31 December 2011

Blog Month IV: Perfunctory Terminal Posting


The content-rich life is not for me. I do make it look good, though.

Survey: Should This Blog Be Hosted Elsewhere?

I want the honest of opinion of anyone who happens to read this.

I have a sentimental attachment to Blogger, and I utterly loathe the thoughts of changing the URL of my blog, redirecting readers through to the new one with a postdated entry, and losing whatever perception of accomplishment comes with displaying a five-year archive of overwrought vitriol in the right sidebar, BUT...this shit is starting to drive me bonkers. Simplicity is golden, inflexibility is lethal. While I have no use for fancy embedded media players or dancing Flash-animated tubas in the background, I'm sick to death of length limitations on comments, labels, titles and even, I just discovered, the total length of posts that are displayed on the home page, which evidently I've managed to exceed for the first time this Blog Month. Starting tomorrow, this monstrosity SHOULD display the complete month of December in chronological order (i.e. backwards from blogging standard practice). Not allowed. According to what I dug up, someone hacked the chronology stuff years ago, but a recent update to Blogger caused this to stop working. And fuck jump breaks. Jump breaks are for 13 year olds who only want to read the first paragraph to see if it's something they can plagiarize for their book report.

I've never used Wordpress. It looks too fancy and I'm afraid I'll like it too much. I don't know what its limitations may or may not be, how much you get for free, or how intuitive the interface is. I suppose it would be easy enough to find out. It's not comforting to know that the people who work for Google are plenty smart enough to design something state-of-the-art but choose not to. So tell me, if you have an opinion, whether you think I should stay here or go there. I'm listening.

Flavor of the (Final) Month

Year-end retrospectives are everywhere, and jazz critics in particular seem to love them some list making this time of year. It always gets me thinking: how many times have they actually spun each of these records? Did they audit them on $1000 speakers or in the car on the freeway? And how many other new releases have they spun this year? How many times? Where?

Musicians are prone to wondering these things when it comes to questions of critical authority, but I wonder also out of a bit of insecurity. I haven't acquired or listened to a single record that was released this calendar year. It's quite rare for me to do so any given year, and has been forever. Real or imagined professional obligation as a player, composer, teacher and thinker has compelled me to spend an awful lot of time catching up on things that happened before I was born, and only secondarily on staying "up to date" with the latest developments. Whether I'm winning the battle or not, this is slowly changing: I've acquired many more records released in the 2000's over the last couple of years than I did during the years they were actually released. There's plenty going on today that interests me; it's just so hard to find that it's easier to wait a while and see what people are still talking about at the end of next year. I've learned the hard way that it's safe, nay, essential to ignore flavors of the month during the month in question. That goes for the final month of the year as much as any other.

As for the authority question, I can't imagine putting out a list of my own even if I had done more work. I've found that I need 3 listens to settle on a general thumbs-up or thumbs-down. My opinion changes frequently before that point and almost never beyond it. But to rate a group of albums empirically against each other would require several more hearings of each. And of course, I'm not talking about listening in the car or while making dinner; the music needs to be the sole object of your attention if you're going to claim any authority whatsoever, even to yourself. (When I say "empirically," of course I don't mean "for everyone for all time," but I think that within your own aesthetic, you can certainly be clinical in going about this kind of thing. If you don't, you end up fooled.) This is not at all to say that you are not listening for pleasure or that you are otherwise contriving some foreign mode of perception; indeed, distracted listening is the most unfulfilling and foreign mode for me. I recommend the opposite.

So, have these critics sampled even several hundred of the several thousand new jazz records that have come out this year? Have they devoted ca. 5 hours of calm listening time to each? That's getting into the thousands of hours already, an average of 3-4 hours every single day of the year, and you figure at some point for work or play they will want to listen to something from last year or earlier as well. I doubt that all of these numbers are nearly this high, though one or two of them might be (just a hunch, but I suspect it's the total number of records that's high and the number of spins that's low). I think lists which are constructed with authority are entertaining and sometimes even highly informative, but I have to be suspicious of the year-enders. Even if the critics themselves are authorities, the task they've chosen is one which under present conditions simply cannot be achieved authoritatively.

Classical music is, of course, a different and much more difficult situation. Maybe I really am living in the dark, but I've long been struck by the differences between how jazz and classical musicians go about their business. I think classical music badly needs an "underground" scene. I think classically trained players need to stop taking as a given that it's only a matter of time before they land a $200,000 a year gig playing in a top 5 orchestra. I think they then need to be willing to get to work building something better without the promise of an immediate union scale paycheck. String quartets playing Metallica covers in a classical style for coffee shop yuppies is not "underground." Jazz, its precarious condition notwithstanding, still has an underground. There are still compelling jazz performances and records being made in places and by people that the NEA and the yuppie DINKs they survey can't wrap their heads around. Can you say that about classical music? I can't. I see the same slick coating as the jazz world without the underground bearings that have kept it alive in contravention of so many professional listmakers' dire predictions. And I see a clear and simple explanation for this in the petit bourgeois self-importance of so many classical musicians. Jazz players collectively are not perfect, they are not saints, and of course they are getting more bourgeois by the day and will surely have to face this issue soon enough, but right this minute, their tradition is alive because they go underground and eat ramen when they have to. Meanwhile, the classical brats are floating higher and away, sipping merlot in a hot air balloon that's on fire. So I applaud the jazz critics' for including in their year-end lists music that was actually created this year! That means someone thought to make it, found a way to realize it, and got it into their hands. We should try it, classical folk. Grab your flannel shirts and PBR and let's get the fuck down to business already.

30 December 2011

Who Are You and What Are You Doing In My Bookmarks?

Hmm...what other blogger-like behaviors can I feign for the next 24 hours in order to make it to the end of this project? Well, how about a little Link 'n' Run?

For reasons I seem to have forgotten, these blogs found their way into my bookmarks at some point in the past. Checking them out months (possibly years?) later, I'm impressed enough to recommend them here, which I normally don't do. Long live Blog Month...


An interesting read with a range of interests and rate of activity which seem to match my own quite closely.


In particular, see this post for a fascinating story with a surprise ending. If you find this inspiring, I want to be your friend. If not, you can't be my friend anymore.

Big Mouths

Go here for an epic and thought provoking missive "about composers and history, about how the past is ineluctably linked to the instantiation of the future, an instantiation we generally call the present." Now this is blogging!

Alphabet Soup

Some timely reflections on the new music scene. And if for some reason you can't get enough of me from my own blog, I've spilled my guts here about an experience I had entering a competition.

It Is Not Mean If It Is True (Attack Attack Attack)
(Actually, I've been on to this one for a while, but I want to mention it anyway).

Stanley Jason Zappa "attacks" (in a good way) the only Adorno essay I thought I understood with sharp wit, contemporary perspective, and LOTS of highlighting. "Corporate Boppers and Performance Art Poseurs?" I am in all likelihood the only CalArts student who thinks that's funny (hilarious, actually).

29 December 2011


For the first time in a while, I've done some tweaking around here:

•The toolbar has been adjusted to match the color scheme as well as possible within the absurdly limited range of possibilities provided by the template.

•The title of the blog has been shortened from "My Fickle Ears Dig It" to simply "Fickle Ears," and the information immediately below has gone from alliterative to merely authorial. Let's face it, we're all sick and tired of the standard issue blogospheric shtick, and no one more than me, a point I continue to belabor here. Even so, it is surprisingly difficult to avoid slipping back into common-practice blogging, so in a fleeting lucid moment, I've opted to up the austerity factor yet another notch. If anyone was genuinely curious about the original title, it's something I blurted out once in a band rehearsal after the first complete run-through of a difficult new tune I'd brought in. As with most such statements, we thought it much funnier at the time than it really is, and it only took me five years to realize that the shortened version is a better title for a blog.

•Similarly, I'm now strictly an anonymous "follower" of the few blogs to which I've subscribed through Blogger's built-in reader. I quit Facebook in a moment of clarity and pretty soon I've started creating another social network without even noticing? What the fuck? I prefer to follow blogs through good old-fashioned browser bookmarks which I capture while reading comment threads and clicking on the profiles of contributors who seem to have something timely to add to the conversation. I'll still be keeping my Blogger subscriptions simply for old time's sake as I can't imagine a drawback to doing so anonymously, though I'm sure to think of one soon. Anyway, if you are one of those authors and just saw me disappear from your followers list, (a) get a life, and (b) I promise I'm still reading you, even though you don't have a life.

•I've just discovered (probably years late as usual) that Blogger has a built-in stats page. As the kids say, LOL!!! I can't seem to get it to stop counting my own activity towards page views and the like, even though there's an option to disable this, so who knows about some of the numbers. The most perplexing? Supposedly, 81% of my pageviews (One word? Further LOL...) are on Windows and only 14% on Mac. I find that pretty hard to believe. Spambots?...REPUBLICANS?


