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.