Sunday, January 28, 2007


Last night we attended the first part of a didgeridoo-based ambient show by John Vorus. We arrived a little late, and Vorus had already started creating electronic atmospheres behind a gauze curtain, on which Kati Astraeir from Poland projected a slide show of close-up photographs of trees and streams intermingled with drawings and paintings. After a while, Vorus was joined by Steve Roach and a sitar player. Due to our late arrival, the only remaining seats were along the wall at the very front, with the unfortunate consequence that we were too close to observe the visuals properly. When the images were dark, we could occasionally see behind the screen and catch a glimpse of what the musicians were doing. Like other live ambient events, it was sometimes a challenge to connect the movements of the musicians with the sounds we were hearing. I caught glimpses of laptops, but saw no keyboards or any other synthesizers (doesn't mean they weren't there, just that I couldn't see them). Roach played a stone flute and bowed a round percussion thingie, which sort of looked like a kandy drum but which must have been metallic based on the sounds that were introduced, and he also struck the ribs of the instrument with a mallet. The sitar player plucked a few notes that got swallowed into the mix, but retired when the didgeridoos got going.

The power of the show kicked up to another level when Vorus played the didgeridoo. You could feel the deep bass drone vibrate throughout the body, which was a wonderful sensation. Even better was when Vorus and Roach both played didgeridoos together, which made the whole building rumble. The other couple who accompanied us wanted to leave after about 90 minutes, during which the musicians had not taken a break, so I don't know how long the performance went, but it was a fascinating show.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Nuova musiche

Back in the vinyl days, I had the two Camino de Santiago albums by Thomas Binkley's Studio der Frühen Musik. I even saw his group when I was at the university, where he revealed that most of their performances were improvised. Not a big deal today, but kind of a shock in the early 1970s in a college music department. Other early music groups I saw and heard seemed more academic, and the players all had music stands. I preferred Binkley's music by far, and have in general only followed early music to the extent that it retains a high degree of spontaneity. Gregorio Paniagua's ensembles were the only other group I found to match my somewhat arbitrary standards.

As an impulse purchase about a year ago, I picked up Nuove musiche by Rolf Lislevand, on the ECM New Series label. It's a beautiful album, and doesn't sound the least little bit like most early music that I've heard. As usual, ECM's packaging make it worth while to buy the CD, which includes a 28-page booklet with photos, the sources of the works, and a longish article in English by Lislevand. Lislevand played lute in Jordi Savall's Hyperion XX group, and has enough academic credentials to play early music in a stuffy manner, but it sounds more like acoustic jazz or the Fahey-Kottke school of fingerpicked guitar than it does like "classical music".

Jordi Savall's daughter, Arianna, plays the harp and voice on Nuove musiche, but she also has a solo album, Bella Terra. Her voice is one of the most beautiful voices I've heard in a very long time. She doesn't use as much vibrato as classical singers, which I appreciated (opera is one of the few genres I can't tolerate, right along with hip-hop), and her compositions are just as lovely as her voice. She is accompanied only by three other string players, and not on every song. Savall wrote all of the music, but for the first several listens, I was unable to identify the language of the lyrics. It turns out to be Catalan, a language from northeastern Spain that was suppressed under Franco but which is now enjoying a revival. The poems are all devoted to the concept of living at peace in the present moment, and the music carries an intimacy and joy that I have rarely heard. The album is available both from iTunes and emusic. Both online stores classify the album as world music, but it is in a world of its own, completely unique in my experience. Savall's web site has the opening song, L'Amor, complete. I listened to this song once and was hooked. (Hat tip: On An Overgrown Path.)

Meanings of Counterpoint

Part of the elusive nature of retiring to "do" music is figuring out what "doing music" exactly means. For some time, I've found myself reading books and articles that tackle some aspect of this question. Most recently, I finished David Yearsley's book, Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint, which dovetailed nicely with my ongoing obsession with Bach's music. Yearsley examines some of the issues that enervated critical musical discourse in the early 18th century, and suggests how Bach's music may have been a response or commentary on these issues, using canonic aspects of Bach's late works (Musical Offering, Art of Fugue, Canonic Variations on Von Himmel hoch, but surprisingly, not so much from the Goldbergs) as examples.