I continue to meet classically-trained brass players who also play cooler music on cooler instruments quite well, but who have built a wall between the two endeavors. None of them are happy about it. What gives, y'all? You've done all the hard work! Crossing over should be easy.

I was a brass specialist by 8th grade and a tuba specialist by 11th. I kick myself harder and harder over it as the years go on and my piano chops remain flaccid. Yet this also meant that I had no choice but to pursue the music I was interested in on the only instrument I was able to play well enough to do so. And of course, it was never in question whether the tuba and I were right for each other, even if other pairings could conceivably have worked out just as well. (Anecdotal evidence suggests that strings were not in the cards, though. I don't know how anybody plays those cursed things.)

In any case, I suspect our pedagogy is at fault. Brass playing in every style needs to become an art again (if it ever was before) rather than a craft. When it does, we will own our complete musical personalities on any instrument on which we have attained sufficient technique to do so. Walling will be a thing of the past.

The Transient Repertoire

I've forgotten where exactly, but somewhere or other among all the blogtastic drivel I've consumed over the past couple of weeks was an archetypal lament of the lack of recent compositions by living jazz artists which have truly entered the repertoire. It is indeed unfortunate in a sense, and yet at the same time, one wonders if this is simply a paradox inherent in the jazz tradition itself. Jazz is creative music, and as such, most everyone who plays it also composes for themselves (and rarely, if ever, for others; that's another interesting discussion). Performer-Composer is much more than a "traditional" mold towards which most musicians gravitate; it is essentially demanded of you by all kinds of circumstances inherent to this tradition. The inhibition of repertory momentum is built-in, paradoxically, by this emphasis on multi-faceted creativity.

You could say that there certainly is still a repertoire, and that it certainly has begun to ossify, but I can't help but wonder if this isn't the most incisive way to look at it. For one thing, the basic unit of currency in jazz repertoire has always been the particular performance, not just the lead sheet: Coltrane's and Hawkins' performances of "Body and Soul" are, of course, discrete items for today's players and listeners to tackle. In addition, within the most traditional circles, one could argue that the highly derivative nature of the compositions simply represents a different slant on repertoire, one by which the unit of currency is, again, a smaller one than the lead sheet: in other words, licks, chord progressions, and song forms. Perhaps this work doesn't so much enter the repertoire because it is the repertoire ground up and reconstituted with less new material added than might be expected in, say, the classical compositional tradition. By this logic, neo-traditionalism can be understood as a necessary "sausage-making" process that each generation (perhaps each musician) is tasked with, and as long as the "innovation" is happening concurrently somewhere else, this in and of itself cannot be a bad thing.

Having said all of that, I hereby nominate Buster Williams' "Christina" and Dave Holland's "The Balance" for repertory status. Damn it would be nice to be able to call either of those at a session...

28 December 2011

A Further Appeal To Time-Honored Literary Devices (i.e. MAD LIBS!!!)

[ Why bother? ]

• • • • •

An Open Letter To My Dissenters On Why Classical Isn’t Cool Anymore

Stefan Andrew Lord Kac, with apologies to Nicholas "The Cherub" Payton

(and previously, if briefly, Professor Gann)

Let me make one thing clear. I am not dissing an art form. I am dissing the name, Classical. Just like being called Cracker affected how White people felt about themselves at one time, I believe the term "CLASSICAL" affects the style of playing. I am not a Cracker and I am not a Classical musician.
What do Claude Debussy, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Steve Reich, Kyle Gann (LOL!!!) and myself share in common? A disdain for Classical. I am reintroducing a talk to the table of a conversation that my ancestors wanted to have a long time ago. It is on their shoulders that I stand.
"Classical" is an oppressive colonialist slave-owner term and I want no parts of it. If Classical wasn’t a slave, why did Cage try to free it? Classical is not music, it is an idea that hasn’t served any of us well. It saddens me most that some of my friends can’t see that. Some of y’all who know me and I’ve even employed, stood on the bandstand with, know how important tradition is to me. My work speaks to that.

This Is Most Decidedly Not Any Kind of Rant

For all those who say I’m on a crazed, cranky, angry, dark rant. There is nothing crazed, cranky, angry or dark about what I write, but a lot of this hate energy I’ve received online truly is. Someone has even gone as far as to deem me the Nicholas Payton of Classical?

You know what the most offensive part of that statement is to me?

The “CLASSICAL” part.
I’m trying to save this music and folks are straight lambasting me. The saving grace is, for the most part, the response has been overwhelmingly favorable and it’s here where I choose to focus my gaze. I’m sacrificing myself for the greater good of post-Black-American Anglo-Jewish Mutt Music and some of you are calling me names, and I’m the angry one?
Most of these folks don’t even know me, but yet they have a strong dislike for Stefan Andrew Lord Kac. I am a human being, not some internet bot. When you hold an intense dislike for someone you don’t know, it means that somewhere down deep inside, you have an intense dislike for yourself.
Please take at look at yourselves. What are you doing to save this music? Are you out there earning meaningless masters degrees from fancy-pants art schools and enjoying the California sunshine in December honing your skills for the next trumpet player to take you for a fool on the basketball court, or are you just functioning under the guise of what you have been fed for many years and are told is the way things have to be?

You can dislike me or what I say all you want, but it doesn’t stop what I said from being true. It only disturbs you this deeply because it dismantles everything you’ve built your life upon. As I've stated on my blog, “CLASSICAL” is resistant to change. It wants to hold on to the old way of doing things, even if they’ve proven to not work.
What are you so afraid of? That you actually might have to think for yourself? That you will be responsible for the information that has been passed down from generation to generation though the lineage? That you have to live up to the great legacy this music demands?
I challenge my dissenters to really be an individual and stand alone in the face of everyone telling you that you’re wrong, crazy and can’t do it. That’s what Schoenberg did. That’s what Cage did. Are you willing? Are you able? Are you ready? Only a few can really do it and my blog makes that clear. It ain’t for everybody. So, go on, continue to box yourself in a label that was designed to marginalize White musicians and cut them off from their brilliance.


When post-Black-American Anglo-Jewish Mutt Music became “CLASSICAL”, it separated itself from the European folk music idiom. I’m just trying to take it back to its roots. European folk music has been separated from its root (what you call Classical) and, as a result, all of the branches of the tree are dying. White music is dying and I’m trying to help save it. Turn on the radio, if you don’t believe me. How many Classical records that have come out in the last 5 years that you’ve really loved?
I do as much to support this music as most of you. I don’t just come online and bitch about the state about this music. I spew real and actual vitriol at the art and its artists and here I have to see some of you tear me down and say I’m killing the blogosphere? When it is some of you who want to hold on to an oppressive idea that doesn’t serve post-Black-American Anglo-Jewish Mutt Music who are the true murderers.
The music was just fine before it was called Classical and will be just fine without the name.

There is nothing to be afraid of except yourselves.

I am Stefan Andrew Lord Kac and I play post-Black-American Anglo-Jewish Mutt Music.

Nicholas Payton plays more horn than I do, but mine is BIGGER!


(the giant on whose shoulders I stand)

27 December 2011

An aside in the form of comic relief

Thanks to Christmas, I'm now the proud owner of one of these:

Look out Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts.

26 December 2011

Occupation of the Mind, Part 2

[ Why bother? ]

• • • • •

NP continues:

The 99% is simply about a class of Whites aligning themselves with the impoverished they didn’t give a shit about until they, too, were broke. Am I supposed to care now that you’ve had a “come to Jesus” moment and want to say it’s all about us? Us didn’t become “us” until a faction of people felt the burn who never felt it. They didn’t give a shit when it was “just us”, so now I don’t give a shit. Justice. How does that song go, “Cry Me A River”?

At the heart of this statement lies what white culture might call an "old world" view of ancestry and cultural inheritance. In other words, you are a living representative of your entire lineage whether you like it or not, and their deeds and misdeeds alike are yours as well. I'm not oblivious to the backstory here, and yet I also have trouble seeing this worldview resulting in anything less than a permanent impasse in the getting along department. Because I'll never meet a German who helped exterminate the Jewish side of my family, I can't see any reason to put all of that on any given German indiscriminately until one who had nothing to do with it can be cowed into a contrite gesture of my choosing. From my middle-class white American vantage point, there's no rational justification for this, nor can I anticipate anything constructive coming of it. And to meet a random, unexpected contrite gesture with "so now I don't give a shit" would simply be to throw salt in the wounds.

