30 November 2010

Success, Of A Sort

Given a project rife with contradictions, it's fitting that this edition of it has both affirmed and negated the well-worn saying about third efforts. With today's posting, I have for the first time succeeded in posting at least once daily for an entire month, as well as set a new personal record for posts in a month with 32. Nonetheless, this has been by far the least satisfying of the first three iterations of Blog Month. That comments have remained scarce is, of course, always a disappointment, but there's more to it than that this time.

Last year, while I started slowly, by the end of the month, I couldn't wait to get home to write. I had almost enough to say and enough time to polish it to be able to justify posting daily under the standards I try to hold myself to the rest of the year. Whatever I was reading, playing and experiencing elsewhere during that time must have been unusually inspiring or thought-provoking. I've felt inspired this month for a variety of reasons, but I've also been awfully busy. I knew that there was to be no slow month this fall, and so I tried to pick the most conducive one, but it was bound to be less than ideal either way. I frequently made room for this most trivial of projects by tabling other more vital ones in hopes that a relapse of last year's bout of inspiration might justify doing so. For the most part, it wasn't to be, and there were several days this month where I struggled to come up with something, anything to post. Notably, though, there were no days where I simply forgot to post, which is one improvement over last year. I think that bodes well for future projects, and I plan on continuing with them. But only once a year. At the most.

Per tradition, the entire opus will remain on the front page for the next several weeks. Savor it slowly, or all at once, but don't expect more of this type of material until next fall.

29 November 2010

27 November 2010

The Network

Readers could be forgiven for detecting a contradiction between something I wrote yesterday and a previous post on social networking and music, so I thought I'd offer a clarification. When I "tour" MySpace these days, I'm looking for networks of music, not networks of people. It's great to be able to play the age-old game of working your way out from music you already know and love by checking out those musicians' other projects. That's initially how I went about building my CD collection, and it's equally effective (not to mention free) in the context of MySpace. There is, in fact, a certain amount of professional obligation at play here, but I consider that aspect of it to be subservient to my curiosity as a listener and a general desire to discover new music.

What led me in a previous post to trash social networking in the context of music distribution is the idea of discovering new music through one's friends. At least that's how many sites have phrased it; I'd call it herd mentality. I suspect that this idea of social music discovery is one way these sites seek to deal with the needle-in-a-haystack aspect of a vastly oversaturated music scene. I for one enjoy the hunt, though, and don't find it as intimidating as some might; again, if you can manage to stumble on just one band you like, suddenly you have a thread, and you might never exhaust it. Daunting as this is in some ways, I find the idea of being spoon-fed my musical diet by some invisible hand to be the least palatable of all the options.

26 November 2010

Wolpe's Symphony

With all the talk about digital music services around here lately, it's important to remember that YouTube remains an incredible resource for musicians despite the legal and ethical gray areas it operates in. I for one like to balance my legal acquisition of in-print compact discs and MP3 files with periodic tours of YouTube and MySpace, and I usually come away with a new name or sound that piques my interest. I recently searched for the composer Stefan Wolpe on YouTube and discovered his Symphony of 1956, which has since come to fascinate me, this despite my later discovery of its low standing even among Wolpe fans.

Let's start with some background from the Stefan Wolpe society:

During the 1950s...Wolpe was seeking a way through classical twelve-tone and developing variation into a new constellatory form. While director of music at Black Mountain College (1952-6), Wolpe had the time and the seclusion to compose a series of scores that mark the high point of abstract expressionism: Enactments for Three Pianos (1953), Piece for Oboe, Cello, Percussion, and Piano (1955), and his Symphony (1956). In these works he said that he aimed for "a very mobile polyphony in which the partials of the sound behave like river currents and a greater orbit-spreadout is guaranteed to the sound, a greater circulatory agility (a greater momentum too)." Rather than a single center of attention, he sought to create multiple centers, "to give the sound a wealth of focal points with numerous different directory tendencies." To obtain a more open sound he further fragmented and superimposed derivatives of the shapes: "To keep the sound open, that openness which leads me to think in layers (like the cubists), often I use canonic (or double canonic) foldings to keep the sound as porous as possible. I use then all possible techniques of inversions, retrogrades, like attacking an object from all sides, or moving out from all sides of an object."

If such lofty pre-compositional scheming would seem to doom such a piece from the start, think again. To my ears, any of these metaphorical allusions to "river currents," "orbit-spreadout," "circulatory agility," "multiple centers," "a wealth of focal points," "layers," "foldings," and "attacking an object from all sides," is as good as any other in describing what I find so great about his Symphony. (I just wish I spoke German so I could comprehend the true meaning of whatever untranslatable term got translated as "orbit-spreadout." The translation might find its way into my vocabulary nonetheless; it's just that good on its own.) The propulsive energy of this piece approaches an improvised quality, yet with audible unity in pitch selection and manipulation that one would be hard-pressed to improvise.

In digging around for information about Wolpe, I eventually stumbled on a peculiar recollection from Elliott Carter:

His music is terribly uneven, but some of it is remarkable. What it always has is one thing you like to have in music, and that is a kind of personal enthusiasm. It's always very lively, you feel it's always in touch with life. It isn't routine. It's unexpected in many ways. There are all sorts of different kinds of things that he tries to integrate into one thing, which sometimes don't go together so well in one piece, but in others they do. The whole question of the relation of the diatonic to twelve-tone or chromaticism, the combination of those is something he fought with. Sometimes he solved it, and sometimes he didn't, as in the Symphony. It seems to me to be extremely odd that a man as experienced as he should have written a piece that is so difficult for the orchestra that it is nearly impossible to get a good performance. It may have been as a result of his contact with musicians in Europe, since he went to Darmstadt in its early days, when composers were writing very advanced and very difficult pieces.