Since I'm not an academic, some of the historical issues seem relatively minor, such as the relationships between learned counterpoint and alchemy. More interesting were the connections between Bach's compositions and Frederick the Great's autocratic regime, and what all this might suggest about Bach's politics. Yearsley's take on the famous visit that led to the Musical Offering was very different than other accounts I have read, particularly James R. Gaines' work Evening in the Palace of Reason. Gaines posited a world-view conflict between a traditional one where God provided the order and reason for being, and the Enlightenment one based more on rationalist principles, with Bach representing the former and Frederick the latter of these views. The opposition was reflected all the way to the personal relationship between the two men, with the royal theme being designed specifically to thwart Bach's contrapuntal and improvisational skills. None of this tension is present in Yearsley's interpretation of events. Yearsley believes that the Musical Offering dedication expresses general agreement with Frederick's absolutist project, and that the royal theme 'encouraged extended contrapuntal treatment.' Ultimately, these kind of historicist readings really say as much about the commentator as they do about Bach, as Yearsley recognizes in his final chapter, which deals with Bach's legacy as a "German" composer in the early years of the 20th century.

Equally interesting is the way Yearsley imagines Bach's response to the mechanistic debates that were raging in musical and philosophical circles. In the 1730s and 1740s, the inventor Vaucanson displayed a faun automaton that played the flute in a realistic manner through an ingenious use of bellows, levers and pulleys. The machine fit into contemporary discourse about whether humans have souls and therefore a spark of the divine, or are simply machines. Although the specific terms about the debate have changed, we still have conflicting explanations about the way the world works between religious and secular writers, and we still have debates about man-as-machine, exemplified in works like A Thousand Plateaux. In music, the mechanistic debate focussed on canons, which were often presented as puzzles or generators that required an active participation and allowed for multiple solutions. Yearsley suggests that Bach's canons explore the tension between mechanistic and more organic approaches in the canons in the Art of Fugue.

Where Yearsley's book resonated with me was his presentation of the political and philosophical aspects of a musician's world view. As musicians, how do we correlate these views with our music? It seems easy to be political in pop music, where words are of paramount importance (e.g., Dixie Chicks). But how about instrumental music, and music that claims to be in the "classical" tradition? Certainly, alternate forms of music distribution are political decisions, as witnessed by the RIAA lawsuits and increasingly onerous copyright legislation. Other than on-demand CDRs for friends and family, I haven't created a public presence for my electronic pieces, which (so far) have been arrangements of classical works and extended drones. Part of the purpose of this blog is to explore why these two forms of music are so important for me, but I suspect that they both are related to withdrawal from the world, rather than engagement. Sort of goes along with the whole "retirement" thing. Plus, it's really difficult to impute a political direction to most instrumental music.

As far as much and machines, most musicians interact with the mechanistic computer, ubiquitous in most music-making today. My piano is being rebuilt this week, so I've had to find other outlets for creating music. But really, even the piano is a pretty incredible machine. My technician was at the factory recently, and the complexity of the piano's inner workings are staggering. Anyway, I've always wondered whether I could take a contemporary piano score, for which no commercial recording exists, and "perform" it sufficiently well with the computer. I've already come to realize that I won't be able to play every piano piece that I'd like, and in fact, the process of selecting a piece to perform, that may take months to gain sufficient mastery, produces a certain degree of anxiety for all the unchosen pieces. For the standard repertoire, I can listen to a recording and decide whether the effort is worth while. But what about new music? Well, I'm creating a prototype this week. For me, the trick is to use the machines to make music that doesn't sound like it was made with machines — therein lies the skill of the musician.

Monday, January 22, 2007

in the meantime...

Apologies for the absence, travelling last week. In the meantime, here's an extremely funny morning-after tale. I never thought I'd read past the following:

One of my favorite infomercials is, of course, the one where ....

But I did. RTWT.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Death of Classical CDs?

Most music journalists and bloggers believe that the CD has started its decline, and that by implication, digital distribution will be the future for recorded music. The Lefsetz letter, for example, had as their number one prediction that CD sales would continue to tank. (Their number four prediction, that EMI was heading for disaster, has been confirmed less than a fortnight into the year.) As far as classical music is concerned, this change can't come too soon. The only advantage the CD has over most digital delivery formats is sound quality, and there are rumblings that this aspect of recorded music is being addressed as well.