So yes, Mr. Payton, we presently feel the burn, and only more acutely with your comments. In jazz as in life, the options are few for us modern-day pale folk who aspire to be part of the solution: apathy is complicity, activism is sour grapes; we are thieves if we imitate black music too closely, or ingrates if we do not imitate it closely enough; and the happy medium in both cases is a pinball of a moving target. It is a worldview by which culpability and victimry alike become genetic traits, and where each generation takes with them to the grave their children's hope for reconciliation along with their own. I think we can do better without forgetting our history, and I'm ready when you are.

25 December 2011

Occupation of the Mind, Part 1

[ Why bother? ]

• • • • •

Here's NP waxing resentful on the Occupy movement.

The "Carpetbagger" item is intriguing. I think might know some, actually. Unfortunately, they do not just make pilgrimages to New Orleans, but indeed bring their "discoveries" home with them and try to claim some sort of direct line. The music is often embarrassing and the gesture borders on the offensive. So I'm with you there, NP. Some soul-searching and ton more time in the woodshed would do these busybodies good.


"Why are people occupying the streets when the only person capable of keeping you from your dreams is you? The Occupy movement is a distraction and will not yield anything but more confusion. There is no “machine” to fight against. We are in the dark because people are asleep to their own light. Cure the internal war within and the war without instantly vanishes.

We’ve worked from the outside in for centuries and still have not completely resolved the bigger issues. Grand gestures make great headlines, but the real healing takes place on an individual level.

"The internal war," huh? Sounds about right. We all have one, and we should absolutely fight it in the way that you describe. Is that it, though? Collective action is dead? Really? Since the 1960's? I'd like to believe you. I'm an introvert. I'm good at fighting internal battles and virtually incapable of being part of a collective anything. But comfort be damned, I can't agree with you on this, and I would, with all due respect, raise the question of Abolitionism first and foremost. How would that have gone without a little bit of collective action, public debate and well-timed violence thrown in? Not a direct analogy? I'm not so sure. The Pro-Slavery side certainly took great pains to specifically inhibit the formation of collective consciousness and action alike among their slaves. They feared it, and they were right to. They were cowards and they were outnumbered. Even failing any more specific similarities, I think the same can absolutely be said about modern-day Wall Street. Tell me why I'm wrong.

24 December 2011

Poonpuff FAQ for the e-Nihilists in the room (as well as any and all past/present/future MFEDI readers whose e-worldview necessitates such overt clarifications of purpose and method be made again and again regarding this and the few other constructive, well-written weblogs about music and musicians)

WHEEEEW, okay...


Dear Angry Reader With Better Things To Do Than Sit Around Reading Some Young White Asshole's Weblog,

Before attacking my motives for joining the Post-Nicholas Payton Foofaraw (PNPF or "Poonpuff"), for making any particular argument therein, and/or for having this blog in the first place, I would humbly ask you to consider the following clarifications of purpose and method, issued at the outset of my joining the PNPF and applicable to all subsequent statements made on this topic.

(1) You're not qualified to disagree with someone who "plays more horn" than you do. Who do you think you are, anyway?

While NP indeed plays more horn than I do, mine is bigger.

In all seriousness, I graciously defer to NP and similarly accomplished individuals (if any others exist) on matters which are directly informed by one's degree of musical skill and/or career success, such as issues of instrumental technique, music criticism, marketing/career advice, practice habits, etc. However, any generalizations (music-related or otherwise) about a group of which I am a member (e.g. "white people" or "all these kids with music degrees") are fair game for rebuttal because they require no further qualifications than (a) that I be a member of the group(s) in question, and (b) that I tell the truth about myself. Under those circumstances, no musical skill whatsoever is required to be qualified to make such a rebuttal, even to a highly skilled musician such as NP. Were I to make a blanket generalization about "black people" or "New Orleans cats," don't you think NP and all other members of those respective groups would be qualified to rebut my statement?

(2) But...you're...white. WTF is up with that shit?

Guilty. Can't change it, and unlike many white classmates growing up, I never tried. If it's relevant (and I'm not saying it is; only you can decide), I did go to an elementary school from 1st through 5th grade where blacks outnumbered whites by more than 2-to-1; I have spent hundreds of hours of my life on the basketball court (one of NP's hallowed proving grounds, which is the only reason I bring it up) outnumbered by a similar margin; I did continue to volunteer (albeit in fits and starts) on the Northside of Minneapolis long after I finished high school there; believe it or not, a good high school friend of mine declared another friend and I "blacker than some [black people]" even though we didn't talk, act or dress like him; and of course, it goes without saying that a good number of my strongest musical influences are African-Americans. These are mere facts about my life experience. They do not grant me any kind of authority to speak about racial issues that I would not otherwise be thought to have. By relating them here, I simply hope to convince anyone who is not otherwise inclined to believe so that I care and that black people are real and human to me. You don't have to believe me, but that is the truth. That's all I've got for you on that front.

Hence, if you see fit to comment on something I wrote (which I welcome), I would appreciate the common intellectual courtesy of having this articulated in terms of the content of the argument in question, not in terms of my supposed qualifications (or lack thereof) to make it based on overbroad generalizations about groups of which I am a member (e.g. "young white assholes" or "academically trained white musicians from the Upper Midwest who, surprisingly, can also hold their own on the basketball court") when these generalizations may or may not actually be reflected in my specific case, and indeed, when you clearly have no possible way of knowing if they are reflected in my case or not based solely on an argument I have put forward about music and the world immediately surrounding it. There certainly are "qualifications" I do not and cannot possess, and I promise never to speak as if I possess them; I am, however, eminently qualified to evaluate overbroad generalizations about groups of which I am a member, no matter who made them or what they are. At that point, any further psychoanalysis of my identity, while perhaps relevant to other, broader discussions, is moot to the particular argument I've made about music and the world immediately surrounding it. And that's why we're all here. Just the facts, ma'am.

(3) Gee, that's a mouthful, Socrates. If you're a musician, why don't you go practice/study/listen/compose instead of writing a pointless blog about your white angst?

Like you, I'm darn close to being a Nihilist at this point, but not completely. The ethical issues surrounding music still matter enough to me to devote a small bit of my time to considering them publicly. This is wholly a matter of (a) self-interest (i.e. since I have to live and work in this world just like NP and everyone else who makes music, and therefore would like to see it improved wherever possible), and (b) the sense that such "improvements" are, frequently, so fucking obvious to a majority of us and thus quite easily attainable if only more of us were to give them proper consideration using adequately precise terminology and more than 140 characters where needed. As you no doubt know based on your wording of the above question, most blogs fall short of meeting this need; this is where I come in.

If I had no self-interest in seeing a better musical world, or if I thought it was a wholly untenable proposition, then no, I absolutely would not bother. There are other areas of life that I feel are lost causes in this way (see: Congress, U.S.), but music is not one of them. I believe that music is trivial in comparison to these other areas, and therefore that it is easier to fix. Only a small percentage of these musical issues do I choose to explore publicly. The rest I keep to myself and seldom write down; thus, the content here is already heavily edited and pared down to its essence. You are absolutely entitled to judge it to be a waste of your time, but not a waste of my own; the latter is for myself alone to judge. Know that I spend quite a bit of time reading blogs as well as writing them, and have thus developed a very low tolerance for vacuous garbage masquerading as musicology. My activities here are always directed towards achieving something more vital and useful. Even during my annual "Blog Month" project (which is presently in effect), during which I force myself to blog daily for a month regardless of whether I feel I have something just this important to say, I am after two things I believe to be constructive objectives: one is to throw myself a change-up, knowing that I sometimes become a different writer when forced to work constantly; and the other is to critique the vacuous garbage referred to above through the time-honored literary device of satire.

Sounds like fun, huh? None of this is a burden on my direct music-making endeavors, from which I, like virtually every other musician, need occasional respite anyway. In fact, blogging has frequently allowed me to bring fresh motivation to these endeavors at times when it has been lacking. (Knowing that more people would take your blog seriously if you "played more horn," while not necessarily right, certainly provides some motivation, doesn't it?) It isn't hard to find bloggers and trolls whose musical lives are out of balance in this way, but I do not consider myself to be one of them. If you do consider me to be one, I would like to know on what intimate knowledge of my inner thoughts you base this observation, and also what you are doing wasting your time with my senseless rants? It must be more complicated than misery loving company...

23 December 2011

a foofaraw over a kerfuffle about a boondoggle

Longtime MFEDI readers know the drill by this time: I post misinformed rants about pop music while the real issues are discussed elsewhere by more important people on their more important blogs, are then commented on extensively by the people I malign here, and are noted by me, if at all, only weeks, months or years later after I've had a chance to catch up on the gory details, by which time comment threads have been closed, libel suits filed, and any further attempt to get a word in edgewise merely dismissed as self-important "intellectual land prospecting." Ah yes, long live the blogosphere, the first (and I hope last) vehicle of human discourse where it is neither what you said nor how you said it that matter, but rather when!