Uh, hello? Elliott Carter talking shit about someone else's "very advanced and very difficult" piece of which "it is nearly impossible to get a good performance"? Something stinks here. I think the "relation of the diatonic to twelve-tone" is a somewhat more valid criticism, but I think he overstates it. Forgive the idealism, but I dream of a day when there is no longer a simple dichotomy between tonality and atonality, consonance and dissonance, tension and release, or whatever. Modern musicians have been working toward this for over a century and it has not yet come to fruition, but I hold out hope. More importantly, though, the converted can always decide to go along ahead of the lemmings and proceed this way ourselves as best we can. It's difficult and not totally attainable given the world we live in, but we can try. And I'm not saying I had to try to like Wolpe's Symphony, because I didn't; I loved it the first time I heard it. But, there certainly are moments here (isolated ones, really) that threaten to sound incongruous to the rest of the piece by virtue of lending themselves to a tonal hearing. I can hear them that way, but I can also hear them as inevitable manifestations of the inner logic of the piece, and to me, that trumps everything. Our conditioning really can get in the way of enjoying this kind of music, especially if it has been very traditional or conservative. Just do me a favor and try not to be like that, okay?

Kyle Gann is an avowed Wolpe fan and Carter detractor who has nonetheless opined that, "Wolpe's Symphony is one of his weakest works." Here are two eminent musical thinkers whose work and ideas are at odds in most every respect except for their interest in Wolpe, and they're both unimpressed by the Symphony. I beg to differ, but thanks to the YouToobz, you can make your mind up for yourself. I've embedded the entire piece below. No one's ever accused me of being an audiophile, and I actually tremendously enjoy the various imperfections of this rendition, from the slightly scratchy sound quality to the obvious struggles of some of the players to execute exceedingly difficult passages. Whereas Carter complains that it's almost impossible to get a good performance of this piece, I have to wonder if it isn't the mark of a truly great piece that it can tolerate a certain amount of abuse. In any case, I'm imagining what a cleaner rendition would sound like and I'm not at all sure I'd prefer it.

If you navigate to the actual YouTube page for each of these videos, you'll find that, predictably, the number of views declines as you progress through the movements. Too bad; the piece gets better as it goes along. Of course, I expect everyone to listen to all four or you're not allowed to read my blog anymore.









25 November 2010

Other Aspects of the Art

In my rush to keep the dream alive, I omitted two important considerations from yesterday's discussion. The first is spontaneity. These pieces are essentially improvisations, albeit within severe enough constraints that the variations among them are of the subtle variety. Even so, this is an important parallel with my musical endeavors. I sense similar faculties at work and similar sensations present during the creation of these pieces as I do while improvising musically, and both acts take more out of me mentally than they do physically. That the sketches would take anything out of me is odd, since they only take about 20 minutes to make, but the "endgame" so to speak is always a bit suspenseful, and I sometimes even feel the slightest bit nervous as it approaches. I don't stop, though; working from start to finish without the opportunity for revision is an important part of the process. Perhaps I should start calling them "improvisations." I do hate titles, though.

As you could have guessed from the above points, the second consideration is temporality. While ultimately I intend the completed works to be observed statically, I think it would be interesting to "perform" them. There would have to be some technology involved, but it could be done: you would need some kind of touch screen beneath the paper to detect the sketches as they're made, and a projector to bring the show to an audience. A "virtuoso" could sketch with both hands at once, beginning the pattern at opposite ends of the paper and moving toward the center. I imagine that the idea of an audience sitting silently in a room watching a monitor would meet the same criticism that abstract symphonic music meets these days; I would say the same thing in response.

24 November 2010

I Write Draw for Myself

The art I posted yesterday is the fourth such piece I've created. It's a bit juvenile, and that's part of the point. When I was a kid, this was the form that my doodles always seemed inclined to take, a series of straight (or almost straight) lines connected (or not) to infinity. I detested music as a child, but was very interested in drawing. Representational drawing defied my abilities, however, this despite a near fixation on the subject for a time, and a few separate attempts at seeking formal instruction. Had I the slightest inclination towards abstraction at that young age, I may have spent my life creating these monochrome sketches rather than composing music, but for better or worse, like most young kids, my interest in the arts was always driven in some way or another by the entertainment industry, and as we all know, abstraction doesn't sell.

To be sure, I'm worse than a dilettante when it comes to visual art, but that's also part of the reason I thought it might be worth sitting down to draw again. With so much handwringing, here and everywhere else, about the differences between initiates and non-initiates when it comes to modern music, I started to wonder if this might not be a good way to more truly put myself in the shoes of a naive musician. Additionally, when I started considering the implications that much of my musical philosophy might have in the visual realm, I realized that this silly childhood scribbling actually reflects that quite well. I had "found my voice," so to speak, as an artist long before I would as a musician, probably because the technical demands of my musical voice are enormous compared to the minimal ones required by the art I posted yesterday. This mystifies me a bit, though. While a high degree of abstraction and a minimum of discernible sequences or patterns are indeed two features I value highly in a piece of music, there are other facets of my art that are severely at odds with my musical value system, the most obvious being the severe economy of means.

Musical minimalism greatly intrigues me conceptually and philosophically, but as a listener, I generally don't care much for the results. Conversely, I remember encountering Donald Judd's concrete work as a teen and being fascinated by it without having a clue why. I still am, and I still don't know why; it's tempting to conclude, as many would, that this is a predictable case of training influencing reception, but I think if you presented me with the Ferneyhough of visual art, I'd probably like that too. (Actually, that sounds awesome; anyone know who that might be?) I'm also a stylistically restless musician, whereas I can't imagine being comfortable working in any visual medium other than these sketches. That conflict intrigues me as well.

I hope to use these works as cover art on some future releases, and may post some more here. However, I've seen too many faux-musicians trying to pass off their own juvenilia as some kind of earth-shattering aesthetic triumph, and I certainly don't want to come off that way. Let's just say that I write draw for myself, not as a gesture of contempt, but one of respect.

23 November 2010

Art

22 November 2010

Album Only

I generally want complete albums, but in rare cases, I might be after a particular track. I often wonder if all of us aren't after those same tracks, because they more often than not tend to be the very same ones that are Album Only.

More than once over the past several years, I've tried to figure out how to purchase a Stanley Turrentine version of "Sugar," a tune that I often teach to my students; more than once, I have found this tune to be Album Only everywhere I knew to look (though I haven't looked recently, so who knows). It was often the only such track, even if it wasn't over 10 minutes. You think someone knows what's up?

If the damn things are so precious, charge a dollar more. Charge two dollars more for all I care. I would pay $2.99 for a track, but not $5.99, and I don't want to waste time, bandwidth and disk space on shit I don't want. The sites/labels think they'll make a few extra bucks this way, but I wonder how many sales they lose entirely?