The biggest problem with the CD is that except for the rare works that take up a whole CD or an enlightened record company whose releases simulate recitals, most CDs of classical music are collections by an individual composer. Except for rare occasions, public concerts of classical music are seldom devoted to an individual composer -- they tend more towards a cross section of music from several eras. The problem is more apparent with CDs than it was with LPs, because with LPs, the listener had to get up at the end of a side of the record, which provided him or her with an opportunity to play something different for the next selection. Some record players even had stacks, so the listener could program several selections, much more similar to what one would hear at a recital. Of course, a listener can also program a CD player, but really, how many times do we ever make use of that capability?

Digital playback systems, such as iTunes, even provide the capability to shuffle between several different multi-movement works, playing each work in sequence, using the shuffle-by-album feature. A listener could have a playlist of chamber music, for example, and could ask for a random shuffle between entire works. Unfortunately, this capability is also thwarted by the current electronic music stores, where the album mirrors the CD layout. For a chamber music shuffle system to work correctly, each work would require its own album name (String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat Major, for example). An iTunes or emusic user can make these changes fairly easily, but it is somewhat time consuming. It would be far easier if works were distributed as works, and not as part of an antiquated concept of an "album." At least the iTunes store groups movements together and lets customers purchase the works as a whole (often for a variable price).

Once the sound quality issues are resolved (and decent liner notes would be a plus), digital playback systems will have it all over CD playback.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Piano Trio II

Well, something about piano trios must be in the air. Last night, the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music presented the Gryphon Trio performing piano trios by Mozart and Schubert, along with a movement from a much longer new work by Christos Hatzis. On the spur of the moment, we decided to check it out.

The opening Mozart trio (K.502) was intended for "friendly, musical, social circles," and retains an air of gentility, just three friends playing music together. The Schubert trio, his late masterpiece D.898, was also wonderful. Schubert reminds me sometimes of his folk music roots, which appeared most notably in a pizzicato cello passage in the first movement, along with almost gypsy-sounding chords from the violin. But for a new music junkie such as myself, the highlight of the concert was Old Photographs by Canadian composer Christos Hatzis.

Cellist Roman Borys preceded the Hatzis piece with some additional context on the parent work. Constantinople, an eight-movement work for piano trio and two singers (one trained in Middle Eastern and Arabic singing), also has a strong electroacoustic portion, is more musical theater than a concert piece. It has a strong link between the visuals and the music, analogous to the link between the three performers. Despite the inclusion of a Middle Eastern element, the strongest flavor of the movement played here was from Argentina. The piece opened with a beautiful piano melody, before the strings started accompanying with harmonies strongly resembling the music of Astor Piazzolla. Suddenly, the tempo quickened, and indeed all three player launched into a fiery and passionate tango. The three instruments participated in a back-and-forth dialogue, until in the climax the cello accompanied in double stops while the violin played a beautiful fast line over the top. It was a wonderful piece, and it makes me wonder what it would have sounded like in the context of Constantinople as a whole. According to Hatzis' web site, it has been recorded and is scheduled for release this month. A Gryphon Trio release of Canadian premieres containing this movement is available on iTunes, but this work is not available separately from the rest of the CD.

Piano Trio I

One of the disadvantages of being largely self-taught in classical music is that there are huge gaps in my listening experience, and chamber music has unfortunately been one of the objects of my ignorance. I have enjoyed some small corrections to these gaps, which started with a profound post by Jeremy Denk on the slow movement of Schumann's piano trio in d minor. Denk uses the opening bars of this movement to demonstrate accidents of meaning, and goes on to ruminate on musical risk:

If you press play on the CD player and the music comes to you like water from a faucet, don't you feel there is something in the medium that takes something for granted, in which this sort of risk does not figure? Recorded risk seems like a bit of a contradiction.

This message goes to the heart of the aspects of music that I'm trying to explore, something about the nature of music itself. It's a fabulous post -- as they say, read the whole thing. All four movements of the trio are great, and it's available on emusic.