So it is, again, with the Nic Payton skirmish, and here I am late to the party as usual, still young, white, middle class and accredited, just like I was before, still with a blog and a project of my own invention whereby I intend to post on it daily for a month, and presented with yet another eminent black musician who I have great respect for saying a few things I agree with alongside many more things that make me want to quit playing music altogether and go back to working at the airport. You could argue that the worst thing I could do under these circumstances would be to get involved; indeed, there superficially seems to be nothing to gain and everything to lose by doing so. By dint of both a deeper interpretation of the possibilities and a spectacular lack of willpower, I hereby declare my intent (to be withdrawn whenever I see fit) to enter the fray. In part by choice but also by necessity on some levels, this will take place here rather than elsewhere until further notice. The next post will explain in more detail why I feel justified in doing this, and will be linked to at the top of each subsequent post on the topic in order to anticipate the usual nihilistic barbs.

(FYI, Payton's blog is here. Further links omitted; you're smart enough to follow the trail.)

Also, closed-circuit to Sean Roderick: where's Sean Roderick when you need him? If you're out there reading, I want your reaction (on or off the record) as this discussion unfolds.

22 December 2011

Knowledge as a function of volition

"create your own systems based on what you know"

So reads one of the myriad scrawlings on the inside of a practice room door here at The Herb Alpert School of Music at The California Institute of the Arts. Current and recent CalArtians will surely know the door in question, and probably laugh heartily at me for sweating it enough to warrant a blog entry, even during a Blog Month. Not to be deterred, I forge ahead with my critique anyway. Vandalism and postings are policed rather closely here, no doubt due to things getting out of hand at some point in the recent past (not hard to imagine), but for whatever reason, this door lives a charmed life, perhaps an amnesty gesture of sorts by The Institute towards the many mystically-inclined poor spellers which inhabit it each weekday in search of enlightenment through four-part chorales and species counterpoint. Whatever the reason, the door boasts an ever growing collection of poorly delivered bathroom humor, notably more skillfully executed drawings (this is, after all, an art school) and the occasional attempt at a deep thought, attempts which seldom fail to betray at least a hint of the resentment which inspired them.

I seldom use this room, but each time I do, I'm reminded of the above line, and it bothers me more each time. It was one of the first I noticed, my eyes drawn inexplicably to it from the start despite its relatively plain and small appearance among other monstrosities. At first, I located the crux of my discomfort in the word "systems," being as I am utterly unmoved by most Systems Music, as well as highly suspicious of (if not occasionally fascinated by) serial procedures. In the broader sense, though, it's a more harmless word: almost anything could be a system, including my own open instrumentation templates and letter-and-number based cataloguing (not titling) of works. As time has gone on, I've realized that it is the second half of the statement which is truly dangerous: "...based on what you know."

This is, for one thing, superfluous, and for another, potentially stifling as well. Given the broadest possible meaning of "systems," any you create will inevitably be "based on what you know." (as opposed to...what you don't know?) More importantly, though, "what you know" is not a fixed, bounded concept! You have the ability not only to purposefully choose to expand your knowledge, but to use that which you already possess to guide this search in a way that best serves your objectives. Conversely, I can't help but read this statement as implying causality; in other words, that the time to create your own systems is when you're just sick and tired of learning new stuff, or likewise, that the time to stop learning new stuff is when you decide you want to create your own systems. This reeks of the militant ignorance of pop culture, where "The Beatles didn't read music, so why should I?"* or "Music lessons are for people who are too dumb to figure it out for themselves." Think about it: by the time you are playing in a band, even if you've never had formal study, you've learned something somewhere along the way; by implication then, to claim that you have arrived at that perfect amount of knowledge whereby what you have so far is enough but any more would divest you of your individuality and ruin your work is an awfully big leap. I mean really, how unlikely is it that this very day, right that fucking moment when someone asked you the question, that was the moment when you found the magical balance between thinking and feeling that almost no artist in history has ever found? Come the fuck on people.

create evolve your own systems based on what you know your evolving experience

Maybe? I don't know. Now it's contrived, but you get my point. It takes more than a door out of view of the authorities and a flash of hatred for virtuosi to tackle this kind of thing. For now, I'm choosing to leave my mark on the blogosphere rather than on the back of a practice room door.

*Is this really true about The Beatles? I'd been led to believe otherwise, but I don't know for sure. BTW, I'm paraphrasing the quote but not fabricating the sentiment; someone (who shall remain nameless) actually expressed this to me once.

21 December 2011

The Blogosphere, Post-Big-Bang

It has been a full year since I conducted a proper blogospheric round-up, which consists of allocating a couple of weeks worth of my "spare" time to trudging through my bookmarks (yes, I still do it that way for the most part) until I either get sick of it or I reach the shitlist at the bottom (i.e. blogs that have gone dormant or that I've otherwise determined are not worth my time, most typically because they suckered me in with one erudite post about Stravinsky's serial music but turn out to be more often concerned with pets and progeny). Feeds are just further oppressive tools of common practice blogging, whereby the latest is by default the greatest; bookmarks, meanwhile, are sortable and anonymous, which I like. So anyway, I've not been all the way through them in quite a while, and having now gotten a good head start, I'm tempted to conclude (non-empirically so far) that the blogosphere, like the universe, appears to be contracting. I'm sure that the sheer number of extant blogs continues to grow, but the activity on them seems to be slowing down in general (including, I should admit, here as well). Is it possible we are getting closer to my wet dream of a blogosphere where no one posts unless they have something really earth-shattering and well-constructed to say? Not really. I do sense that some fat has been trimmed, but it's not a proportionate amount to the overall decline in production. (Plus, holding Blog Month even just once a year pretty much upsets this particular apple cart, doesn't it?) If the fad has passed, though, that's fine with me. It was overdue.

20 December 2011

Winter Break Stuff

I've long since abandoned learning tunes for the sake of learning tunes, but I still go out of my way two or three times a year to fill a hole in my knowledge of the standard jazz rep, as well as seeking out a few gnarly heads for their purely technical challenges. Whether in or out of school, this is often one of the only times of year when I can devote the time to see these processes through to completion, and so my mind almost habitually starts thinking that way.

This year's winter harvest? The standard "Darn That Dream" and Eric Dolphy's "Miss Ann" from the album Far Cry.

I live in/near LA now, there are jazzheads here, and this tune gets called. It's also a great tune that I should know by now. Like most tubists, I first heard it on Birth of the Cool, and for that reason its one of the few standards I come to with some of the lyrics burned into my memory. The hipness of the arrangement scared my teenage self away from trying to play it, though, and having already learned to thoroughly distrust the Real Book, I didn't take that chart seriously at the time. (Checking now, it's actually pretty close, but like almost every tune in the Real Book, there's one gratuitous, inexplicable slash chord in an odd place. Really, what would life be without all the gratuitous, inexplicable slash chords in the Real Book where plain old diatonic seventh chords would have sufficed?) Oddly enough, the last several standards I've made a study of have all been most commonly played in G: East of the Sun, Out of Nowhere, and now Darn That Dream. Interestingly, the first three chords of the latter two tunes are identical (Gmaj-Bbmin-Eb7), though on different durational scales; how many standards in Bb or Eb do you know that tonicize a key that far in the "flat" direction that soon? Similarly, thinking of, say, Groovin' High in Eb moving to A- D7 in that position, how many tunes in G or D do this in "sharp" direction? An interesting question for composers and players alike. Maybe writing in C isn't so much of a cop-out after all; by this logic, at least, you would be giving yourself the best chance to avoid being subconsciously influenced by what a distant modulation might entail.

And now for something completely different:

I LOVE this head and have wanted to play it ever since I heard it. The bugaboo, of course, is the range: it spans the entirety of the textbook alto range, which in sheer quantity is not unreasonable for most other horns, but the particular pitch level at which it lies is highly problematic. For tubists, the only viable "front line" solution would be to play it sounding down one octave, yielding a range from C# below the bass clef staff to A above it. A further octave displacement poses a wholly different technical challenge, but it is doable, and this is actually the range in which I plan to spend the most time. Because of the demands of front line playing (my exclusive interest as a jazz player for a long time), I am a much better improvisor up high than down low. This is also complicated by fingerings: in the highest ranges on brass instruments, one seldom needs bother with positions beyond the first four because the overtones are so close together. In the low range, though, you need all of them, bringing far more uncomfortable valve/slide positions into play, which is often the primary challenge in executing a passage. When I began pursuing bass functions in earnest, this was a tough lesson to learn, and one which I am still struggling with: fingerings and valve technique had been the "easy" part of playing since I memorized my elementary fingering chart in seventh grade, but with five of those suckers needed to play chromatically between the first two harmonics (which is still the "money" range if you play Eb or F tuba), boppish heads get challenging in a hurry. I've made progress; this will be another step if I can do it. One thing I've learned is that it's likely that at least one of the other 11 transpositions between these two extremes will sound and feel better than either of them do, and also that at least one will be nearly impossible, for whatever reason. It's good to know where those are.