Fwiw, iLike.com seems to have the fewest Album Only restrictions of any place I've looked. I was able to buy a nearly 13 minute track that is Album Only everywhere else for $1.89, saving several dollars (and mins. and kbps and MBs) over what the whole album would have cost. This inspired me to investigate further and discover that you can get away with all kinds of things at this site. For example, there's a version of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, a piece whose outer movements are each nearly a half-hour long while the middle movement is considerably shorter, where each of the three tracks can be purchased individually for $0.99. Also, the two lengthy tracks of Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz" are Album Only, but the album itself only costs $1.99. Compare that to $7.79 at emusic and $10.99 (!) at Rhapsody. iLike is, unfortunately, now owned by MySpace. I won't take back anything I said yesterday about social networking, but damn...either they're able to use their market share as leverage in negotiations, or they're getting away with something serious.

21 November 2010

Digital Music and the Greater Lemming Community

When it comes to digital music services, there's a pet peeve of mine that even Lala could stand to be scolded for: the social networking component. If there's any value whatsoever in keeping apprised of what everyone else is listening to, it's to be able to avoid listening to it yourself. One can certainly use the information that way, but I suspect that's not how it was intended to work:

eMusic is about the love of music. Based on your listening preferences we take you to great new music as well as tell the story behind the classics. We unearth forgotten gems, make connections that lead you to new music and make the music you already love a little richer. Call it a curated approach. eMusic is perfect for people who love music but don't have 20 hours a week to stay on top of what's going on. We make sense of it all so you can find and enjoy the music you love.

It takes a hell of a lot more than 20 hours a week folks. Get over it. No one can truly "keep up" anymore, including you. Keeping up isn't the point anyway, unless you already know everything about all the music that was made before you were born. This conceit of a third party distilling the cumulative musical ferment of society down to the "right" two albums a month is not only impractical, but a little scary. I don't care how "indie" you are, if you're in business, I don't trust you to do a better job digging up new music than I can, and I certainly don't need a profile page so that the other lemmings can cop my shit.

Even being something of a modernist curmudgeon, I still tend to end up with an assortment of music in my collection that defies collaborative filtering as it is currently constituted, or at least it would seem this way since the "people who bought this also bought..." lists never seem to contain anything I would touch with a virtual ten foot pole. Based on the generally more eclectic tastes of most of my acquaintances, I have to think that it's probably even worse for them. So while I can't avoid unwittingly contributing to the lists that pop up on other people's screens, I won't be filling out my emusic profile and I won't be viewing anybody else's. If you really care what me, myself and I are listening to, you'll have to ask.

20 November 2010

The 3 Tiers of Digital Music Bliss (R.I.P.)

It occurred to me after writing last night's entry that this is the simplest way to sum up what was so great about Lala. I imagine that most of us could put over 90% of our purchased music into 3 categories:

Tier 1 - We'll be listening to it again.

Tier 2 - We're glad to have heard it, but don't need to hear it again.

Tier 3 - We wish we'd never heard it, or at least spent money to hear it.

Lala is the only service I've yet encountered whose format seemed to take into account that this is a 3-tiered system, not a 2-tiered one (i.e. take it or leave it). First and foremost, because you could listen once to the entire track for free, you never had to purchase anything wondering what the rest of it sounded like. Buying music based on samples is like buying a house having only been shown one room. This is especially true outside the realm of pop, and most especially in classical music, where listening to 30 seconds often tells you little more about a 3 minute piece than it does about a 60 minute one.

Next, if you wanted to hear the piece again, you didn't necessarily have to pony up $0.89 per track, or several dollars per album, but rather could buy streaming access for a matter of cents. This was the most unique aspect of Lala: a recognition of the difference between Tier 1 and Tier 2. Traditional services, meanwhile, are stuck dealing in black and white. With a download-only service like emusic, you're simply stuck with your choices, while with streaming-only services like Rhapsody, you have to make an additional purchase in order to download the files. A commenter suggests Zune Pass for PC users, and their service is indeed appealing as it includes both streaming access and a few downloads each month. You still have to sign up (i.e. pay) to stream anything more than samples, though, and in this respect, Lala's one free listen policy was still far superior.

Finally, if a track or album continued to grow on you through repeated online listening and you simply had to have the file, you could take the plunge and buy it, often for a dollar or so less per album than iTunes. Conversely, if you got what you could out of a track and didn't really feel the need to hear it again, you could breathe easy having only paid a few cents to stream it. If any other service can find a similar way to ensure that listeners never buy music they don't want, I have to think that customers will flock to that service. Of course, I'm sure all that wasted money adds up to a healthy profit for the current players in this market, but Lala seemed to be doing fine without it; $80,000,000 fine according to Apple.

19 November 2010

Subscription

As of last night, I am now an emusic subscriber. I've generally been dragging my feet in transitioning over to digital music acquisition (as opposed to physical media), but if for no other reason, the sheer ease of it is slowly winning me over, even though I do miss tending to my CD shelf. This particular foray, though, is the rather direct result of Apple shutting down Lala. Like many, I was incensed and vowed never to purchase anything from iTunes again (also like many, I doubt very much that I have purchased my last Apple computer; they've still got me by the balls, but I'm making the gesture anyway, even if it's a drop in the bucket compared to what I paid for this MacBook).

eMusic is nice, but like all the remaining options that I've looked into, it's inferior to Lala in some important ways. For one, you cannot preview full tracks, but instead get only very short samples. Also, while the downloads are cheaper than most any other place I've looked at, no one seems to be able to touch Lala's streaming price of just a few cents per track. By purchasing tracks or albums as "websongs," you could stream them to your heart's content. As a musician, I often end up wanting the file for music I intend to transcribe, play along with, or otherwise study closely, but even so, the fact that you could load your Lala "wallet" with the minimum payment of $5 and use it to purchase access to a dozen or so complete albums was, well, too good to be true. I don't know how on earth Lala managed to negotiate this agreement, and I worry that Apple set music distribution back a decade by trashing it, because no one else seems to offer it.

