help to excavate an important process in "classical" music: the integration (and encroachment) of African-American timbres, one that of course has its analogs in the visual and literary arts.

One of the remarkable voices in Anderson's Chamber Concerto, from 1968 (to my trumpet-playing ears, at least) is an exuberant trumpet glissando and flutter tongue (excerpted at :42-45 of the first video above). We would easily recognize that as a black musical signifier...

...but what about this trumpet figure from Stockhausen's Mixtur (3:52-4:18), in 1965? Ring-modulated and occasionally mixed with signals fed through a Hammond organ, here we have, in the serious bastion of Darmstadt serialism, a gesture steeped in blackness. Pointillistic bleats, distorted long notes, smeared glissandos, and snake-tongued stabs that sound like a moment-form rendering of a Snooky Young shout chorus. 

Miles Davis started listening to Mixtur (and a few other Stockhausen works) in earnest in 1972, before embarking on his famous street-funk period--one that, not incidentally, is seen as a precursor of some of the globalizing music and perpetually contemporary music that DJ Spooky and other "cultural anthropologists"practice. 

And yet, a few years before Davis's encounter of Stockhausen, he seems to be coming from a very similar place of cultural excavation. If we remove the famous post-production delay opening of Bitches Brew from outside of the context of jazz, from the context of "jazz-rock-fusion," what do we have? Pointillistic bleats, distorted long notes, smeared glissandos, and snake-tongued stabs that sound like a moment-form rendering of a Snooky Young shout chorus. Coming a few years after Mixtur (or, for that matter, a year after Anderson's piece), the issue of influence seems indirect and probably superficial; but it's as if Stockhausen is imitating what Miles Davis is about to do.

In his justifiably lauded book on the AACM, George E. Lewis raises (and answers) some of the most important questions from this era about what--or rather, who--has been integrated into narratives of musical experimentation, out that we need to uncover the disciplinary structures that mediate and exclude participation--e.g., educational opportunity, commission structures, sponsorship, residencies--in discourse. Instead, there has been an unfortunate tendency to naturalize African-American practice while valorizing "thinking" musicians like Stockhausen.

And yet, in four years, we have three composers presenting very similar trumpet phrases--pointillistic attacks offset with gregarious glissandi--in predominantly dissonant contexts. By deracinating some of our familiar categories--"jazz," "modernism," "serialism"--we can begin to see a fruitful space of interchange, where hierarchies aren't so clear, and composers and performers mimic awkwardly grasping towards a pluralistic space of experiment and tradition.
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Lately, as a trumpet player reading Lewis's book and then plunging into more Art Ensemble of Chicago, I've been going through a bit of a Lester Bowie phase. I almost always over-tongue, and when I improvise, high register smears and cries, repeated until they sound inevitable, seem to be what I want to express. Plus, I've been working with controlling my double-buzz, getting a fifth, or a full octave multiphonic when I hold a gnarly mid-register note. I've always had an affinity for New Orleans smears and a loud flutter tongue.

Watching the video of Anderson's piano concerto reminds me of one of the hardest things I've had to do as a trumpet player. Playing that piece with the UI orchestra, there was a very exposed, quiet, muted flutter tongue note. I'm used to screaming, raging--you know, like Mixtur or Bitches Brew, and in Anderson's piece, I was confronted with something I didn't know how to do: to compress a Bubber Miley outburst into a gentle, fragile Webern-sized space. There was a lesson there, about the ways that I as a white musician used (and sometimes continue to use) a quintessentially black trumpet timbre as a cartoon, a shotgun shell, a surrogate for emotional expression. Practicing Anderson's piece, split attack after split attack, I learned the limits of my stylistic integration, of my abilities to play sensitively within blues styles, to turn a scream into a prayer.

Eventually, out of frustration, I just put some cotton balls in my mute and let it rip. The failure, though, was in the way I segment my experience as a performer into the careful and the careless, the respectful and the restless. And since my embouchure in these days of writing and research will continue to be what it is, I suppose I can set about undoing the segmentation in my scholarship. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why I Love Musicology

Last week, I went to Leuven, Belgium (Flanders, I suppose) for the third international conference on music and minimalism. More on that later, except to say it was a wonderful week, almost compulsively informative and consistently stimulative to my musicological orientations. It was also (shhh, don't tell anyone) my first trip off of the ol' North American continent; my first trip out of the States except for Southern Ontario and Baja California.