19 December 2011


As long as we're alive and expect to have a hand in it, why bother attempting to predict "The Future of Music?" Go make it what you want it to be.

18 December 2011

first only next

Just one x-mas music gig this year, earlier tonight with the youth symphony at a Korean Church in Northridge. In previous years, added to my other x-mas music commitments, this could have been torturous; in fact, with just one on the calendar this year (and some "real" music filling out the program), it was tolerable verging on fun.

Would you believe that I've had two paying orchestral gigs here already? My FIRST two paying orchestral gigs of any kind ever? After less than four months? Without knowing anyone? After never having had a single one back home? Not even with a pickup group or as a ringer with a youth orchestra? Are you kidding? This is mundane stuff, but its more use than I ever was to any orchestra in Minneapolis. Call me bitter for saying so, or laugh at me for bothering to make note of it here, but it's a fact and I just can't help but wonder. You'd think I would have stumbled into one single solitary gig back home at some point. Did I do too good a job of marketing myself as a jazz player? Is there just that little work back home? Is it nothing more than sheer coincidence? SoCal will surely humble me yet, but I'll be pondering all of this yet more intently if it continues.

17 December 2011

An Unlikely Whiner Responds

If I may be permitted to lift the moratorium on CalArts "issues" for just another day...

As of yesterday afternoon, an anonymous open letter-ish document obviously written by a student has been posted sparingly but consistently around the building chiding students (all of us, apparently) for three main transgressions: the "hipster thing," a lack of personal respect for one another, and excessive complaining about the state of the Institute.

Without quoting the letter verbatim, I'll say that the first two points resonated very much with me based on my experiences here over the past three and a half months. The third, however, rings quite hollow, and not because there is not a lot of visible complaining going on here. To call it "complaining" rather than "criticism" or "unrest" frames the issue negatively from the start, and not in a way that I feel is particularly accurate. While there is certainly some whining here, as there is at every school I've attended, most of my direct acquaintances are able to articulate their grievances (and they all have some) quite a bit more cogently than I've witnessed before, and I rarely disagree with them (also unusual). This, however, is incidental to the larger argument expressed in this section of the letter, namely that we should all just shut up and go along with however the Institute decides to do things, and that this is somehow the only way to conserve the legendary CalArts...thing, whatever it actually is (and if it still exists in the first place, which I'm not at all convinced that it does).

Pardon me for saying so, but unless I'm badly mistaken, the original CalArts...thing could not reasonably be said to have had such blind reverence for authority, could it? And surely if no one had thought to agitate (including "complaining," if you insist on calling it that) for something like CalArts, it would never have existed in the first place. Given all of that, I think it's incumbent upon all of us here to speak up when something isn't working, especially when we can all see an obvious solution. I would not want to attend a school nor live in a world where any such individual is written off as a mere "complainer" while administrators and bureaucrats run amok.

The question of my potential involvement in any sort of "movement" to improve CalArts has been on my mind for several weeks. I am very conflicted about it: my time at the U of MN essentially sapped me of all will to undertake such ventures, not to mention any faith that they could ever succeed in even the smallest way. I have already sat down face-to-face with a few administrators, written them letters, tasted their evasive answers, lived their poor decisions, watched the carousel turn, and marveled at the uniformity of thought and action from one to the next. I also realize that most if not all of the problems I am most concerned with here really are bigger than CalArts, and that fighting them on that level, even if it were effective, would be a waste of time in the grand geo-political and socio-economic scheme of things. So in a sense, I can't blame anyone for simply checking out and investing their time in their work (and/or some real community activism if they're so inclined). Even so, let's not quit our whining just yet. As bad as things ever look, I have to think they'd look a lot worse if we simply accepted them on blind faith.

16 December 2011


Whereas the place of humor in concert music is relatively secure, the types of humor appropriate to given musical demands and the degree, in both frequency and intensity, to which one might properly appeal to them in a musical work can still be contentious issues. For years in Minneapolis, I've frequently encountered a particular strain of humor among musicians which I find counterproductive and distasteful. Finding it in evidence here at CalArts in almost identical form, I'm compelled to attempt an analysis.

One most often encounters this type of humor in student work, but it is by no means limited to students, and occasionally ends up being consolidated into something even more stifling and insidious, if often subtle, in more mature work. I would label it Resentful Humor, or Humor as a Defense Mechanism. To be sure, it is sometimes hard to know whether one is observing a constructive criticism of someone or something, or simply a childish display of petty resentment and insecurity. It is by no means unusual, though, to know immediately, and among those clear-cut cases that I have witnessed, the majority have been of the latter type.

The telltale characteristics of this dynamic are not necessarily unique to it, and are seldom present all at once; hence, there is no airtight formula for determining its presence or absence. That being said, here are what I perceive to be its primary fingerprints:

(1) Humor is overused.
I am referring here not to the emotive intensity of the humor, but to its pervasiveness throughout the work, thereby comprising a substantially larger portion of the piece's content than any obvious structural or aesthetic necessity would seem to dictate.

(2) Humor is used purely to fill time.
In a sense, this is just one particular instance of (1), but its ubiquity earns it a category of its own. It is more or less specific to improvised settings, but is observable in all types of them (i.e. harmonic-structural, totally free, and everything in between). In structured settings, this is a way to "just get through" a final chorus; in freer contexts, it is typically the end result of a gradual devolvement of focus and intention, to the point where the player(s) don't know what to do, but, contra Miles, insist on doing something anyway. (Yes, those same dozen jazz-world anecdotes do get tiresome, but seriously, don't you think Miles hit this one more squarely on the head than maybe even he could have imagined? And if his own sense of humor was ever in question, is this not due as much to his restraint in appealing to it as to his infamously surly stage presence?)

(3) The aesthetic dimension of the work is wholly incidental to the gesture of mocking/deriding a particular piece, composer, band or musical style.
Here I am referring to something beyond (or perhaps falling short of) parody or satire, devices which I would take to entail a certain sophistication, and which can be directed at extramusical targets as well as musical ones. Conversely, I would define the particular dynamic in question here as unequivocally about music, and also unapologetically inelegant, often resorting, conceptually at least, to brute force in order to make a disproportionately simple point. And as with the previous items on this list, the void where any more specific musical intent or personal/spiritual necessity might normally exist is palpable.

(4) The work is "epic."
Obviously, this is the most subjective thing on this list, but I see it everywhere, and conveniently, there's a word for it that you might even hear it uttered before or after the concert. Don't quote me as I'm an avowed homebody with a phobia of pop culture, but it seems to me that events which occur outside the realm of idle leisure and/or affect people other than the utterer seldom qualify as "epic." This usage is, I suppose, a sarcastic gesture in and of itself, the reclamation of an ultra-serious-sounding word on behalf of all things inane, kind of like bad meaning good, but more complicated than that (and obviously incubated in a very different subculture). "Epic" is inherently conflicted in nature, complimentary on the surface while always a touch self-depricating-verging-on-resentful on its deeper levels. It is laughing both with and at oneself rolled in one gesture, perhaps ultimately unsure of which, if either, is more deserved. Not all music we might dub "epic" in post-concert small-talk is of the resentful type, but all of the resentful music I am attempting to describe could reasonably be labeled "epic" given the current (and no doubt temporary) meaning of this promiscuous piece of slang.

Having voiced my contempt for this resentful, "epic" music, I'll grant that if it is truly your music, then you should go make it. Study it, nurture it, and consolidate it until it reaches rapturous heights of bitterness and inelegance. If you have something important to say that can only be said by mocking the Count Basie rhythm section, then that's your work and you should go do it. If improvised music is a blank slate for us to explore who we really are and you thereby discover yourself to be a masturbating parakeet who can't stop laughing hysterically at itself, then more power to you. Resentment runs rampant in our musical culture, and you shouldn't let anyone else tell you whether or not yours is justified. As for the healthy bit of resentment I myself harbor towards much of the world, "epic" obstinate crudity strikes me as among the least constructive of the possible responses. Such works do nothing to remedy any petty misjudgments or outrageous injustices that might have inspired them; if anything, they gratify the perpetrators, who get to watch their victims writhe impotently with anger rather than channel it constructively into the kind of work that might someday do future generations the favor of exposing them.

15 December 2011

Most Jazz (and discourse about it) Sucks

An archetypal blogospheric kerfuffle has erupted over guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel's assertion that most jazz sucks. In the interest of sparing readers a linkfest, I'll simply tell you where I first read about it and assume that y'all are smart enough to follow the thread as far as you feel is worth your time. My comments follow below.