Of course, there are other services that allow unlimited streaming of their entire libraries for roughly the same monthly cost as an eMusic subscription. This is tempting, but I'm not quite ready for it. For starters, I have to be able to move around when I'm listening, usually in the form of pacing. Sitting in front of a computer is among my least favorite ways to listen, not only because I can't move, but also because it's a computer and I'll be on Yahoo Sports before the first solo is finished. Out of deference to my housemates, I rarely use the stereo, since lots of what I listen to isn't music to most people, and since they already have to listen to me practice a couple of hours a day. Once you have the files, though, they can be loaded onto an iPod (a term which is quickly taking its place among the likes of Kleenex and Xerox) and taken wherever, usually from one end of the living room to the other...repeatedly. (I prided myself forever on possibly being the last person left without an iPod; even though I finally gave in, I assume I'm still the only person who bought it with no intention of ever taking it out of the house.)

The transience of streaming in comparison to actually having the files on your hard drive does make me a bit uneasy, much more uneasy than the digital-versus-physical question that hangs up people my parents' age. Witness the Lala doomsday scenario, where everyone who had purchased streaming access to just the tunes they wanted for an incredibly good price woke up one morning to learn that in a month's time they would no longer have access to any of it. The iTunes credits we received in the amount of our websong purchases were virtually worthless considering that single track download on iTunes costs 10 times what a websong cost on Lala. Further, given the attacks on net neutrality and municipal wifi that have already been waged by big telecoms, it might not be a bad idea to have your music on a hard drive rather than in a cloud.

18 November 2010

Teaching Docket

This month and next, I am and will be teaching more than I ever have before for any significant stretch of time. But what's more remarkable, to me at least, about the present slate is its diversity. It had been a couple of years since a trombone student had signed up to study with me, but I've picked up 3 of them since the beginning of the month; my Jazz History and Listening Class at the West Bank School of Music has populated for only the second time since we began offering it; our director at WBSM wrote and received a sizable grant earlier this year to allow us to offer a series of 5-week workshops, and Milo Fine and I are leading one on Improvised Music; and two of my longer-term tuba students are auditioning to be music majors next year, the first two from my studio to have the inclination.

Rather than bogging me down, all of this sudden activity has me enjoying teaching like never before. It's rare that I've been able to be active as an educator in all of the areas in which I'm active as a performer and composer, and not surprisingly, as with those other endeavors, I'm much happier that way. It's also, of course, easier on the wallet to be teaching more. Much ink has been spilled lamenting cases where musicians were forced to teach to make a living, but I've never felt that way myself; I see at least a minimal amount of teaching as an obligation to feed the other side of the pipeline, and have a genuine desire to share what I've learned with students.

If anything, I find it unfortunate that I derive most of my income from teaching not because it gets in the way of my other pursuits, but because I'd rather not have to charge for it. In a perfect world, I would teach a handful of students, free of charge, and with high expectations (both achievement and attendance) that would have to be met in order to continue the relationship. I would just as soon teach raw beginners as aspiring pros assuming they show up every week and put the time in to make steady progress. Until that day, though, what I'm doing now through the end of the year is just about the next best thing. Variety is the spice of life.

17 November 2010

Make-Up Calls

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has won Manager of the Year in the American League, some would say more for his managing in the early-to-mid 2000's than in 2010. If hindsight is 20/20, maybe these awards should be voted on 5 years out rather than in the days after the regular season; everyone knows Gardy should have won one by this time, but as has been pointed out, once a snub is made, the make-up call pushes the next deserving candidate back a year, and a vicious cycle ensues whereby an honor supposedly tied to a specific time span becomes more like a lifetime achievement award.

The obvious comparison to the music world would be with the Pulitzer, but that horse hath been flogged. Rather, this also makes me consider the idea of "timelessness" in music, and the implications of building a value system around it. Critical, scholarly and popular fashions are fickle things: composers' legacies are at their mercy, and make-up calls are common. In some ways, we are stuck in a perpetual state of making up for our forebears' misidentification of merit in the music of their time. (It is not just mere "hindsight" that better suits later generations to this task, but also their pronounced lack of irons in the fire so far as careers and egos are concerned.) This is inevitable but unfortunate, since we could be investing that time in fighting our own era's battles, and maybe saving the next one some of the same trouble.

Esoteric composers everywhere are castigated for admitting that they're banking on receiving posthumous acclaim, but one must remember that "timeless" music reaches more listeners over time than any of us can reach during our lives. I don't think it's such a bad mindset to have, and I'm all for make-up calls in music.

16 November 2010

Prescriptions

I've always been of a mind that prescribing repertoire for competitions, grad school auditions and other such circumstances is short sighted. One's choice of repertoire says a little bit about their technique, but a lot about their musicianship. Committees aren't ignorant of this, but rather keenly aware of it; direct comparison of players' execution of the same set of tasks is to be favored because it enables the imposition of more objective criteria in a way that isn't possible when everyone is playing different music. Personally, I don't think that's a good thing. Any conceit of objectivity in a music competition is a mirage anyway; I'd rather everyone heeded the total musical package, whatever that is to them. I know that if I ever found myself sitting on a committee where I was asked to assimilate someone else's value system, I'd certainly want to know why I was invited in the first place.

When it comes to instruments like the tuba, I wonder if committees aren't more apt to prescribe repertoire simply because there is so little of it to choose from. A tubist-composer or -arranger who creates even a merely serviceable new piece for themselves to play has stacked the deck substantially in their own favor (you'll gather from that statement that I personally consider most all of the usual suspects to be less than serviceable, if not as showcases, then as music, which is more important). On the other hand, one wonders if mediocre music is ever prescribed precisely in order to see who can make the best of it. If personalization is the goal, though, better to let everyone choose (or even create) their own music in the first place.

15 November 2010

Revision as Conformity

Earlier this month, I wrote briefly about an old tune of mine I was reworking on short notice. It was performed last night, and seemed to go over well. I wrote this composition when I was only 19, and the original version is typical of someone that age: there are strong ideas marred somewhat by some bizarre harmonies, a few of which I didn't know how to notate and had to invent chord symbols for. The revision process essentially consisted of "cleaning up" this mess, in other words, removing everything that isn't normative in a hard bop minor blues and converting a few wild chord symbols to more standard ones. I hate doing that to my tunes, whatever the style; there are enough hard bop tunes already, and those of us living today could never do it better than the style's originators anyway. It's one reason revision is not one of my strengths as a composer. As my music gets more "original," I find revision to be more palatable because I feel a greater sense of ownership over the ideas at play. But there are several early works of mine, like this one, that I've been loathe to revisit because they are clearer imitations of historical styles, and revising the non-normative elements out of them would mean depersonalizing them almost completely. Even if the result is more palatable to my current set of ears, I often sense that there was another solution which I simply was not up to finding at the time, and that I will not find now given how different I am. The stylistically normative solutions can revive a tune, but at this point, I've written better tunes in all of those styles anyway, and again, we really don't need too many more of them at this point (I don't, at least).