So, because of my airfare rate, I got hustled into buying a student ID card. Long story, but Sunday night, before I left, I opened the student ID card (which no airline official or hostel host ever had the least inkling to check) and found that I had been issued the wrong person's card. The student from Denton, Texas actually had the same name as a famous television character. Anyway, I call the organization (STATravel) that had given me said card, and they asked if I could drive from Antioch, where I was before I flew out from O'Hare, to their Evanston office.

The thesis of my paper in Leuven was that a couple of Albert M. Fine's best pieces--two piano works for David Tudor, Three Movements for Piano and Symphonic Sketch--were accidentally minimalist, in a sense, a result of Fine's channeling of his neo-classical French tastes through a Cagean experimental aesthetic (with a heaping helping of humorous camp). Remarkably late within my development of this paper, which has been lurching forward in several iterations for the last few years, I discovered Nadine Hubbs's The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity. Fine (who was openly gay, and throughout the sixties began to construct his own self-conscious ideology for what this meant to his music and art) came of age writing like his one-time teacher Nadia Boulanger and listening to David Diamond, Virgil Thomson, and his correspondent Ned Rorem, even funneling many of these scores into Russia during the Khruschev thaw. But increasingly throughout the mid sixties, he tried (successfully) to personally ingratiate himself to John Cage and (unsuccessfully) to parlay that friendship into a viable experimental music career. He is a figure who even in failure really embodies a move Hubbs identifies, a network of neo-tonal modernists becoming displaced by a more "cerebral" network of experimentalists with consequences (that I probably overstate) for our reading of tonal Americana.

dot dot dot...

Here I was on Monday, about to leave for Belgium to argue that Fine was an anomalous, Cagean neo-classicist (or neo-classical Cagean, if you prefer), and forced by pesky circumstances to go to Evanston, when I remembered there were a few Fine items in the John Cage Notations collection at Northwestern, including several postcard pieces and an undated Scale Piece for John Cage. On short notice, a couple hours in advance, I phoned the librarian, who kindly obliged to allow me permission on such short notice, since I knew what I was looking for, and on the drive, I began to get excited. Conversations with librarians tend to do that.

Scales! For John Cage! Perhaps this was like Fine's dissonant counterpoint/aleatoric Play-Piece from 1964 and 1965 that suggests rotations and rhythmic variations based on quirks of spatial notation. Perhaps it relates to a question Fine wrote to Cage in 1966:
Dear Mister Cage: have you ever thought about setting up ‘a Guilded Estate” which could be called something like “Hut on Hudson” so that Nadia Boulanger and the Europeans might all come to study with you?
Evidence, evidence, coming together on all sides. So, I read the finding aid, which describes the piece as:
Scale piece for John Cage
1 scale in box; 14x17 cm.
[1] leaf; type and ink on paper; 11x16 cm

Hmm, a scale, in a box. Perhaps each note is a sort of card you can shuffle and then arrange according to your shuffling. Or, maybe it's a kind of mobile, cardboard that takes one shape or another depending on how you fold it, with similar instructions as Play-Piece.

Once I got into the archive, I dutifully examined and listed the contents each post-card piece in the first folder, taking note of the postmark (which, for figures like Fine who moved around often between New York and Cambridge, Mass., an important way of establishing a firm chronology). I looked at the box, which had an "M" logo in repetitive fashion over the tan and red box. Among the writing on the box, was--in what looked like Cage's hand in magic marker--"Fine Scale (northwestern)" Finally, I opened the scale piece box. And it was a...

disassembled postage scale, like this but smaller, or perhaps a pharmacist's scale, or a, um, underground small businessman's scale. I don't know, I'm not a scale excerpt. In a box. With a small postcard coated in wax, on which was typed:

Directions: drop the ENTERED or a similar suitable weight onto the assembled scale.

You may consider the piece finished:

(a) before you have dropped the weight.

(b) after you have dropped the weight

( c ) after the scale has stopped moving altogether

after the weight has been dropped

(d ) before or after any of the above directions are performed or read.

( e ) any other.

I was juked hard by a readymade, and reminded of why archival research matters. I looked at a mention of this "piece," fitting it into what I knew and trying to imagine writing it into my paper, falling in love with my own argument. But sometimes a scale is just a scale. And, for the first time in my archival research career, I sat inside of Northwestern's august, wood-paneled music library, not ten feet from walls and walls of musicological monuments, collections of Renaissance and Medieval polyphony, and sniffed deep into the box, trying to figure out what the residue of the ENTERED really was, feeling worlds away from ficta.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Jackson Mac Low, in the wake of the news

anyone want to perform this piece?

Social Project 1 (29 April 1963)

Find a way to end unemployment or

Find a way for people to live without employment

Make whichever one you find work.