Does "most jazz suck?" The obvious explanations for the appearance of such a condition are no less relevant for being so obvious: there's more jazz now and more documentation of it, and we've never heard the mediocre players of the past because they've been forgotten. I will admit, though, that I've always felt jazz to be the most unforgiving kind of music I've been involved with. Anyone who sits through enough high school and college ensemble concerts comes to sense this over time. Perfunctory student performances of Holst and Grainger tend to be substantially more listenable than even relatively accomplished student renditions of any given Real Book tune. Most of the best student big bands I've heard tearing through some really hard arrangements don't have a single soloist who one could reasonably say is improvising on a level commensurate with their chops, and it usually is not close. In other words, jazz is not like sex, pizza and chocolate chip cookies, things which are said to be good even when they're bad. In fact, the opposite is true: good jazz can still be pretty bad, at least as I experience the world, which is why I agree with what Rosenwinkel said and don't see a hint of either hypocrisy or hyperbole in his doing so. I would freely grant that most of my performances and all of my records suck, that I'm in a near-constant state of personal crisis over this, and that I'm constantly seeking a way forward. I'll also say without hesitation that I frequently encounter self-important charlatans who are very comfortable with having achieved much less than I have, and I imagine that with KR being as accomplished as he is, those people are far more numerous in his life than in mine. It sounds to me like all he's asking for is humility and dedication; doesn't sound like much, but it is.

An aside on the use and value of blogging: by conventional wisdom, some of the highest-profile contributors to this brouhaha broke the cardinal rule of online conduct by writing things that they almost certainly would not have said to one another in person, or at least not verbatim. Anyone who's spent two seconds on the internet knows that it would indeed be a much kinder, gentler place if this rule was never broken, but at the same time, I can't shake the feeling that the way it emboldens people to let loose on each other is also one of its most useful features. Because of people's natural tendency to play nice in person, the potential for uproarious diatribes over issues like this really exists only online, ergo, insofar as these eruptions further the dialogue, the dehumanization of rhetorical opponents in each others' eyes could actually be seen as a valuable foil to polite set-break conversation, where little beyond mere diversion can be accomplished.

It may be duplicitous to shoot straight online while playing nice in person, but until each one of us truly becomes the straight-talking, tell-it-like-it-is, brutally honest person we all say we are, blog comment threads might remain the only way some of the most important issues get an honest treatment. Keep it about the topic at hand, but please don't keep it civil; we can always kiss each others' asses at the gig. And as is inevitably uttered once all hell has broken loose in one of these threads, shouldn't we all just go practice instead? Yes and no. Rosenwinkel's complaint about musicians not being all in enough of the time is just as relevant to our discourse as it is to our music-making. Paradoxically, the same faceless passive aggression which enables such great wastes of online time and energy may also be the most direct route to a more incisive dialogue than that which polite musical company typically permits.

14 December 2011

Concert Trifecta/A Diatribe Deferred

One more to plug, though there's no labyrinthine score to post this time: today at noon in the Main Gallery, I'll be performing with one of Larry Koonse's two Jazz Faculty Ensembles here at CalArts.

If you speak CalArtian, you know that the term "Jazz Faculty Ensemble" could be a bit misleading to non-initiates: it refers not to the perfunctory, under-rehearsed dog-and-pony show that most schools' faculty throw together more out of professional obligation than a desire to play together, but rather to instructor-led student groups where the faculty member in question performs with the group at all times. It's been a great experience, one of the specific reasons I sought out this school, and I don't know why more institutions don't run things this way. (Actually, I know exactly why and so do you, but let's just play nice for the moment.)

Having paid the school that single compliment, I'll now add that this first semester has been a real struggle overall, sometimes severely so. There's a lot going on here that simply doesn't make a whole lot of sense, administratively, aesthetically, and socially, and there's a general feeling among the students that we are overpaying for what we are getting. I want to leave it at that for the moment. Perhaps it will all come together next semester or next year, or maybe it has all come apart for good; I can't tell yet. I am at least aware of a smattering of special circumstances which converged this semester that are unlikely to align again while I'm here. Thus, a detailed, point-by-point takedown would be unwarranted and unfair to the many fabulous people I've been privileged to work with thus far. If you were expecting more at some point this Blog Month, I have to apologize and ask you to wait. Rest assured that you will understand this place when I do, and also that if you were looking to resolve seemingly contradictory rumors about it, you're safe in assuming that they are in fact all true.

13 December 2011

With six trumpets three tubas, you can do anything

Tonight, 8pm in the Wild Beast at CalArts.

12 December 2011

The "S" Series: S-1

Tonight, 8pm, Roy O. Disney Concert Hall at CalArts.

11 December 2011


I'm beginning to wonder if a chart of our collective progress on the technological march towards virtual reality would actually resemble that of an oscillation (i.e. periods of success followed by periods of regression) rather than an exponential curve (i.e. continuous accelerating progress). I say this not because one could reasonably say that we've truly regressed technologically, but because of some recent experiences with fake reality that are more real but less useful (and perhaps more to the point for a musician/artist, less aesthetically pleasing) than the older, less real ones seem to me to be.

As a kid, I was not allowed to gorge myself on video games to the extent of many of my peers; my mother simply would not allow it. I did gorge myself on television, but still less than some. Even so, when today I happen by some bizarre turn of events to catch a glimpse of a cartoon or video game, I'm typically most surprised at (a) the turn towards realism, and (b) how profoundly aesthetically unsatisfying this is to me. It's an old man's gripe to be sure (I'm not yet 30, but in the technological world, that's middle age), and I've heard enough of them directly from old men to be wary of committing the same fallacies. My gut reaction is nonetheless remarkably consistent. Modernist though I claim to be, perhaps I'm finding for the first time some appreciation for the advice of so many conservative composition teachers that imposing limitations on one's process can be beneficial to the outcome. There are more than a few vinyl hoarders and NES players (and conservative composers) who would agree, no doubt cherrypicking their evidence with the utmost caution and backtracking appropriately when confronted about their iPhones.

The reason I bring this up here is that I'm coming to view notation software playback as one of these areas. When I upgraded to Sibelius 6 in 2009, I had been using version 2 since it first came out (yes, that's kind of a really long time). There was quite a bit to learn, a lot of useful new features, and a few real pissers. (The chord symbols! Barf...) The biggest challenge to this day, though, has been the built-in sounds. They are much more "realistic" sounds than the old general MIDI sounds I had become very accustomed to, by which of course I mean that it would now be much easier, possibly even a foregone conclusion, to identify by ear the instrument they purport to represent. (Forget the specific instrument; with the old sounds, you sometimes wondered which instrumental family was in play.) For whatever reason, though, I find them much more difficult to work with: the timbral whole is still less than the sum of its parts.

In some cases, notably the tuba, this is because they've essentially built mistakes into the samples:

Band Teacher Purgatory Sounds Like This

Yes, there's a better than average chance that your garden variety community band tuba player will wobble slightly on a low A before the pitch stabilizes, but seriously guys, let's just shoot for the stars next time and pretend that tubists are at least theoretically capable of emitting a steady tone for more than 2 beats at a time.In other cases, I undoubtedly struggle because I spent an incredibly long time working with the old general MIDI sounds and hence got very accustomed to interpreting them. Space, balance and blend have always been the achilles heels of notation software mockups of through-composed, acoustic music, and I don't think the present results are any more accurate despite representing an obvious attempt to improve in just these areas. I'm left to wonder if I am, in fact, just getting old, or if we had not actually stumbled on a semi-optimal degree of reality, unbelievable as that would have been at the time, in comparison to which the next rung of progress actually looks regressive. Perhaps a virtual reality that is obviously fake would be more useful here than one with loftier aspirations and spectacular failures.

10 December 2011

There's not even a sliver of enlightenment to be had in this space tonight other than what exceedingly little it might be worth for you to know that I have a potentially much more enlightening piece to share which I cannot properly complete without ftp access to my personal website, which some combination of the technological variables at play here simply will not allow at the moment.

In response to my bewilderment at the irreverence for attacks and releases in much live electronic performance, a more well-informed student posited that this merely points to a difference in formality between this musical world and the predominantly acoustic one I'm more accustomed to. I'm skeptical, but not because I want to be: it certainly would be comforting to find technology more consistently functioning properly where the operators are skilled and conscientious artists rather than standard issue IT grunts, but I'm afraid the results are remarkably similar most of the time.