Of course, composers evolve with time, but those bizarre 19 year-old ideas are always with us. There was a bar or so of my arrangement for last night that I wasn't in love with, but simply couldn't see working any other way. I can recall countless instances of the same situation going back to my earliest compositional efforts, and they continue to this day. The difference is that nowadays, they often work way better than I think they will before hearing the piece played. I think it's that sense of logic that improves most of all over time in a composer, moreso even than their technique or their knowledge of other pieces. When it comes time to revise again in another 10 years, maybe I won't have to take those parts out.

14 November 2010

Compression

This is the promised follow-up to yesterday's post

In his lecture, Treasure asserts that compressed audio makes listeners tired and irritable, and that cheap headphones pose a greater risk of damaging hearing because listeners are apt to simply turn the volume up in order to compensate for the lack of clarity. I listen to a lot of compressed audio, usually on the cheapest headphones I can get, and to me, the listening environment has a lot more to do with the volume I listen at than the sound quality does. The middle of the day is the worst time for me to listen because that's when there's the most background noise, both outside and inside; morning and evening are much more conducive.

Whereas it has been observed that some people damage their hearing by continually turning the volume up throughout a listening session as their ears adjust to the new level, I find that the opposite is also possible. If things are relatively quiet, I'm able turn down the volume as the session goes along. I try to proceed this way whenever possible; it's not just healthier, but begets more focused listening. It also means that the levels at which I listen to highly compressed audio, while they may be higher, are not so much higher that I'm putting myself at risk.

All of this aside, the bit about our brains trying to imagine the missing data in a compressed file is laughable. The human brain is not capable of "sampling" at the rates of even the lossiest audio; if it was, we would actually hear the holes in the sound. And even if this was possible, it might be unpleasant, or it might not. It might be heard as a disfigurement of a great work of art, or it might be heard as a new kind of art. The truly dangerous aspect of what Treasure is putting forward is the direct attribution of various psychological effects to particular sounds in utter disregard of social and cultural context. If what he's saying is true, it would seem to preclude the very possibility of art music, most of which makes occasional (if not copious) use of the types of sounds he labels as inherently harmful. He's the first coming of the anti-Cage, if you will, and hopefully the last.

In fairness, Treasure had to squeeze his talk into an exceedingly small time frame imposed by TED; deep in the comments, he refers to, "the rather stressful experience of cramming a TED talk into 7 minutes" as an explanation for a minor omission. In this article, presumably not written under those kind of constraints, he's more rational, granting that different listeners will find different things soothing and irritating. Even so, his advice to avoid listening to too much rap and death metal because they convey anger is codgerly at best. Some people listen to these musics when they're angry precisely as a way to let it all out and get it over with quicker, which would seem to fit with the kinds of things he's advocating; but that point aside, I think it is, again, presumptuous to conclude that music which conveys anger and that which is made out of anger are necessarily the same thing, or that all listeners will necessarily perceive a nexus in the same works, whether there is one or not. And as I opined yesterday, the construction of a system for evaluating the healthiness of music based on something as subjective as the emotion it supposedly conveys is an outright dangerous idea, and invites 1984-ish dystopian visions in anyone who claims fealty to musical modernism.

An interesting test case here would be Messiaen, who often used birdsong he transcribed himself in his music, and whose sacred music could never be labeled as having been written out of anything but love; yet even so, there is much harsh dissonance in his music, and while it is clearly more accessible than many composers of the era, it still might as well be Webern to many people. I wonder if "good intentions" truly transcend style for Mr. Treasure?

The invocation of the term "schizophonia" is also bothersome. The "dog barking at the speakers" doesn't know what a speaker is or why it emits sound; it doesn't have a lifetime of social conditioning to help it understand when it's time for barking and when it's time for aesthetic contemplation; and it doesn't inherit an immaculate, centuries-old tradition of art music from its canine ancestors. One would think that the dissociation of sound from its original source is something humans are well-enough equipped to deal with, most especially if context is considered. Of course hearing a gunshot fired from behind you is scary! To compare this with listening to an iPod on a bus is completely absurd. Schizophonia is a big scary word that resembles the name of a common and devastating mental illness, yet it seems to refer to an exceedingly transient, externally imposed condition rather than a chronic, internal one (and one which is, ironically, imposed on us several times over in the TED lecture, notably by the crack that suddenly appears in the "schizophonia" graphic itself ca. 2:40; apparently it wasn't enough of a deterrent to warrant sacrificing some visual accoutrements). Besides, according to schizophonia's hilarious entry at Urban Dictionary, there's nothing to worry about.

Finally, consider that Treasure is a businessman. He has a book out. He runs a consulting firm. Some of this is so ridiculous that it almost seems like a publicity stunt. If you Google him, you'll see that it's working, as well as (frighteningly) finding some sympathetic followers. I'd otherwise be inclined to ignore it, but let's face it, if I in my very occasional sampling of only the most esoteric of music blogs managed to stumble on one of his lectures, then he's getting over. (And here I am giving him more publicity.) In any case, if you want to talk about making sound harmful, about abusing its properties, using it to manipulating people's emotions, or sullying its natural beauty, I can't think of a more distasteful use of sound than for the ends of Treasure's firm. It's an interesting pose he's striking.

13 November 2010

Oppression

I'll follow up on this tomorrow, but for now, just let this TED talk soak in and see if it doesn't make your skin crawl just a little bit:



The bit about compression causing your brain to work harder to fill in the missing data is just plain funny; the bit about music which is "made with love" being beneficial is no laughing matter, though, especially when an organization as influential as TED is giving someone a platform to state it as a scientifically proven fact. It seems that there are an awful lot of people working awfully hard to come up with just about any reason they can to prove goddammit that contemporary music is the devil's spawn. It's not hard to imagine a dystopian society where such "scientific" evidence is wielded as a McCarthyistic bludgeon against musicians whose source material is judged by some bureaucrat to have been written out of hate. Let's hope it doesn't get that far.