Sunday, January 7, 2007


There’s a parlor game going around the musical blogosphere at the moment that find three sentences in a book, basically by chance. Daniel Wolf has created a much more interesting memerie with the following seven questions:

Name: (1) a book that you want to share so much that you keep giving away copies, (2) a piece of music that changed the way you listen to music, (3) a film you can watch again and again without fatigue, (4) a performer for whom you suspend of all disbelief, (5) a work of art you'd like to live with, (6) a work of fiction which has penetrated your real life, and (7) a punch line that always makes you laugh. Forward this to three people.

  1. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A Hundred Years of Solitude
  2. Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hymnen
  3. To Have and Have Not (Hawks)
  4. Meryl Streep
  5. any of Rothko’s late works
  6. Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
  7. I said I was thirsty, not dirty!

Tag, you’re it!

Friday, January 5, 2007

A Romantic view of Chernobyl

Recently I read Richard Taruskin’s wonderful book, Defining Russia Musically. In a chapter on Tchaikovsky, Taruskin articulates a distinction between "classical" and "romantic" music in a way I hadn't read before, where classical music is focussed outward and works to please the audience and fulfill its expectations, and romantic music is focussed inward and celebrates the artist's personal and unique subjectivity.  Romantic music leads to the cult of the supreme artist who uses his or her art to change the outlook of his audience (since the audience must often undergo a transformation involving some amount of effort or pain in order to understand the art).  Binary oppositions are always artificial, but this one gives me some food for thought about drones and ambient music.

Danish sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard released his CD 4 Rooms in 2006 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. He recorded silence in four different public spaces near Chernobyl, then played the silence back into the rooms and recorded the results. He performed this operation ten times in each room. His inspiration was Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting In A Room, but without the initial voice, so he ends up with simply the resonance of the spaces. More details on the work, including pictures of the rooms, can be found here. Like the work of Toshiya Tsunoda and Felix Hess's Air Pressure Fluctuations, Kirkegaard finds hidden aspects of the world and presents them without modification (other than the technology required to make the hidden aspects audible). From a certain perspective, this work shares many characteristics with Ambient music.

Ambient music was originally intended to be ignorable or interesting, depending on the attention that the listener is willing to donate. As such, it falls more on the "classical" side of the duality above, since ambient music enhances the surroundings but does not seek fundamentally to change the listener. There is a whole subset of ambient music known as deep ambient, which is characterized by long, static drone works, suitable for meditation as well as ordinary ambienteering. But what about works like Kirkegaard's? Are we, the listeners, more aware of the world around us because of these recordings? If we listen to the work without knowing the back story, do we miss out on something fundamental? Otherwise, they are merely fairly static drone works; the variations in sound within a single room, beyond slow oscillations and some gradual overtone accumulation, are fairly small. On their own, the four pieces are a bit unsettling, but the required knowledge of the stories leads me tentatively to conclude that these works fall more on the "romantic" side of the dichotomy. The silence near Chernobyl (admittedly much eerier than a “silence” that contains ordinary human activity) is a warning about the silence that could result from a more widespread nuclear proliferation. 4 Rooms tells us that we’d better change, and shows us how our own public spaces will sound if we don’t.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Welcome to my world

So I want to be a blogger! Perhaps an explanation is in order for an urge to contribute to the burgeoning mass of text on the internet.

Last year my wife and I moved to a house about a third smaller than the one we had built and in which we had lived for nearly a decade. One of the biggest consequences of the move was that I had to pare down a fairly large collection of recorded music, which in this case meant selling off my entire vinyl collection, over two thousand items. Where I had a fairly large basement before for the music collection, now I have a smallish office, which also holds my piano and computer studio. The CD cases line the walls, and there isn’t much room for expansion.

I admit that I was (am?) a compulsive collector of recorded music, but this realization was brought home to me by a major acquisition run at a couple of Bay Area Amoeba stores in August, and as of New Years, I still have CDs from that run that I haven’t heard yet. Clearly, something must be done to slow the growth.

The behavioral change with which I will address the collection will be to write about new acquisitions, and perhaps even some older ones, in an effort to process them, rather than simply accumulate them. My tastes are eclectic, with a leaning towards ambient music, drones and a revisiting of the classical music that was so much a part of my younger life (but this doesn’t exhaust the genres of new releases). I’m an emusic subscriber and an iTunes user. I play classical piano and practice sound manipulation on the computer. I have written reviews for various online publications, including and, most recently, Ambient Visions.

Welcome to my world.