09 December 2011


08 December 2011

Doublethink Invades The West

Does Capitalism (or what goes for it here in the USA) not demand/engender/impose much the same psychological condition as archetypal Orwellian totalitarianism does? So few of the people I meet who play our Capitalist economic game, musically or otherwise, seem the least bit sincere in either words or actions, and I think this goes beyond the simple fact that convincing someone to purchase something they previously did not intend to purchase requires...well, some convincing. More to the point: no child grows up dreaming of selling jewelry or vetting credit histories, nor do the ones who grow up dreaming to be musicians typically find fulfillment of those dreams playing wedding receptions or church services. It is on that most basic level that sincerity is rendered more or less untenable in our culture, including for those "doing what they love" in service of something or someone that they don't.

This is merely our minimum common inheritance; the insincerity can, of course, be much deeper as well. My time at the airport permanently changed my perspective on this: here you have two groups of citizens ("business travelers" and "security professionals") more or less involuntarily thrust into an acrimonious "us versus them" relationship by economic and social realities (not to mention some questionable reactions to them by our elected officials). No one at these checkpoints wants to be there: Traveling Salesman and Security Guard are not dream jobs. Their unique relationship, of course, is that this is primarily due to the specter of having to deal with the other group! Such it is that the airport security checkpoint became the "divide and conquer" mechanism par excellence as the Bushes simultaneously crashed the economy and began erecting a police state from scratch: throw the middle class out of work and let them choose between selling useless shit and enforcing useless rules, and not just to anyone, but to each other. No wonder sincerity is in such short supply.

The dynamic in the musical world is not quite so sinister, but nor should we simply accept it on account of music being, as I of course have argued with apologies to most of my dearest colleagues, a very sophisticated but ultimately trivial recreational activity. Issues of sincerity are never trivial, and the recreational value of music, if that is in fact its greatest value, suffers tremendously at the hands of the entrepreneurial spirit, dismembered as these hands too often are from their thinking, feeling body.

07 December 2011

BM4 Placeholder/"Is anybody actually reading this?" open thread #1

For the musicians reading:

What is your relationship with scores?

Does seeing the score tend to enhance or detract from your enjoyment of the piece in question?

What do you learn from score study that you cannot achieve by listening to recordings or live performances?

How well could you grasp your own scores if they were not yours and you could not hear them played?

How many scores that you have studied or just skimmed of your most favorite pieces would be dismissed sound unheard by most any present-day grant, admissions or programming committee because of the notation, formatting, and/or engraving?

To jump start discussion, I'll share my answer to the last one: "Most, if not all."

06 December 2011

Distance as Illusion in György Ligeti’s Lontano

More than a mere “transitional” work, Lontano represents an arrival as well, at once an extension of and a departure from the music with which György Ligeti made his name. Lontano no less than the now-archetypal Atmosphères could legitimately be described as achieving a static quality, but these are two very different kinds of stasis. In the case of the former, as the title would suggest, distance is the operative principle, and therefore, one might infer, illusion as well. With increasing distance, large objects appear smaller, loud sounds softer, and bright light dimmer; this is the stasis of Lontano, a matter of perspective rather than an inherent quality of the object itself. Indeed, Ligeti’s communication of metaphorical distance through very real music which also stands exceptionally well on its own is masterful; yet in extending the metaphor a bit further, an important feature of this music is that the closer one gets to the object in question, the greater intensity it displays, thereby pointing to the illusion that distance has created before ultimately restoring it.

Ironically given this emphasis on distance, on a technical level, one might say that Lontano puts micropolyphony under a microscope. In the layering of voices, tight intervals, denial of pulse, and use of cannonic succession, one easily recognizes a clear connection to Ligeti’s by this time well-established methodology. Even so, a direct comparison with Atmosphères suggests a conscious move towards higher resolution and the unified application of this decision across all parameters. This much is clear from the most superficial level right down to the smallest details of pitch, rhythm, and orchestration.

In all but its densest moments, Lontano maintains a notable transparency of texture, perhaps the most striking contrast with Atmosphères given what the two pieces have in common. Concerning the wind instruments, Ligeti leans heavily on the more transparent woodwinds and reserves a sparing (and therefore very traditional) role for the brass in the most intense orchestral climaxes and only very occasionally as autonomous contributors to sparser moments. As the pre-eminently transparent instrumental family, the strings are, of course, central to the orchestration here as well, and Ligeti takes full advantage of their unique capabilities. Mirroring the approach to texture and timbre (and, it should be said, in no small part as a direct result of it as well), interval (if not harmony in the broadest sense) and very occasionally melody are granted moments of notable clarity, and thus a crucial and perceptible (if subsidiary) role in this music. One is reminded in spirit, if not in content, of the music of Berg, conceptually rich atonal music moments of which one cannot help calling “pretty.”

The opening thirteen bars or so are remarkable for the uniformity of timbre achieved among instruments from several different families. The tessitura of this section, centered more or less around the pitch Ab4, is ideal for achieving this effect as it places flutes, bassoons, and a lone harmonic-producing cello in ranges which, if not truly “extreme” for those instruments, are nonetheless among the more anonymous and less characteristic. The same could be said of the contrabass and viola entrances in mm. 12 and 13, though by this time the pitch material has become more varied. The brief contributions of three stopped horns (mm. 5-7) and a muted trumpet (mm. 7-8) are the least timbrally anonymous of this passage, though they are minimally disruptive on account of being muted, and add a tasteful, if fleeting, bit of contour and “sizzle” to the texture, perhaps the first hint at the masked intensity of this distant object even as it remains, at this early juncture, still quite far away.

Having established all of that, it is befitting the metaphor of distance (a blurring but not wholly obfuscatory mechanism) that the timbral unification of the orchestra here is palpable without being complete, and that Ligeti obviously intended just this. Though there are many fewer pitches than voices, the first true “doubling” of parts (i.e. two or more instruments playing the same pitches and rhythms for several beats or measures) does not occur until the flute and clarinet sections enter with identical material in m. 14. Until this moment, the severely limited pitch material and independence of line remain somewhat incongruous with each other, as do the meticulous obfuscation of meter through odd subdivisions and the substantial separation of pitch events in real time. The result is something like micropolyphony at rehearsal tempo: the texture suggests stasis yet the rhythmic contour is slightly too deliberate to truly permit it.

To understand the importance of this point, it is useful to remember that Ligeti claimed to have been consciously influenced in his first mature style by a particular psychoacoustic phenomenon which he read about during his early years in the West, namely that humans cannot perceive sounds less than fifty milliseconds apart as discrete events1. It is worth pointing out, then, that Lontano “by the numbers” was obviously cut from a different cloth. Assuming relatively strict adherence to the unambiguously-stated metronome marking of quarter=64, the length of a single beat in real time can be established as roughly 0.9375 seconds; the real-time values of one-third, one-fourth and one-fifth of a beat (0.3125, 0.234375 and 0.1875 seconds respectively) follow from this value, and can be used to obtain the difference in real-time between virtually any two onsets in the opening, where subdivisions of the beat into three, four and five parts predominate. Further, in dividing 0.234375 again by 4, one finds the duration of even 1/16 of a beat not yet smaller than the 50 millisecond threshold. Such it is that Ligeti does not appear to have granted himself the necessary materials to appeal to this device; rather, to create the illusion of stasis rather than true stasis itself, he has put them under a perceptual microscope, where they are still very efficient in ensuring the absence of pulse, but where individual onsets are nonetheless quite perceptible.

By m. 15, the texture is somewhat flatter even though some isolation of instrumental sections persists. The total amount of material (pitch, rhythm and timbre alike) is greater here, and true “doubling” is in play for the first time. In m. 19, there is a realignment of sorts and a further wrinkle: a tutti rest on beat 3 in the flutes and small subsets of violas and cellos (instruments which had not been coordinated in the preceding bars) before these instruments take up the next micropolyphonic canon together. This is the beginning of the end for the middle ground, the ensuing string-dominated texture moving further yet towards density and stasis.

It is owing to the transparency of the opening several bars that the perception of melody becomes a possibility, if one less strongly suggested by the score itself than by its realization in the air. After nearly six bars comprised of a single pitch (Ab4), the first change (to G4 in mm. 6-7) is relatively sudden and complete, occurring in eight voices while leaving only three behind, and occupying barely four beats of time. This is then displaced by a yet more sudden (though less complete) migration towards Bb4 across the final two beats of m. 8. As the pace of change accelerates with the addition of the pitches A4 (mm. 9-10), F#4 (mm. 11-12) and B4 (mm. 12-13), an optimization point is reached; that is, the rate of change of pitch has become just quick enough to legitimize a melodic hearing while the overall texture has not yet become too dense to permit it.