12 November 2010

Placeholder

This is one of those posts, of which there's sure to be at least one more yet this month, that I'm writing simply to keep the dream alive. This is my third crack at Blog Month, and where I failed miserably to post on a daily basis in previous years, to this point in November of 2010, I've held my own. So, as you could probably gather from that lead in, I don't really have anything to say today that's worth saying. I only allow (force?) myself to post under these circumstances but one month out of the year. Enjoy it while it lasts, or alternatively, take solace in the fact that there are only 18 days left in November.

Of course, it's only 10 o'clock, and most of the material this month has been posted later in the evening than that. Given another two hours to ruminate, I could surely get myself worked up enough about something or other music related to be able to write an entry that's at least thought provoking, if not actually a useful contribution to the discourse. I'm going to a concert tonight instead. I think some people might be surprised to read that, or maybe even inclined not to believe it, but I'm not making it up. I'm on my bike as soon as this sucker is published; proofreading can wait until I get home, or perhaps tomorrow afternoon, if it's required.

It's true, I do go to hear live music on occasion. I don't go unless I want to hear what's being performed, which means I go less than a lot of musicians do, and some of them think that makes me a spoilsport. Fine with me. I'd rather give better prepared performances, produce more immaculately crafted compositions, and publish more useful and scholarly blog entries than be able to say that "I was there." I don't seem to run into anyone I know at Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concerts, or when bands like Arp of the Covenant or Behold...The Arctopus play Minneapolis. Maybe if I bitched about it to more people, that would change. More likely, though, is that those people would just go on their blogs and write something like what I'm writing right now about how their friend dissed them for not being at a concert they would have hated.

So, with that in mind, here's my admonishment to everyone to chill out with the whole "support" thing. If you go to concerts for reason other than listening, you're supporting mediocrity more often than you're supporting "the music." I go to listen, not to support, get a gig, socialize or whatever. That's my holier-than-thou retort to the holier-than-thous out there. With that, I'm off to Maude to hear Enormous Quartet. Let the record show that's what I was doing tonight instead of writing something you might have found informative. See you assholes back here tomorrow.

11 November 2010

After Gann

There are musics that I myself utterly loathe, like those of Franz Schubert and the band Journey, that I wish I'd written, because they are accessible enough to seem predestined for wide appeal, even though it's not wide enough to include me.

10 November 2010

North

Last month, the superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools recommended that North High School be phased out. I was on tour all month and only learned of this through an email from KBEM, the jazz radio station that operates out of North High, but the proposal made headlines locally, and rightfully so. Though the message stated that the radio station "continue[s] to have the support of the school board and the Minneapolis Public Schools," the thought of North High closing makes me sick regardless.

I'm a biased observer working with limited information, but there's plenty about this that stinks. A Minnesota Public Radio story from last month states that,

There were more than 1,100 students attending North High School just six years ago. This year, there are just 265, and only about 40 of those are freshman who started this fall.

and later that,

North is the only high school in the city without an attendance zone, which means it's no one's default school. Even families living across the street from North are assigned to Henry or Edison. District leaders acknowledge that, but add the enrollment problem has been around longer than those attendance zones.

To my knowledge, the attendance zones go back to at least 1996, when my parents and I decided to buck them, instead gambling on another Northside high school with low enrollment and a checkered history, Patrick Henry. (North and Henry are arch rivals, and played some wildly entertaining basketball games while I was a student. The prospect of there never being another one of those games is unfortunate by itself.) I don't know what North's attendance zone was in 1996, or if there was one, but I know for a fact that such a system was in place. Even without knowing what North's precise enrollment was in 1996, that last comment rings hollow to my ears.

It was Henry that had enrollment problems in the early 1990's, but it also had a small built-in clientele of affluent, mostly white students from the very outer edges of northwest Minneapolis bordering Robbinsdale and Brooklyn Center, as well as the city's newest outpost for the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which was what drew me there, and what ultimately proved the school to be worth the substantial commute. They've recently started an IB program at North in hopes of attracting more students. It worked for Henry; according to this data, enrollment there topped out at 1,564 in 2003-04, which is about twice what it was when I got there seven years earlier. It seems they're not willing to give North that kind of time, though.

In the snippets of last night's school board meeting that I skimmed through today, I heard multiple references to "changing the culture" of North High in order to boost achievement. I never attended the school, and I haven't been in the building for years, so I can't speak to what kind of culture has grown up there, but the phrase bothers me anyway. It reeks of focus group naivete. I loved the culture on the Northside, though I could never truly call it my own, and I miss it in many ways. If North is a failing school, it's because the rest of us failed them. Closing the current school and reconstituting it with freshly minted focus group platitudes plastered on the walls isn't going to address the bigger issues at play here, but it's better than not having a high school on the near Northside at all, which would be criminal.

09 November 2010

Noob Alert

When Google notifies you that your band's name has appeared in a new place on the the interweb, it looks like this:



When the person who is responsible for said band name appearing in said new place on said interweb is a real pooper, it looks like this*.


Any of you computer whizzes out there want to explain to me how this works (or take responsibility)?


*May not be work or family appropriate depending on your work or family...bet you're wishing I'd placed this statement in closer proximity to the link right about now.

08 November 2010

Addition By Subtraction

I'm currently working on repurposing an old composition of mine to meet an unforeseen deadline. Early in this blog's reign, I wrote of my discomfort with all of the tributes one encounters in jazz, and mentioned this very tune, my first and last contribution to the cause, and one which even used this dreaded word in the title: "Tribute to Oliver Nelson."

I've certainly written better things in the intervening 8 years or so, but for reasons I won't go into, this tune is about the only thing I have that fits the bill for the current obligation, and so I'm revisiting it. There's potential here which has me questioning the assumption that I'd never play it again, which was probably more about the title than anything else. I'm going to call the new version "Oliver Nelson," as in Chick Corea's tune "Bud Powell," a tune which succeeds musically despite being sort of a stylistic mash-up, much like what I'm after. Ironically, by taking to word "tribute" out of the title, I'm now paying tribute to two, perhaps even three, musicians instead of one. Even so, I'm happier to be doing it more tactfully than I was before.

07 November 2010

Me, Myself, and The Music I Want To Hear

Kyle Gann is a really smart guy and a fine musician, but he can say the darndest things when issues of accessibility are raised. He has this to say about composers who write for themselves:

"I write for myself" is one of those self-defeating clich├ęs that academia acculturates young composers into, like "The music should speak for itself!" I can't imagine that any young artist starts out thinking that his work need only bring pleasure to himself.

(click here to read the entire post)

Actually, I was saying those things as a teen, before I even knew that you could major in music in college. I guess they should have given me my doctorate right then and there. Gann would like to skewer everyone who ever uttered such things by tracing their origins to an easily discredited source, but there are sources and then there are authentic reactions to social dynamics. In my case, I simply got tired of being asked what I was trying to depict in my music, which in all but the rarest of cases is nothing in particular. There's nothing to explain; I'd have to make something up, and that wouldn't be very honest of me. Besides, I hate listening to composers talk about these things, whether they're being honest or not. That's not why I go to concerts, and I didn't learn that from any institution, but rather discovered it about myself through trial and error.

I'm also not really sure how Gann gets from "I write for myself" to "I write to bring pleasure ONLY to myself and no one else can have any." Writing for oneself is nothing more than a methodology; it doesn't forbid the work from appealing to others, even if it decreases the odds somewhat. Gann seems to see a negligible semantic variation as a righteous line in the sand, assailing the saying "I write for myself" while granting that he "write[s] music that [he] want[s] to hear." He also writes that,

...I am disappointed if my music is playing and a passerby, any passerby, doesn't stop to ask, with a twinkle of curiosity, "What is THAT?"

...and thus we are introduced to the ultimate red herring in any discussion of accessibility, the universal piece of music. Gann of course goes on to hedge his bets, saying of writing for oneself that, "It's a defense to be used against having failed to engage the interest of others, which happens to us all now and then." (my italics) Actually, it happens to all of us, all the time. Much as we would all like to have created such a thing, there is not and cannot be a work which accomplishes what Gann is describing. If he wishes to explore this slippery slope, that's his prerogative, and he does no harm to the rest of us by doing so. This earlier passage takes the cake, though, and makes it hard to take him seriously:

...there are musics that I myself dearly love, like those of Phill Niblock and Stefan Wolpe, that I would never write, because they are esoteric enough to seem predestined for only a narrow specialist appeal, even though it's wide enough to include me.

How fortunate for Gann, then, that composers like Niblock and Wolpe ignored such ridiculous moralizing and created the music that they did; otherwise, his and many others' musical lives would be less rich. I'm baffled that someone as astute as Gann would strike such a pose, maintaining an abiding interest in much music of narrow appeal while seemingly expressing contempt for those who might dare to create it.

Most commentators who set musical accessibility and self-gratification in opposition the way Gann does in his missive do so in order to defend their own low-brow pandering. Clearly he is not of this ilk, concluding his entry with a characteristic call for prioritizing artistry over careerism; rather, it's as if he thinks he's staking out the moral high ground, allying accessibility with altruism and esotericism with nihilism. He's even willing to locate some of his favorite music, music he "dearly love[s]," on the wrong side of the tracks to accomplish this. The outcome is baffling on the surface, and the logic is not infallible either.

I would argue that the desire for mass appeal is more harmful than helpful to the cause of making sure everyone has something nice to listen to. The ranges of style and presentation which facilitate the kind of broad accessibility Gann advocates are severely limited compared to the diversity of work that might come from a community of just a few dozen composers. By definition, the work of artists who prioritize accessibility above all else inevitably converges, whereas the work of those who are least moved by external forces ("write for themselves" if you insist) inevitably diverges.

The desire to appeal doesn't mediate each individual artist's work in a direction unique to that artist, but rather mediates all such artists' work in many of the same directions, resulting in a greater level of conformity that threatens to exclude listeners who desire something outside of this mainstream. While each individual composer in such an environment can say that they are serving more listeners than if they simply wrote for themselves, as a group they are serving fewer. It's like volunteering to help build a fourth skateboard park in a wealthy suburb while one poor kid in the inner city goes without a reading tutor; it serves more people, but makes less of a difference.

06 November 2010

Milestones

This is the eighth post I've written this month. Earlier this year, I wrote eight posts total between March 3 and September 27.

The Aging Process

According to last night's program, the ensemble Zeitgeist , a local new music group which hosted my ensemble C.o.S.T. as part of their fall cabaret, is planning an "Early Music Festival" for next April. The featured composer is Henry Cowell (1867-1965). Though I generally have a low tolerance for hyperbole, I think the idea of labeling work from this era as "early music" in the year 2010 is not only brilliant, but also necessary, and I'm glad someone thought to do it.

To neglect most of the great living composers is one thing; to neglect most of the great music of an entire century is quite another. I wonder if advocacy for "living composers" as a group is one way the behemoth institutions at the top of the classical music food chain get away with continually abdicating their duty. As long as composers Cowell's age are wrongly categorized as "new" or "contemporary," orchestras will continue to point to their latest commissions to middlebrow careerists as evidence of a commitment to the ever expanding tradition, when the only things actually expanding are their noses. Kudos to Zeitgeist for calling them on it.

On Analysis

It seems to me that the benefits of any musical analysis tend to be rather exclusively available to the person who performed it, and more or less unavailable to anyone who might later come upon the finished product. Think about the time that must go into preparing an analysis for peer-reviewed publication, then think about the time it takes to read said article. The author cannot possibly replicate in any reader the brute force with which such a process tattoos the material on their brain; to do so, the reader must become an analyst themselves, and they might as well start with the primary document, not someone else's reduction of it.

An analogy could be drawn to learning musical material by ear versus from written notation, the latter being more efficient because the content has in a sense been reduced, the former being presented in its purest form. To be candid, I feel that the fear of written music which prevails outside the classical world is largely irrational (maybe I'll tell you why later this month), but there's no denying that to learn by ear is to learn everything all at once, while reading, though it doesn't have to be this way, certainly enables the musician to gloss over important details that aren't on the page, often making it more difficult to add them back in than it would have been to learn them concurrently.