By m. 15, the music is teetering on the edge of upsetting this balance without wholly obliterating it. As such, it is more risky to generalize about how this section might be heard by any given listener than it is with the more extreme textures, but this music is, in any case, among the most striking in the piece, and certainly more so very much because of rather than despite its ambiguity. Here, the cannonic lines are comprised of more total pitch-classes and in substantially closer succession than at any previous point, resulting in a heightening of tension. Parts are truly “doubled” for the first time, specifically between flutes and clarinets in mm. 14-15 and among various like string instruments, two or three of which can rarely be considered “doubling” in an orchestral setting, yet by withholding this technique (or at least its application to moving cannonic lines) until this point, Ligeti is able to use it as a gorgeous change of pace. The effect is a step closer to archetypal micropolyphony, but a small one: timbres have just begun to blur and harmony would be difficult to ascertain, but one could not be faulted for hearing melodies (plural) here, perhaps even counterpoint between earliest and latest statements of the line A-C#-C-C#-D#, initiated in m. 14, b. 4 by two second violins, picked up in earnest by the first violins throughout m. 15, and again by oboes and flutes in m. 16, (with oboes in the higher octave and flutes supporting, nearly inaudibly, below). The line D#-C#-B-G#-A# is treated similarly in mm. 18-21, and, as a descending line, lends the passage a certain amount of resolution after Ligeti had previously “left us hanging” on the high D#.

As ponticello strings continue to take over and then, by m. 29, b. 4 are left entirely on their own, the clarity of the opening is conclusively subsumed. It would be difficult to argue, either in terms of the literal content of the score or of elapsed clock time, that Ligeti has not succeeded here in communicating a gradual process of change, and that this does not serve to further the metaphor of distance. Equally important, though, is what the clarity of much of the opening might say about a nonetheless distant object, namely that it is in fact boiling over with an intensity which distance cannot fully mask.

The next such gradual transition is less gradual (by both standards) as it involves the appearance, propagation and then sudden disintegration of a single pitch-class over less than half the time. This is pitch-class C, first appearing in this capacity simultaneously in piccolo, flute, bassoon and violins in m. 31, and quickly becoming all-pervasive, though not exclusive. Though the winds essentially “join” a string line in progress, their collective force, distinct timbre and statement in rhythmic unison cannot help but create an articulation of structure, even at the severely low dynamic level Ligeti asks for. Predictably, as C becomes more insistent, this repression of dynamics cracks for the first time in the form of crescendi from mezzo-piano (already the loudest dynamic marking to this point) to forte in small groups of strings (first violins in mm. 36-37, second violins in mm. 37-38, and violas and cellos in mm. 38-39). The “boiling over” metaphor is again apt: this is an object which reveals greater agitation the longer it is observed, and is perhaps drawing closer.

The next truly new texture to be introduced begins in m. 41, b. 4, where tuba and a pair of violins are laid bare in their most extreme registers. Such it is that Ligeti continues to walk the line between timbral clarity and obfuscation even with only three instruments playing. Indeed, as contrabassoon (m. 43) and contrabasses (mm. 43, and 46-48) join the fray with similarly extreme low notes, one is reminded that timbre can be as anonymous as pitch in this range. The tessitura then begins to contract ever so slightly. On the high end, groups of violins are added one by one a half-step (m. 47), minor third (m. 48), perfect fourth (m. 49), major third (m. 50), perfect fifth (m. 51) and tritone (m. 53) away from the very highest pair, though these pitches are so high as to more or less defy any melodic or harmonic hearing. The more perceptually obvious relaxation of tessitura happens on the low end, beginning in m. 46, where a gradually ascending bass progression is pieced together (often with overlap) among tuba, contrabass clarinet, various contrabasses and trombones with contrabassoon and a single contrabass anchoring the collection with the original Db1. Like the brass in the opening and the use in the strings of flautando and sul ponticello effects in combination with tremolo from D to E, the contrabass section outburst in m. 51 (Ligeti asks for it to be “like a sudden eruption”) points to the violent intensity that distance has been concealing. The brass are granted their greatest autonomy between G and H, completing this registral contraction.

Perhaps the moment of greatest clarity (though it remains among the most “distant” as well) is the string section entrance the last eighth note before m. 57. The collection consists of every Bb and E from Bb1 to E6 excepting E2, with the top note produced as a harmonic. Here, textural, timbral and polyphonic transparency are all at their height, and stasis (traditionally obtained this time) is near-complete. If the distant object has drawn closer over the preceding several minutes of music, here it most definitely recedes. As the pitch material is gradually diversified and tremolo effects reintroduced after I, density (if still not the most thorough micropolyphonic kind) is, for the first time in Lontano, Ligeti’s modus operandi for an extended period of perceptual and structural time. The strings, befitting their traditional place in the orchestral hierarchy, now carry the load, divided at times into over thirty parts and with most lines doubled somewhere in each instrumental subfamily. Wind sections are initially still treated as units (for example, reeds in m. 65 and horns in m. 73), but by M have splintered nearly proportionately to the strings. At O, a degree of collective behavior is restored, again in the horns and also in the low reeds, prefiguring the striking effect of Q, where the string section, after obliterating the texture for dozens of bars, is silent for seven whole beats and the winds are again featured, treated in a manner strongly reminiscent of the opening. The cascading effect at R is more about range than instrumental family. The strings, having had their moment, are back to being just another group among many, their staggered entrances after R nearly inaudible and their time brief. By m. 106, the contrabasses are left hanging alone, sul ponticello and almost inaudible until another “eruption” begets the next main textural shift. True stasis returns fleetingly in m. 112, marking a major structural division. Rehearsal V is almost the opening in microcosm, and for that matter, under yet further magnification: the various onsets throughout the first three and a half bars are as temporally isolated as nearly any in the score. The sustained string cluster which joins W and X is of no less structural significance than the stasis of m. 112, lending symmetry to this brief interlude and also abruptly bringing it to a close.

The A Tempo in m. 122 also represents a somewhat more “macro” version of micropolyphony, this time as much a matter of the weighting of various lines as of their content. Unlike the opening several bars, where no two parts are precisely rhythmically aligned, here there are only a few distinct parts and each is doubled by several instruments. This has a few important consequences. First, it again makes possible, if only ambiguously, the perception of melody. Though the strings are more or less evenly divided between the three most rhythmically active lines (that is to say between those which would be most readily perceived as melodies) with a few players sustaining longer note values, the distribution is not so even in the winds, with English horn, third bassoon and contrabassoon all playing the same line, and no more than two winds assigned to any of the others. Though for acoustic reasons the English horn, by virtue of being the wind playing in the highest octave, will tend to be heard most readily as the lead melodic voice, the “extra” player here really is the contrabassoon. Ligeti has no two winds performing the same line in the same octave, meaning that giving this line to three voices versus only two for the others is not only a textural weighting but also one of tessitura. (The line does appear in this lowest octave in the strings, but only in one of six divided contrabass parts, a much less substantial voice than Contrabasoon, even at pianissimo). The texture here also serves an important structural role, articulating this moment as something unmistakably new; the distant object is drawing closer yet, soon to arrive at its closest point before receding.

The tremendous orchestral tutti after beat 3 of m. 127 is constructed cannonically from the line G-A-Bb-A-B, an exact inversion of the preceding English horn “melody” (D-C-B-C-Bb). Along with the final emphatic statement of what distance has been concealing, symmetry, it appears, is also gaining importance as the piece wends its way toward conclusion. Discrete structural divisions achieved through variations in orchestral density are also beginning to occur more rapidly. At AA, the high D# in the strings brings the listener as close as one would ever want to get to whatever metaphorical object or idea might have previously been hiding across all that distance. Then, at BB, a truly striking unity of purpose is articulated in the flute section, a unison ascending half-step clearly orchestrated to the fore and impossible to hear otherwise, and followed by numerous ascending and descending echoes to the end, the most unambiguously melodic content in the piece, albeit the most economic as well.

Though perhaps destined to be viewed by mainstream observers as an avant-garde work, Lontano really is, in the context of Ligeti’s own work and that of his contemporaries, a piece which thrives where so many others fail, namely on the middle ground. It is music which paradoxically appears clearest at its most distant and denser at it draws closer. The point here of doubling, for example, a sustained woodwind pitch with tremolo sul ponticello violin on the very same pitch is quite different than in archetypal micropolyphony; it is not to create a truly flat surface, but to carve out mere low relief, a masterstroke given the seemingly intractable challenge of musically portraying intensity at a distance. Similarly, rather than using the brute force micropolyphony of Atmosphères to mask timbre entirely, Ligeti masks the masking, so to speak, by constantly inhabiting an ideally ambiguous space between timbral clarity and obfuscation, a sophisticated and ingenious sonic analog to the effect of distance on visual phenomena. As far as this “transitional” work is concerned, the journey is of at least equal importance to the destination.

1. Griffiths, Paul. Györgi Ligeti. London: Robson 1983. 26.