05 November 2010

04 November 2010

Keeping Up

Earlier today, I was surprised to discover that the University of Minnesota School of Music, from which I received my B.M. five years ago, now requires prospective undergraduate performance majors on tuba, trombone and euphonium to perform orchestral excerpts at their audition for admission. For all I know, this could have changed the year after I was admitted or it could have just changed this year; I haven't had occasion to check the guidelines since I applied 10 years ago, but I have a student who is considering applying and was double-checking some information for him when I made the discovery.

In any case, this wasn't something I was required to do when I auditioned, nor had I so much as smelled an orchestral excerpt before I started college, nor do I now as a private teacher use orchestral excerpts with my high school aged students. The study of excerpts is the study of perfection. You're thinking that there are all kinds of things wrong with that, and you're absolutely right, but that doesn't make the statement any less true. There's an incredible amount of groundwork to lay before one can approach even the most technically elementary of excerpts, at least with the intent of perfecting it for audition purposes. Less advanced students certainly could benefit from the process as well, even if it's clear from the outset that they have no chance of getting the excerpt audition-ready, but if that's the case, why not specifically address these more basic deficiencies, which probably effect everything they do?

This is what immediately sprang to mind when I saw the guidelines, but of course, auditioning high schoolers on orchestral excerpts has been the norm for some time at the top conservatories. On that level, it shouldn't be the least bit surprising that the universitories are beginning to follow suit. It is notable, however, that excerpts are not required for any other instruments. This would seem to indicate that this came down not from Room 200, but rather from the low brass faculty, who are all excellent and all have their heads on straight. This leads me to believe that things have changed quite a bit at my alma mater, since I can recall encountering only one freshman low brass player in my four years there who showed up on day one with a solid grasp of excerpt playing. The fact that several other players not included in that statement have gone on to great things sums up my reservations about such a requirement pretty well, but I don't run the school.

Without delving into just how great the things I myself have gone on to may or may not be, it is stating the obvious at this point to say that I was not that person either, and hence my gut reaction was distress, since I myself most likely would have been deterred from applying altogether had this requirement been in place when I was in high school. On the other hand, though, while I in no way regret choosing music as a career, it has been clear to me for some time that I would have been a much happier undergraduate if I'd chosen a degree program that afforded me more electives than a performance degree does. Lo and behold, the excerpts are not required for B.A. in Music applicants, leaving me to wonder if this requirement which on the surface would seem to have been designed to keep people like me out of performance programs might actually have saved me from myself and all but forced me into a more balanced undergraduate experience. We'll never know.

I also maintain a certain amount of trepidation about labeling some degree programs so generally ("Performance") and others more specifically ("Jazz Studies") when in fact they are often equally specialized. Many of the conservatories which have led the way in escalating these admission requirements also have much more specific nomenclature in place to indicate that a degree program specifically emphasizes orchestral performance. On the other hand, the more general labels function quite well at the more aesthetically pluralistic music schools, acknowledging that students must ultimately find their own way. Perhaps one day I'll earn a graduate degree in 20th and 21st Century Quasi-Atonal Jazz-Influenced Performance, Composition, Arranging, Transcription and Literature. Not likely, but there's a better chance it will be called that than "Orchestral Studies."

03 November 2010

Visualizers

From whatever moment it was that I first became "serious" about music as a teen (too serious many would say) right up to the present day, few things have bothered me more than the appending of non-essential extra-musical stimuli to the listening experience. Besides the fact that I usually enjoy the experience less that way, I'm prone to take offense to any implication that music is not good enough by itself.

As time has gone on, it has become clearer to me that the problem is not necessarily with all extra-musical stimuli, but rather those which are particularly intellectually obtrusive. In other words, there are, on one hand, stimuli which distract whatever part(s) of our brains we're using to listen, and, on the other hand, those which appeal to some other available pathway, therefore truly adding to the listening experience rather than merely competing with it. For me, the distractions include language, meaning, allusion, representation, and for the most part, emotion as well (not mine, mind you, but rather that supposedly communicated by the stimulus). The enhancements, then, are exclusively limited to sensory stimuli as abstract as the music itself.

The word "visualizer" was not in my vocabulary until today, at least not in reference to software plug-ins. As it turns out, this is the term used to refer to the screensaver-like thing that some media players display while music is playing. I ran into one today and kind of dug it, which quite surprised me on one level given the hang-ups stated above, yet makes sense considering that the content was, in fact, completely abstract and clear of potential distractions. It was obviously reacting to the music that was being heard, yet whether by virtue of being well-designed or of my having reached some sort of inner detente with the extra-musical, it truly seemed to enhance rather than detract from the experience.

The conceit of unpredictability is one reason I find such things (more) successful. In a sense, this contributes to the overall degree of abstraction by undermining the development of expectations; visualizers which establish direct, consistent and perceptible correspondence between a sonic and visual stimulus have thus ventured into the realm of representation and association, which I place decisively in the distraction category. This is why I find things like Animusic so worthless, even creepy; paradoxically, it is this very correspondence between the musical and the visual that experts seem to have glommed on to as a boon to the developing brain, which more or less ensures that the bulk of such productions will take this direction.

Of course, it wasn't tough to tease out the pattern in many early screensavers, and I imagine that while technology has advanced substantially since then, a listener who spends many hours a day in front of the most abstract of visualizers would sooner or later, and consciously or subconsciously, develop associations that would ultimately undermine the element of abstraction. The specter of constantly seeking out new plug-ins to keep things fresh gives me pause when I think about making visualizers part of my listening routine, but I might try it anyway.

I also realized that, for some reason and without really thinking about it, I had developed the erroneous belief that visualizers were a PC thing, and was somewhat surprised upon looking into the matter to find that my very own copy of iTunes has them as well. It seems that the ones that come with it kind of suck, but people make their own, and you can download many of them for free. The fact that so many people would take the time to design and distribute these things speaks to the fact that music is, in fact, not good enough by itself for many listeners, and that still strikes a nerve. Even so, I may have seen the light just a bit today, and it was all swirly and neon looking.

02 November 2010

01 November 2010

Blog Month III

Installment #3 of the Blog Month project commences today.
Find explanations here and here.
Previous efforts are dissected here and here.
View the complete body of work here and here.

Hear, hear.